Note: the video and script are from Idzie’s presentation only. The participant dialogue was not recorded for this session.
Hello, and thank you all for being here!
I have a presentation of around 20 minutes, but I’d just like for it to provide a jumping-off point for the discussion that follows. I’m sharing some things that have been on my mind when it comes to imagination and its impact, sharing a bit about my own background as an unschooler and the development of my own politics. This includes a lot of thoughts-in-progress, incomplete musings, bits of inspiration from others. Mostly I’m really interested in what all of you think about these topics. So lets get started.
Changing with the times
When I first thought about what I wanted to talk about with this space I’ve been given, I thought of how often the issue of imagination–and its lack–comes up. I constantly see the claim being made that ideas are unrealistic or idealistic, simply because those ideas question the ways things are currently done, challenge power structures, or propose new ways of living. And alongside of this, I see the constant refrain from those who suggest that radical change is desperately needed, that what is also needed is radical imagination, the ability to envision new realities. Writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown has said that “we are in an imagination battle.”
So this has been something on my mind. But in the intervening time between saying “yes” to this conference and being here with you today, I found myself really struggling to find my way into a topic that is in large part an optimistic one. COVID cases shot up around the world, including in my home province of Quebec. Seasonal depression, something I’ve experienced for many years, worsened as the cold grew. My cat needed surgery. And one of my dearest friends had a health emergency. So I was left feeling like I was so focused on crises or potential crises that I couldn’t think beyond them.
Imagination as a tether during depression
The title of this session suggests the bigger picture, the way imagination can potentially spiral outwards, having far bigger impacts than just on the individual. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t discuss this topic without starting from my own life, my own experience as an unschooler (which I’ll talk about more in a bit), and my own experience of mental illness.
I mentioned seasonal depression already, but depression has been a companion for much of my life. It’s something I’ve learned to live with in some ways, and that I continue to resent and attempt to better manage in many other ways. If this is something that any of you have experience with, I’m sure it will be familiar when I talk about the way that depression dulls enjoyment, slowly constricting your life as one thing after the other that you liked or cared about or thought was beautiful gets buried under an apathetic fog.
Depression steals away any enthusiasm for the next day, any belief that it will include good things. Eventually, it takes away the belief that anything will ever be good again.
And it’s here where I’ve found that imagination has acted, for me, as a tether. I can’t believe in anything feeling good in a day, a week, a month, but I can still envision a distant future where I don’t feel such misery anymore. I can imagine a life that I’m happier with, can imagine everything from new friends lessening loneliness, to an end to the alienation of capitalism. I can imagine spring.
I don’t suggest that this is some cure to depression, and that people just aren’t trying hard enough to think their way out of it or anything of the sort. And when things get bad enough in my life, imagination is stolen away from me, as well. But for a while, it can sustain me, and take me out of myself and my current circumstances.
And that’s what I found myself trying to tap into, as I wrote this talk. Trying to connect with that feeling of something better existing outside of the confines of my current reality, beyond the pandemic and everything going on in my own life.
So in doing that, the tone of this talk became more serious and less playful than I’d intended for it to be, but given the current circumstances, this is what ended up feeling the most natural for me to express.
The flexibility of imagination versus the rigidity of expectations
Before I go any further, I’d like to expand on what I do and don’t mean by imagination, this word I’m using approximately 1000 times today. To me it is:
The ability to create other worlds, to see other possibilities
It’s pretend, the ability to inhabit other ways of being, as play or as fantasy
It’s flexible, creative, generative, experimental
What it isn’t, is the same as expectations. I feel when I talk about envisioning something, that is something which can sometimes become fixed in the mind, become an expectation of how things should be, how things should progress and should turn out in the end, and this can lead to reality never measuring up to that internal vision we have. I know this is a trap that I can fall into on occasion, and I know it’s the same for many people.
So what I’m trying to discuss here is about flexibility not rigidity, it’s about possibilities, not set plans.
My own background
When it comes to my background, I’m a grown unschooler. I left kindergarten and from that time onwards I moved from experiencing relaxed homeschooling, to unschooling, to embracing the idea of being a lifelong learner regardless of my age.
I don’t know that my parents–or really, specifically my mother’s–choice to nurture a self-directed education environment was an explicitly political one, though my mother has made it clear that the anti-authoritarian ethos she embraced in her parenting was absolutely deliberate. But I do feel like this shaped the way I viewed the world and considered new possibilities.
