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Intellectual Imagination: Shaping the Future of Learning

By Deepak Bansal
February 22, 2023

“The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have feeble imaginations.” – Alfred N. Whitehead.

We are living in a binary world. We choose between becoming an engineer or an artist, a businessperson or a psychologist, an apprentice, or a dreamer. We either use power-point to death or do free-of-all thinking in the clouds to grab the next best ideas. In this binary world, we choose our sides between reality and imagination.

In a classic, “The Aims of Education.“, Alfred Whitehead, a Harvard professor of philosophy of the early 20th century, made a strong case for moving away from the binary model of education, which prepares us for our future choices. He demanded changing our learning systems towards the imaginative acquisition of knowledge. We miss a walk in the school of life, where Learning imparts an intimate sense of the power, beauty, and structure of ideas. The power of imagination grounded by subjective human experience should be intertwined with the objective universe of facts, to cultivate intellectual imagination.

The future of Learning lies in driving the intellectual imagination of the learner. We can further this through designing courses and programs considering three essential components:

  1. Subjective Inquiry
  2. Moonshot Thinking
  3. Arts & Culture

Subjective Inquiry: Know Thyself

“I thought the purpose of education was to learn to think for yourself,” questioned John Keating in ‘Dead Poets Society.’

We are intrinsically curious beings; however, our current education system forces us on the path of specialized knowledge, many times in isolation, to make us capable of earning a living. The innocent curiosity of the child as they take their first step somehow morphs into the study of established structures in later life. While we study the subjects, we forget to accept ourselves as subjective beings. Whitehead said, “there is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations.”

The premise of Learning should be self-inquiry. Who am I? How does this knowledge help me in becoming a better person? What do I believe in? Our subjectivity is embedded in the objective world, and if education does not enable us to find ourselves, there is no need for such knowledge. The education divorced from Self Inquiry is like a well without water; we can admire the structures but cannot drink from the source of life.

In the 5th century BCE, when Socrates roamed the streets of Athens, questioning the young minds, he was also bringing a new consciousness to the world. The need for self-inquiry on why we are doing what we are doing. Through his famous words, “I know that I know nothing,” he pushed us to probe deeper with questioning rather than getting easily satisfied with society’s answers.

Know Thyself,” an inscription at the ancient temples of Delphi, was also the underlying philosophy of “Akademia,” the school formed by Plato, a student of Socrates. Even though we conveniently carried the word “Academy” to refer to our learning institutions, we somehow left behind the underlying philosophy. Plato’s teachings were not direct but left them to students’ interpretation, each according to their own unaided ability and subjective viewpoints on life.

In the Postmodern era of today, we are standing at a threshold. Technological innovations are taking us in virtual reality realms, and our own atmosphere is under threat. In the 21st century, as we have attained physical progress, somewhere the more profound questions of life like meaning and aesthetics are being left behind, leading to an increasing number of cases of depression and suicides. Our Learning systems need to be appended by subjective inquiry to prepare us for making decisions that resonate best with us, our values, and our principles.

Moonshot Thinking: Big Ideas

“The actual moonshot is wonderful, inspirational, poetic, and beautiful involving great technical challenges, genuine heroism, it brought the world together.” – Astro Teller, ex-director Google X.

One of the most significant evolutions of the modern world is progress through science and technology. If Galileo has not pointed his telescope to the sky, we would have never accepted that we live on a moving Earth. If Newton had not linked the falling apple to the attraction between Sun and the Earth, we would not have discovered gravity. According to Whitehead, the year 1642, the year of the death of Galileo, and the birth of Newton was one of crucial points in the history of humankind. In between them, they also laid the intellectual foundation of the modern world, the practice, and the theory.

Curious minds over the centuries have pondered questions like: How do we observe natural phenomena? What are the patterns of nature’s working? Over time, we have bundled the knowledge derived from outer observation as “Science,” a word coming from the old French word “Scientia,” meaning “to know,” which, till the late 19th century, was known as natural philosophy.

The logical reasoning world can be classified into theory and practice, in statistical terms as deductive and inductive reasoning. Before Galileo turned his telescope to the sky, Copernicus predicted the sun to be at the center using his theoretical background. The theory of Copernicus derived from his astrological knowledge and later getting validated by practical observation of Galileo is a classic example of integrated deduction (from big ideas to theories) and induction (from observation to proof of accepted theories).

