The Pursuit of the Impractical

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I’ve decided that in May, I will pursue the impractical.

Let me explain.

Last Sunday, in our church’s foyer, I was chatting with an English teacher friend about the busyness of May, which then morphed (as it often does with this particular friend) into a conversation about literature, teaching and our mutual hatred of standardized testing (a strange morphing, I know). My friend is a middle school teacher at one of our county schools, and the particular standardized testing we were mutually hating is Virginia’s end-of-year testing: Standards of Learning; appropriately nicknamed: S.O.L’s.

Then our conversation morphed again: from S.O.L.’s to my friend expressing her utter bewilderment at her students’ inability to learn one particular skill:

Brainstorming.

For some reason, her students can’t brainstorm. She said for years she has been able to teach brainstorming with success. But now, when she asks students to brainstorm possible scenarios or outcomes or solutions, they give her only one answer. When she checks the answer wrong and explains they were supposed to name several possibilities, they look at her confused, discouraged, blank.

These aren’t dumb kids. They are smart kids, talented kids. And my friend is a very good teacher. She’s a little rogue, even, glancing sideways (and sometimes turning her nose up) at guidelines of a county and state too consumed with test score outcomes.

My friend is baffled. She asked me what I thought of this new awful phenomena. What would I attribute it to? Did I have any ideas for teaching brainstorming?

I don’t know. My friend is a smart, creative teacher. I doubt there is anything I can offer.

The whole dilemma has me wondering, however, at all the things no longer considered ‘practical,’ nor valued in today’s education system. I wonder: Has the exclusion of teaching certain skills indirectly contributed to our kids’ inability to brainstorm? Is it possible that not teaching the process of cursive writing has hurt our children? What about not teaching spelling beyond fourth or fifth grade (depending on the school district)? Or drastically cutting the time and depth of teaching grammar and writing—the hard work of dissecting words and sentences, so that later these same words and sentences can be properly constructed into elegant and meaningful prose? Learning such skills creates brain synapses that contribute to deeper-level, multifaceted thinking.

Skills like brainstorming.

I also wonder if the lack of reading from the great cannon of classic literature and poetry has stunted our children’s ability to ponder deeply on life’s themes: courage, cowardice, loyalty, truth, justice and more; while simultaneously forcing them to process language in a way only the classics can encourage. Again, brain connectivity is happening, and skills—lots of skills—are being developed, directly and indirectly.

Skills like brainstorming. 

(Side note: my friend says the administration has discouraged teachers from teaching the classics because they are not ‘relevant’ or ‘practical’ to today’s students and their lives. “They can’t relate to the classics,” says the administration. I find this an excellent example of oxymoron. I bet given the opportunity to explore the classics, kids would find it an oxymoron, too.) 

And then there is the soil of the information age where our children’s seedling minds are securely planted and being nourished. “Knowledge is power” the old adage goes; access to knowledge is a drug—whether it’s social knowledge, entertainment knowledge or educational knowledge. And so by natural result, this age of information has become a jungle where technology reigns as the king we all worship, covet and fear (in both meanings of the word, depending on your point of view).

In a mind continually gorged with information, how is there space for the culling of ideas? How can one even begin the process of brainstorming, when the spoons-full of input never ends?

I am reading a book by poet, Luci Shaw called, Breath for the Bones. In it, Shaw reflects on the relationships between art, imagination, and spirit: creativity and faith. She opens Chapter One by recounting a conversation with her uncle:

“Years ago, I was walking with my uncle Max, a hardworking, hard-bitten, shrewd, practical New Zealand apple farmer. Hearing that a new book of my poems had just been published, he asked me, with genuine bewilderment, ‘But—what good is a poem? What earthly use is it? Why can’t you say what you want to say in a straightforward way that ordinary people can understand?”

Indeed, why?

And yet, I wonder, in our world of uber-practicality and information overload, where does the mind go to wonder? To experience mystery and wrestle with paradox? To learn that uncomfortable feeling of living with questions not easily answered?

How does one discover faith—that wholly impractical idea of believing without seeing—if one does not have the time nor the space to imagine it?

This is the stuff of eternal magnitude; of a life fully lived.

And here is something crazy: If we dug down to the root of this eternal stuff—deep down to the unnoticed, unseen beginnings of full living—wouldn’t we find alive and well the imagination?

And, isn’t imagination the essential ingredient in brainstorming?

I’m pretty sure that in order to fuel the imagination—and thereby foster skills in brainstorming—one must pursue the impractical.

Yes, this month, I am in definite pursuit of the impractical.

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