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The Importance of the Imagination

by Laura Berquist


Laura Berquist explains how the formation of the child's imagination, particularly in cultivating an appreciation for beautiful music, art, and literature, disposes them to more readily embrace truth and goodness as adults.

Larger Work

Latin Mass


54 - 57

Publisher & Date

Keep the Faith, Inc., Ramsey, NJ, Winter 2005

In Mother of Divine Grace School there are about 2,400 students, among whom is a small percentage of special needs children. One of my personal goals is to develop a program that will help these children learn well. To that end, we have started a special services department and have developed a certification program for Mother of Divine Grace Special Services Consultants. At one of the recent certification meetings we had a speaker, certified special education teacher Sharon Hensley, author of Homeschooling Your Special Needs Child. What she said was very valuable in its own right, and I found it illuminating as to education in general. I think you will, too.

She said that in special needs education there must always be a balance between compensation techniques and therapy. For example, when a dyslexic child just can't seem to learn to spell, one must both teach him to use a spell checker and continue to teach the principles of spelling, with an emphasis on strengthening his visual imagination. The spell checker is a compensating technique that will help him in life, but the therapy of strengthening the visual imagination is even more essential.

One should imagine these two elements in a pan balance. During the younger years the balance should be weighted toward therapy. One will teach compensation techniques, but he should concentrate on strengthening the areas of weakness in the student. During the middle school years the balance should be at parity, that is, there should be an equal emphasis on both compensation and therapy. In high school the balance should be weighted in favor of compensation, but without abandoning therapy.

Now that seems like common sense to me, partly because it is the same general model I have used in thinking about the content and method of the classical curriculum.

Imagine another pan balance. The items in the balance are educational content on the one hand and educational method on the other. During the younger years the balance should be weighted toward method. One will teach intrinsically good content, but he should concentrate on strengthening the tools of learning in the student. During the middle school years the balance should be at parity, that is, there should be an equal emphasis on both content and method. In high school the balance should be weighted in favor of content, but without abandoning method. In the case of these two items, this is even easier to accomplish than in the earlier case of compensation and therapy, because there is no opposition of any kind between content and method.

When a teacher teaches a student to use the spell checker, she is not working on strengthening the visual imagination. To include that side of the pan balance she needs to have another, different, educational activity. But when a teacher is teaching the Roman constitution she will adapt the way she teaches it to include the appropriate method for the student at his current stage of formation. Thus, though the emphasis might change as the student develops, both content and method are important components of every assignment.

Now the reason content and method are so strongly related is that content concerns what you are thinking about, while method has to do with how you think about it. And that involves the imagination, which is what I would like to discuss here.

I have previously spoken in this column about the importance of the imagination in the education of a free man, that is, a man formed in such a way that he is capable of directing his own life and the common life of the community. In this education, classical education, the arts of the trivium and quadrivium precede the sciences to which they are ordered. So, the arts of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), are to be learned before the student is ready to undertake the disciplines of philosophy and natural theology.

This is necessary for three reasons, all of which go together. The first is that the young student is not capable of grasping the concepts of the higher disciplines, for understanding them depends upon experience, and the young student doesn't have experience; specifically, he doesn't have the experience of doing the inferior disciplines, which are necessary for doing the higher sciences. Further, the conclusions of these inferior disciplines are used in the higher sciences. So the arts need to come first, just as multiplication must precede division. Finally, the imagination of the student must be prepared to do the more difficult matter of the sciences, and studying the arts prepares the imagination.

In every one of the arts of the trivium and quadrivium there is an object made, which is why they are called arts. Any art is a human undertaking that involves a knowledge of making, and results in an object made. In the practical arts, the object made is outside the maker. For example, a painter makes a painting, while an architect makes a building and a carpenter makes furniture. All of these objects made exist outside the one making them. In the liberal arts there is a making, but the making occurs in the maker, specifically in the mind and the imagination.

The arts of the trivium — grammar, logic, and rhetoric — all have to do with speech in some way or another. Grammar concerns the mode of speaking, logic is about the speech of defining and reasoning, and rhetoric is ordered to persuasive speech. Speech itself is something made by man.