In ancient Athens, while Plato’s Akademia fostered a connection with the invisible realm for higher ideas, his famous student, Aristotle, shifted the focus  to? observational techniques. With Aristotle’s emphasis on investigation, his school Lyceum created and taught subjects from diverse aspects of reality, including logic, physics, astronomy, economics, ethics, zoology, meteorology.

The play between big ideas and implementable reality has defined the progress of human civilization. The current Learning system bias towards reality and desire to find a defined career has separated people from connecting to big ideas. The Learning of the future should encourage imaginative thinking, which can create new realities.

A new type of heroism needs to be built in learners’ minds to aim for moonshot ideas where a failure is an option but not thinking big is not. The change through big ideas is hope in current times for the sustainability of our future where the timeclock of climate change is ticking.

Arts and Culture: Sense the Perceptions

“The stars, she whispers, ‘blindly run.'” – lamented Tennyson, the poet, at the onset of the scientific revolution.

The vision of a star-filled sky, or the exquisite form of animal species, no longer evokes a sense of inner spontaneity, but the potentiality of not finding the right job does keep us awake at night. Once revered, magical stars became pieces of matter whose path could be predicted or otherwise termed random. A section in 19th century Europe revolted against nature’s scientific rationalization with a Romantic movement to renew focus on aesthetic experiences through, e.g., Art and culture.

“What are Art and Culture for?” This is the often-asked question without any common acceptance of the answer. For some, it reflects ourselves, for others, mere exteriorization of contemporary values of the society. For some, it’s a waste of time or money; for others, connection to the intimate sense of the power of ideas.

Art and culture evoke emotions. A resonating piece of Art can trigger a deluge of emotions breaking down the logical mind’s barriers and connecting us to the more profound sense of beauty. Beethoven’s music, the pantheon of Rome, or Whitman’s poetry; all are pieces of Art that unpretentiously evoke their purpose even centuries after. Art and culture need to be utilized in the learning environment for at least two goals. To use our all senses of perceptions, including emotions, hopes, desires, to acquire knowledge and to foster the imagination of ideas beyond the reach of senses of perception.

In ancient Greece, around the 5th century BCE, the tragedies were enacted as a form of theater to purify and purge emotions, particularly pity and fear, through Art. The concept known as Catharsis helped the public learn from the stories of central characters, their success, and mistakes at an emotional level. The same purging is required in learning environments to create space to acquire knowledge through all senses. They were learning beyond collecting the scraps of information and enhancing the receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling.

The receptiveness to beauty through Art is also a vehicle to take an adventure in ideas through imagination. During Romanticism, imagination was elevated to a position as a supreme faculty of mind with a call to appreciate the beauty of invisible and unseen aspects of nature through deeper appreciation. Imagination connects us to something unseen, a creative endeavor that unfolds without obligation to a set of established rules or patterns. One can connect with the potency of imagination even in everyday life like daydreaming, cooking, dancing, music.

We can perceive the potentialities of new creations that have not yet manifested in Art and Culture, providing us with new blueprints that have not existed before. The current education system encourages clinging to formulas and repeating slogans which can leave us incomplete and uncreative. The harnessing of the individual creative potential of each student should be the focus of our learning environments. Art is our tool. As Pablo Picasso said, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

In Conclusion

Learning is one of the crucial institutions that shape the future of the world we live in through shaping the minds which co-create this future. The future of Learning is about training the whole being of an individual to facilitate decision-making more consciously and systemically.

Learning is more than training the mind; it is about evoking into life wisdom and beauty to re-enchant us in the universe we live in. Whitehead said, “a merely well-informed human is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is humans who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as Art.”

The future of Learning lies in integrating expertise and culture through intellectual imagination. The intellectual imagination binds humans with the world, links wisdom with beauty, and creates a future with hope. For 21st century education, no lesser ideal will suffice.

Deepak Bansal

Founder & CEO, Meaning Quotient – MQ Learning

Deepak aims to bring humanistic elements to our working life. He stands at the intersection of Business (MBA HSG Switzerland), Technology (MTech India), and Humanities (MA Philosophy California). With 15+ years in the corporate world, he has held Executive positions (COO, Director) in Consulting and Multinationals. He grew up in Strategic Consulting roles (from consultant to Associate Partner) and has also led Learning & Development for a Strategic Consulting practice. Original article published here.

MQ Learning offers training on strategic thinking and the role of radical simplification… Please check out our offerings at: https://www.mq-learning.com/learning

Deepak Bansal is an On- Demand Presenter in our Leadership & Innovation 2023 Online Conference. Check out his presentation here!

Browse IIL’s Information Technology Management Courses here.

Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.
Leadership and Innovation 2023

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