I’d like to expand just a bit on what unschooling meant in my life, what it looked like. I spent a lot of time reading–fiction, poetry, nonfiction, especially history. A lot of time playing (and sometimes fighting) with my little sister. A lot of time outside, by ponds and rivers, in the woods and fields. I participated in a variety of activities, from homeschool coops and Girl Guides to French lessons and ultimate frisbee team. And in all of this I was able to have a lot of downtime, which was really important for me. A lot of time thinking and daydreaming and resting.
There was some of what I would consider authoritarian approaches to parenting when I was younger, you know, my sister or I being sent to our rooms as punishment or that sort of thing. But by the time we hit our teens (my sister 2 years behind me), none of that was really around anymore. There were no stated rules, we didn’t have a curfew, we never had our belongings taken in retribution for something that had angered our parents, as would happen with friends. We were really trusted and respected to a large extent, and though being a teenager is never easy, my parents weren’t really a contributor to that difficulty.
So that’s kind of a rough sketch of the way I grew up.
I don’t think it gave me any special general gift of being good at imagination in any way: I think imagining other ways of being grows out of all sorts of places and in all sorts of ways, out of both ease and difficulty, when we’re in situations where we feel secure and ones in which we’re incredibly unsafe.
But what I DO think my unschooling background provided was a comparison, showing the obvious gulf between how I was growing up and experiencing education, and the experiences of my friends who went to school and had more conventional parents. And more even than that, it showed the lie of things having to be the way they currently are, showed how false it was that children supposedly need authoritarian management or they’ll never make good choices, that children need school or they’ll never learn.
Stuck/Unstuck a la Graeber and Wengrow
I’m in the middle of a book right now called The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropologist and an archeologist respectively. It’s a book about human history and human society, seeking not to find the supposed “roots of inequality” as many others have attempted to do, but instead to begin answering the question of why, when our species has seen such an incredible diversity in forms of social organization, did we get so stuck in the global hegemony of white supremacist capitalist nation-states, and to task how we might get unstuck.
So it’s from them that I’ve been considering this idea of being stuck and getting unstuck, but I want to apply that to education specifically, and then consider how those of us involved in radically different visions and practices of education can extend these ideas outwards.
First though, for the sake of clarity, I’d say that some beliefs which exemplify the stuckness of conventional understandings of “education,” more accurately of schooling in particular, are:
That learning–or at least important learning–largely or even only happens in specific “learning” spaces and at specific “learning” times
That there is a set body of knowledge which includes content that is objectively the most important thing for children to learn
That learning must be managed and directed by experts, or at the very least using tools, like curriculum, which have been developed by experts
That learning is work, something difficult and unpleasant which would be avoided if people were given the chance to do so
That children of all ages are fundamentally untrustworthy, and if “allowed” to make their own choices would invariably make decisions which are bad for both themselves and society as a whole
The destruction of play and the construction of adulthood
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the way all of us are trained to stop playing, and the ways that might be tied into this inability to imagine other possibilities. Lydia Villaronga, a PhD student in urban education, made a comment on Twitter that stuck with me. They said “My critiques of the construct of adulthood largely revolve around play and joy. Who play is reserved for is a really significant ideological question for me.”
Now this comment, at the same time I was reading the aforementioned book The Dawn of Everything, led to my thinking of the way play is deliberately, systematically destroyed, both in school and out of school, as a potential contributor to this adult lack of imagination. In the most direct way, within schools, even very young children are required to sit still and focus, to follow directions and pay attention. Recess is often quite short, making up just a tiny fraction of the school day, and may even be taken away from children as a punishment for not paying attention in class, when ironically those are likely to be the children who most desperately need the break to move and play.
Beyond that, when children engage in types of play which the adults around them consider “too young” for their age, those adults will often worry about that child, or even scold them for being immature or acting like babies. Teenagers are admonished to “grow up,” aka to be serious and unplayful. When adults exhibit behavior which is whimsical, joyful, or playful, they’re often considered immature or unreliable, and the demand is made to be more serious. And in a very interesting connection between childhood and imagining a better world, visions of revolutionary change which call for the end of hierarchies and authoritarianism, the construction of ways of living based on cooperation, collective management, and mutual aid, are often derided as childish and thus absurd. People with almost any radical politics are assured that they’ll grow out of them, the idea being that further distance from childhood will and should naturally lead to greater rigidity and conservatism. To be an adult is to be someone who accepts reality as it is, or perhaps if we’re being especially lenient, who seeks to tweak it just a little bit. To dream or imagine anything truly better is seen as lacking pragmatism or realism, so to be childlike.
