The threat inherent in our imaginations

“Money? For something that may never pay?” grumbles the dull troll called Society every time a call is made for an increase in funding for basic research. And here is the explanation:

Looking at today’s society, it’s possible to be fooled by an optimistic illusion: It seems as if well-educated parents understand the importance of letting their children express themselves. Children are encouraged to draw and paint, and to sculpt figures from clay and Plasticine. They are sung along with. They are taken to endless spare time activities in cars full of fairy tales on tape. Even people who normally cannot be bothered to open a book, all of a sudden, and without any prompting whatsoever, start reading aloud to their little ones at bedtime.

So does that mean most people aware of the inherent benefits of these activities?

Alas – only superficially so.

But surely everyone agrees that the joy of creating is a wonderful phenomenon, and that stimulating the imagination is vitally important?

Well… if people really thought that all of these activities are so important, wouldn’t they be busily engaged in them themselves? Why do only a small number of adults draw, paint, sculpt from clay, and stage puppet theatre performances? After all, children have eyes in their heads, and their role models are right in front of them. Why have adults given up playing the piano? Why do they never have time to read a book? These activities are all very important, are they not, for one’s personal development?

I am sure there are kinder words to describe all this, but using them amounts to deceit.

Most people probably think that imagination is charming in children – but at the same time, children are expected to grow out of it. Because imagination is a waste of time, it is useless play – it’s not the kind of activity that fills your stomach. Our times and our society understand only one language: money. Therefore, we want people who do what is expected of them, people who do not get sidetracked by thought, doubts, or amazement. And therefore, people’s imaginations must be eliminated. Because what our imaginations teach us is to think for ourselves, to question, to be amazed – and perhaps even to turn things upside down.

Why, then, is our imagination not discouraged at an earlier stage? Why is it not crushed when we reach the age of, say, four?

Well, because it is only when a person has entered adulthood and has become old enough to hold down a job – when that person has become a cog in the wheel, a producer – that the imagination – and its presence or absence – matters. It is only at this point that the loss of imagination is significant, not earlier, because the child does not produce. So let us not remove these ideas at once – as long as we ensure that the child’s imagination is gone by the time he turns 16 or so (“You’re a big boy now! Grow up!”). Let us just get this imagination thing under control. Let us torture it to death – slowly. And let us make as much money as possible during the process.

Which is where the Disney Company and other financial wolves enter, tearing at our wallets by sucking up to us – our guilty consciences briefly alleviated every time we slip our children a Donald Duck magazine.

For that matter, the same phenomenon can be witnessed in our care for the elderly these days: When, after a long working life, people end up in an old people’s home, we seem to think that it is finally about time we reintroduced some culture into their lives. We encourage them to engage with salt dough and water colours and to take part in all manner of creative activities. We are happy to let them just sit there making baskets, each and every one of them. Because old people – like children – are outside the production system. They are not “producers”, and thus no threat to the multiplication table. It is too late in the day for that: They no longer make any difference one way or the other. Which means that releasing their imaginations can do nobody any harm. In our old age we may – symbolically speaking – freely “enter our second childhood”.