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Explanation and Imagination

Updated: May 1, 2023

If you are new to Waldorf education and/or you want to learn more about the deeper principles at work within it, then the following exploration may be helpful. It belongs to a series of articles that will delve into myriad manifestations of balancing two principles: "form and freedom".

A seven-year-old turns to a parent and asks, "Why do beavers build dams?" It is a typical question born of curiosity in the world. The parent needs to consider how to answer this question. I will portray two possible scenarios.

Scenario One

"That is a very interesting question. All animals are born with instincts. Instinct is like an inner voice that tells the animals what to do in any given time. The beaver's instinct is to build dams. The beaver does not think about it. The beaver just does it, the same way that a worm burrows through soil. This instinct was developed over millennia through a process called natural selection or evolution. Through this process, animals with favorable attributes and behaviors were the animals who had the most success and therefore left the most offspring to repeat and even improve upon those successful traits. The beaver's successful ancestors were those who had a natural tendency to gnaw down trees and create dams. The dams created ponds of water in which the beavers could also build lodges to rear their young in safety. So, the beaver builds dams because of instincts which have been honed over millennia through the process of evolution."

Scenario Two

"That is a very interesting question. The beaver listens to the voice of the Forest Spirit. The forest spirit knows that it is good for the creek or the river to slow down sometimes and become a great pool or a pond. The forest spirit chooses a spot for this to happen and then whispers to the beaver. It tells the beaver where to go and what to do. The beaver goes to the place and begins to work with diligence because the beaver is one of the hardest workers in the forest. The beaver begins to gnaw down trees and use those trees to build a dam. Slowly the dam starts to work and the water rises into a pool or a pond. As the water rises, the beaver can reach more trees right next to the water. As more trees are added, the pool becomes bigger and bigger. In time, the dam will be quite large and very strong. Of course, the Forest Spirit rewards the beaver. It lets the beaver eat all of the bark off of the trees that have been taken down. It also whispers to the beaver that the pool is now the beaver's home. The beaver builds a lodge in the pool and raises a family there. The pool keeps the babies safe. While the beaver family lives there, the beaver constantly takes care of the dam, making repairs when they are needed. The Forest Spirit wants the pool to last for many years because it provides a good home and good food for many animals besides the beaver. Ducks, for example, love finding a nice big pond to swim in and eat in. It is much easier to teach baby ducks how to swim in a pond than in a fast-flowing river. Turtles, frogs, salamanders, even a great big moose--so many animals benefit from the beaver's pond. Even land animals, like the bear, will find different plants to eat growing on the shores of the pond because the beaver cleared out so many trees. The beaver does not know all of these things, of course. It only knows that the Forest Spirit tells is to build a dam. It is the Forest Spirit who knows how wonderful the dam will be for so many different beings in the forest."

It is NOT a question of which answer was the most accurate. It is a question of which answer is the most beneficial for the young child. The answer in Scenario One is true. And if we allow for the vessel of imagination to deliver the truth, then so is the answer in Scenario Two. However, do not mistake my intent. I am not suggesting that we should allow for the vessel of imagination; I am insisting that it is absolutely necessary for the young child.

Scenario A was an explanation. It sticks to the scientific information such as one might find in an encyclopedia collection. Granted, it came to the shore of imagination by suggesting that instinct is like an inner voice, but it did not actually enter the water. That was as far toward anything fanciful that the "explanation parent" dared suggest.

Scenario B was an imagination. It enveloped the factual truth in a story to which the child can most readily and most willingly relate. It conveys the truth in a story that leaves room for the child's imagination. The story itself leaves room for the child to wonder: To whom else does the Forest Spirit speak? What does the voice of the Forest Spirit sound like? Can all animals hear that voice? Could I hear that voice? With such an imaginative answer, the child begins to see how an ecosystem is is amazingly organized. This kind of understanding does not require the word "ecosystem" to be used. The name and definition of an ecosystem does not matter at such an early stage of learning. Those are two abstractions that can be learned later. For the young child, what matters is having a living picture into which wonder can lead. I am not saying one cannot say the word ecosystem to a young child. What I am saying is that most adults fall into the rut of terminology, definition, and dry explanation when they pull "key vocabulary" into situations like these. The vocabulary is much less important than having a full grasp of the actual living complex that en ecosystem really is. The child who has this kind of understanding, who has lived with a deep sense of wonder and curiosity for how it works, this child will easily assimilate terminology and definitions later on. Such abstractions are not the starting points however.

Some will protest that we are misleading the child with such fanciful pictures. This is itself an unimaginative viewpoint. The stories of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and other cultural stories that are told to children are not rendered worthless when the child grows up and learns that these were imaginations. I understand today that Santa Claus was an imagination of jolliness and generosity that comes during a time of year, here in the northern hemisphere, when the natural world is cold and dark and dormant. Sure there was a sense of loss when I realized that I would not ever catch a flesh-and-blood Santa popping out of the chimney. These kinds of losses of innocence are part of growing up. I do not regret being a child nor do I regret becoming an adult. The stories that filled my soul as a child are still dear to me even if now I do not believe them to be true accounts of historical events in the physical world. They filled my youth with warmth and joy and wonder. They gave me imaginations which, for my young soul and my young mind, were the best possible playgrounds. Doubt not for a second that playgrounds are vitally important.

Lest we fall into the category of sentimentalists, however, we must not stop at simply emphasizing warm feelings of wonder in childhood. There is another, perhaps even more important aspect of imagination. There are very practical reasons for why strong and well-developed imaginative forces are needed more than ever today. As individuals, as communities, and as a species, we face problems to solve. Whether we believe the problems are life-threatening or just needs for improving life, we can all recognize that problems and challenges face us on personal, local, and global scales. The interesting thing about problems in the real world is that they are not as easy to solve as typical math problems. Real-world problems require research for gaining perspectives, making comparisons, evaluating given data, and considering possible options.

While many of those activities require intellect, it is that last step that requires an imagination. To look at possibilities--indeed, to discover options that have yet to be suggested at all--requires one to see things that are not yet in existence. Revolutionary discoveries and innovations are achieved by those who refuse to be limited by what already is. Such things are achieved by those who can see other possibilities. With the developed power of imagination, they can see images of the "unreal."

"Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited to all that we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all that there ever will be to know and understand."

Albert Einstein

Obviously, as adults we must strike a particular balance between the actual and the imaginative. The steps I outlined take this into account. Gaining perspectives, making comparisons, evaluating given data--such intellectual steps as these are critical. They must be based in a sound and scientific approach to the world. The wonderful balance is struck when these very practical disciplines meet the creative and innovative souls of imaginative individuals. The arts AND the sciences are truly needed.

So, as we consider how to field another's questions and to convey answers and information most appropriately, let us always seek to find the right balance of imagination and explanation. For the young child, the balance will include much more imagination than explanation. This continually shifts toward a greater amount of explanation for the high school and college student. At no point should the balance be exclusive to one side or the other, though. The most pre-eminent scientists need to have imaginations just as the greatest artists need to possess knowledge.

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