I would suggest there’s a real political and institutional will to curtail both playfulness and imagination, because it’s in the ability to envision radically different possibilities and in the creative flexibility of play that you find the seeds to grow that reality. And whether it’s recognized explicitly or not, I believe on some level those with a vested interest in maintaining existing power structures realize that.
Following a path to anarchism
Politically, I’m an anarchist, and my understanding of self-directed education and of the role of imagination is really tied up in that. The writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman says that “‘Anarchism’ is an open and incomplete word, and in this resides its potential. It is to perceive possibilities not yet recognizable; it hints at what might be, at modes of living and relation [which] are unthinkable in the old frameworks.”
My own path to anarchist politics was built on the foundation of my childhood. As I mentioned before, just based on my own experience, I knew something different was possible. Because my parents had created this opportunity for me at the beginning, and because I chose to continue as an unschooler as I got older, I had lived something more free, more cooperative, less rigidly controlled and hierarchical.
I do not suggest that I just automatically gained anti-aithoritarian politics thanks to my upbringing. It’s been a long path with many missteps, a lot of things I was really wrong about in the past, and I have no doubt I’ll look back in another decade and feel the same way about a lot of my beliefs now.
But I did find myself asking broader questions specifically based on my own experience. If confining children for supposed “bad behavior” is something I’d consider cruel and ineffective, why would locking up adults seem like a reasonable course of action? If adults are capable of living with children in more respectful, cooperative ways, why would I believe that people as a whole must be controlled by the threat and application of violence, which is an inherent function of the nation-state?
I think I found it easier to imagine living in radically different ways, because I HAD lived in a radically different way in one crucial area.
Political theorist Toby Rollo has said “What if I told you that your ideas about politics are actually just your ideas about childhood extrapolated?” and to me this shows the importance of understanding how close those ties are between our views on childhood and on every other structure in our lives. And it’s from that point that I see the importance of stretching these ideas of youth liberation or respectful parenting or whatever it is you’re focused on, outwards, and considering how the practice and enactment of radical imagination and radical ways of living with children can influence our views on the rest of the world.
“Change is coming — what do we need to imagine as we prepare for it?” writes Adrienne Maree Brown, which leads me into one of my favourite concepts found in anarchist thought. Prefiguration is the practice of creating the world we want now, instead of believing that the practice of a better world should only come after some future revolution. It’s the idea that means and end are congruent, that the way we act now and the structures we build form the shape of our future world. It is, to use a famous quote from the Industrial Workers of the World union, “building a new world in the shell of the old.”
Now I’m sure this type of idea isn’t at all unique to anarchism, it’s just where I personally found this language and understanding.
Just by being here I know all of you are somewhere in the process of deschooling, that regardless of your personal backgrounds you’ve all been able to look beyond the lies schooling tells about learning, which seems to me an important step in getting unstuck. Striving to live more respectfully with children, creating and recreating models and practices that support kids in learning more freely, is in my opinion itself an excellent example of prefiguration. As author, speaker, and unschooling parent Akilah S. Richards describes it, it’s “liberation and healing work.”
So, imagination can function as something to hold onto in our personal lives when things are bad, and as a guide towards what changes we need to make. It can be a flexible practice of seeing possibilities instead of a fixed blueprint forwards. Imagination can be a way to help us get unstuck from the damaging shape our world has been pressed into, and a way to push back against the attempted destruction of our “childish” ability to see potential other worlds.
Worlds, perhaps, with many ways of living, many ways of learning, with greater freedom and cooperation, caring communities which value interdependency, and act in loving relationship with the land.
I’m sure all of you can imagine so many different possibilities. And I wonder if that can be the start of creating them.
Questions for conversation
Now we’re going to move into the discussion portion of this session. I have a couple of questions to use as potential prompts, but only if you wish to. Please feel free to bring up any thoughts you have on these topics, to ask your own questions of me or the group as a whole, really whatever you want.
-How do you imagine education being different? What do you dream of beyond the conventional schooling that dominates right now?
-Has self-directed education shaped your views or actions in other areas?