Intention and Imagination in Higher Education

Posted on Feb 7, 2014

This article first appeared on and is re-posted with permission of the author.

The primary divide I am concerned with in higher education is actually not the fragmentation of knowledge or the loss of community, as serious as these issues are. These are symptoms of a deeper underlying divide within us, one that distribution requirements or learning communities alone, for example, will not address. Our colleges and universities need to encourage, foster, and assist our students, faculty, and administrators in finding their own authentic way to an undivided life where meaning and purpose are tightly interwoven with intellect and action, where compassion and care are infused with insight and imagination.

Integration and wholeness in student life is too important to be left to chance. Too frequently, such integration is left to chance or to those few teachers who take the system into their own hands. Integration should be intentional and systemic, not accidental and extracurricular. The first step in rectifying this situation is through sustained conversations concerning the purposes of education at our colleges and universities. We speak together far too seldom about our aims for the education of our students. And when we do talk about pedagogy, it is too often on the most basic level of skills and distribution requirements.

In his candid evaluation of Our Underachieving Colleges, one-time Harvard president Derek Bok calls this tendency “neglecting purposes.” As he aptly notes, our revision of the curriculum “begins without the parties having paid close enough attention to the objectives that a proper undergraduate education should pursue… By not paying careful attention to purposes, faculties have also ignored important aims of undergraduate education over extended periods of time.”

In his Aims of Education of 1929, Alfred North Whitehead declared that the university’s task was the welding together of imagination and experience. He saw imagination as a special gift of youth and experience as an attribute of a mature professoriate. “The proper function of a university is the imaginative acquisition of knowledge… A university is imaginative or it is nothing–at least nothing useful.” While Whitehead, like many philosophers before him, appreciated the power of formal reasoning and the empirical foundations of science, he also recognized that nothing new can arise from deduction or induction alone. Data becomes ordered and meaningful only through imaginative insight.

Einstein believed that the discovery of nature’s laws required the capacity of intuition and a heartfelt enthusiasm for the work:

There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them… The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.

Elsewhere, he famously maintained that: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Appreciating the role of imagination in making discoveries, Whitehead insisted that it should be at the heart of higher education. Yet Whitehead also warned that the life of imaginative scholarship, research, and education is always under the threat of “inert ideas” or dead knowledge:

We must be aware of what I will call “inert ideas”–that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations… Education with inert ideas is not only useless; it is, above all things, harmful… Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas. Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.

A challenge for integration in education is the joining of past experience with the innovative spirit of the present. Universities should be a prime venue for such imaginative and integrative work, where a true stimulus in the direction of new insights, and creations, is given to the minds and hearts of those who are part of its community.

What pedagogy supports and encourages imagination? This would be a rich topic for a conversation concerning the purpose of an undergraduate education, one that reaches beyond vocation to the cultivation of one’s full humanity. From the side of literature and art, we might be reminded of Keats’s “negative capability,” which can sustain ambiguity and even contradiction “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” From the side of science, we might hear voices in support of fact and reason, but acknowledge with Einstein the value of imagination. Conversations of this type are not run by Robert’s Rules of Order, nor is closure expected. To truly engage in this kind of cross-disciplinary inquiry, we must be willing to engage in an expansive conversation with our colleagues that can uncover the heart of higher education. Without these conversations, an institution’s intentions remain obscure, a faculty rudderless, and a pedagogy of imagination undiscovered.




Arthur Zajonc is President of the Mind & Life Institute. He is also emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College, where he taught from 1978 to 2012. He has been visiting professor and research scientist at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics, and a Fulbright professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. His research has included studies in parity violation in atoms, the experimental foundations of quantum physics, and the relationship between sciences, the humanities and meditation. He is author of Catching the Light, co-author of The Quantum Challenge, and co-editor of Goethe’s Way of Science. Since 1997 he served as scientific coordinator for the Mind and Life dialogues with H.H. the Dalai Lama, whose meetings have been published as The New Physics and Cosmology: Dialogues with the Dalai Lama (Oxford 2004) and The Dalai Lama at MIT (Harvard UP, 2006). He formerly directed the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society,  supporting appropriate inclusion of contemplative practice in higher education.

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