The Igniting Power of Imagination: Education Through the Arts

By Valentina Acava Mmaka. Valentina, 45, is a writer, educator and activist from Nairobi, Kenya.

By envisioning the school of the future, I sense that the traditional educational system might not be enough to prepare the youth to handle the future, if it doesn’t contemplate the Arts as an integrated part of the school curriculum. The reason is simple: the more the world progresses, diversified, well technologically connected and fast, the more education needs to respond to the need of creating community and re-define identities. A quality we all have and that needs to be revalued is imagination. It was Italian writer Italo Calvino that said ‘Imagination is like communicating with the soul of the world’.

Why imagination? Being a writer and an avid reader as well as being raised in a single-parent environment where I didn’t have many friends, where I was the only child, imagination has been my daily companion. It is deeply rooted within ourselves and it’s not difficult to consider it as the engine of our being human. It has its foundation in two words: What if.  It was William Shakespeare, in his comedy ‘As You Like It’, that underlined the importance of the word IF through the tirelessly inquisitive fool Touchstone, who keeps on questioning ‘what if?’. It is Touchstone himself who foresees what poet Adrienne Rich defined as a ‘revolutionary question, the virtue to uphold’.IF is important, not because of how things are, but how they could be. The free exercise of imagination shapes the world in which we live, it creates many possibilities and realities.

The ‘spiritus phantasticus’, as Giordano Bruno defined it, that spurs from a creative mind, helps the exploration of new territories of the human sensibility and also allows to one to leave their comfort zone, enabling them to explore different ways of self-expression.

I have been using art as a tool for social change, working with marginalized communities in different countries and it has always succeeded to help create community, to break boundaries, even linguistic ones, to overcome stressful and difficult times, to find a language that could be inclusive and representative to all. Art in education plays a significant role, as it helps students to empower themselves. They can not only enter different cultures and mindsets, but also learn to identify themselves. Art can be a ‘window and a mirror’, to quote Rudine Sims Bishop, as it allows young people to shape the world that they inhabit; any also others so that everyone is able to identify him/herself, and also to explore new territories.

In some social contexts, being an immigrant or belonging to a marginalized group requires a lot of strength. I’ve been addressing issues like female genital mutilation, diversity, gender equality, and identity, through spoken word, theatre, creative writing and visual art. This connects different communities that wouldn’t have the chance to know each other otherwise. They’ve been able, by expressing their imagination, to envision a future with a more sensitive eye on what a sustainable, inclusive, empathetic society should look like.

When young people confront themselves with the obstacles of the societies they live in, often feeling misrepresented, judged, or marginalized, the Arts come to offer them a safe, non-judgmental space with which they can express their true self. They can freely rely on their imagination and creativity to solve conflicts and misunderstandings. There’s an inner quality about the Arts that brings to light our intimate consciousness and its exploration reminds us that awareness is the first stage from which we can start overcoming stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination.

On a more academic level, art contributes in cognitive activity, reading skills and critical thinking. It improves motivation, teamwork, concentration, and self-confidence. Art connects the youth to the world, and opens them to new ways of seeing the world around them, creating the foundation to forge social bonds and community cohesion. It encourages young people to find and express their abilities while learning. It is often believed that the Arts is a field exclusively for artists, but that’s not true.  Art is an important tool through which learning becomes a rewarding experience whatever ability one has. The Arts help them to feel a sense of ownership for what they learn and allows them to embrace their personal experiences through sharing stories, ideas, dreams, hopes, and becoming change makers, paving an innovative, multidisciplinary path.

In the 19th century, American writer George Eliot said: ‘It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various point of view’.  She had made a statement not only as a woman creative writer in a male dominant literary scene, but because she herself had a curious mind. Her curiosity led her to learn a multitude of subjects, from science to foreign languages, and acquire a vast base of knowledge. Eliot did this with the eyes of an imaginative mind, which allowed her to create a world that could not have been seen otherwise, in the narrowed minded society she lived in.

Eliot’s idea applies to the concept of how we should envision youth education today: an education based on exploring possibilities and different perspectives, promoting inclusiveness, equal opportunities, diversity and multiplicity.

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