On the Road: Part One

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Image by geishaboy500*

Image by geishaboy500*

The last few weeks have seen the kick-off of the Imagination Conversations national initiative, a project of Lincoln Center Institute. I was thrilled to serve as moderator at the first two conversations, which took place at the Governor’s Mansion in Oklahoma City and at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zipping from one to the other, I saw firsthand that imagination is spreading—and I was proud to be a contagion.

The OKC conversation sported a remarkable roster of panelists: CEO Cliff Hudson, State Senator Clark Jolley, newspaper publisher Mary Mèlon, medical researcher Steve Prescott, composer Jerod Tate, and university president Roger Webb. I don’t have space here to transmit the full body of their wisdom, but I will say a few words about Hudson, who runs the drive-in food chain Sonic Corporation and whose career settles all doubts about whether imagination has a place in the business world.

Listening to Hudson speak, I recognized so many traits common to the business leaders that Eric Liu and I interviewed for Imagination First: clarity of vision; a determination to engage the workforce while keeping an eye on profit; attention to detail. Indeed, his minute concern with the structure of the workday, the structure of Sonic’s offices and franchises, relates closely to our book’s “Chunk It” practice; Hudson understands that Sonic Corp. as an entity can grow only if its smaller components grow first.

(I’d be remiss to not mention that I enjoyed my first Sonic experience at Will Rogers World Airport after the Imagination Conversation event. From the freshly chopped bananas and strawberries in my smoothie to my sandwich’s wheat bun to the peppermint candy at the bottom of my bag, the meal was a delight.)

The highlight for me of the Cambridge event—which included education professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige, music and media professor Tod Machover, theater artist Tina Packer, Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville, and public advocate Klare Shaw—was the dialogue on progressive education versus the norms of the state education system. It was exhilarating to watch the brilliant minds in attendance articulate the present conflict between the demand for accountability (test scores, etc.) and the desire to attend to the subtler intellectual and emotional needs of young people (through the arts, experiential methods, and so on).

The Cambridge debate reminded me that we in education must find a middle ground—and this middle ground, I believe, may be imaginative learning. But we don’t yet know how to measure its effects. Perhaps our moral imperative, then, is to bridge the educational philosophical gap by figuring out a way to institute imaginative learning while still preserving concrete standards. Sounds awfully abstract, right? That’s one reason for the Imagination Conversations: We at LCI are taking to the road, looking for vivid pictures of imagination at work, for specific suggestions about how to make imagination the watchword of American education, always looking toward policy reform as our goal.

If OKC and Cambridge are any indication, it will be a fun and rewarding journey.

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