The arts of the quadrivium — arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy — also result in an object made in the imagination. Though we discover number in things, in arithmetic we study number abstractly, without reference to physical things. Thus, in our demonstrations, we make the numbers in our imagination, and consider their properties without reference to the physical things in which we discovered them. In geometry, likewise, we construct figures, whose properties we then study. Usually we write the figure on a board or a piece of paper, but the figures properly exist in us. In music we make notes, first in our heads, then on paper, likewise, in astronomy we again construct figures that help us understand and predict the movements of the heavenly bodies.

One can see that having a developed imagination, one that is able to make the objects of the liberal arts, is important for a student. It is for this reason that in the Mother of Divine Grace program there is a strong emphasis on training the imagination.

This is accomplished through memory exercises, such as poetry recitation, and learning the questions and answers of the Baltimore Catechism, as well as working on developing a strong power of observation. Retelling stories also develops this power of imagining, for the one telling the story has to keep in mind the entire story and the sequence of events within the story, in order to make an intelligible whole.

Now, this is one sense of the word "imagination." It is the power itself of imagining, that is, the power to produce and reproduce images. Imagination in this sense encompasses visual images, auditory images and kinesthetic images, all of which are used in the process of thinking.

There is another sense of the word, that corresponds to what one usually thinks of first when he hears the word "imagination," namely, the ability to make up stories. We say about our daydreaming daughters, "Oh, she just gets lost in her own imagination," or we say, "He has a great imagination, he can make up a story about a strange country and he talks about it as though he lived there."

This meaning of imagination is important because we want out children to have what Thomas Howard calls "sacramental imaginations." People use the furniture of their imaginations to make up the stories they make up. The reality around the person is what he draws on to make up his stories. Even imaginary animals have the parts of real animals; they are just put together in a way we don't find in nature. Think about a centaur, for example. It has the top half of a man, but the bottom half of a horse. It's clearly an imaginary creature, but its parts aren't imaginary. They come from reality.

The stories we make up reflect the reality we understand. Additionally, they tend to reflect the general presentation of that reality with which we are familiar. Thomas Howard, a convert, in discussing the Catholicism of J.R.R. Tolkien, says:

Catholics are profoundly narrative. Where Protestants gravitate towards the immense abstractions of sovereignty, election, depravity, atonement, and grace, Catholics characteristically come to rest on events: Creation; Annunciation; Gestation; Parturition; the Agony in the Garden; the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. The Mass is an enactment, as opposed to the Protestant service, with its center of gravity in the sermon.

His point is that Tolkien's amazing ability to make a believable fantasy world comes directly from the Catholic formation of his imagination. Howard goes on:

Second, Catholicism is sacramentalist. The point where the Divine touches our humanity is a physical one. Creation; pelts for Adam and Eve; the Ark; the Tabernacle; the Womb of the Virgin; the flesh of the Incarnate One; splinters, nails, whips, and torn flesh. The entire Gospel is enacted — physically, in the Catholic liturgy. Hence the ease with which the Catholic mind reaches for narrative. Tolkien believed he could not have written the saga if he had not been a Catholic. He trusted his imagination.

The lesson for us, as parents, in this analysis of Tolkien's Catholic imagination, is that our child's formed imagination influences how he pictures reality. The Catholic character of their lives, the inclusion of the good, the true, and the beautiful in their environment, is going to have a profound effect on how they imagine what they imagine.

The old adage "You are what you eat" could be changed truthfully to say, "You are what you see and hear." The images in the imagination and memory become a part of the soul that affects all the rest of life.

If the soul has in it good, true, beautiful, noble, and heroic images, it will be disposed to become like those things. For as St. Thomas says, "The beautiful and the good are the same in subject because they are founded on the same thing, namely the form" (Ia, q.5, a.4). Accordingly, since whatever is true is also beautiful, an appreciation of the beautiful prepares the way for an appreciation of the true. If children love the beautiful they will the truth, as truth, when they are older. Thus, even in terms of intellectual formation, fostering the fine arts is important, as Socrates explains in the Republic:

And further, because omissions and the failure of beauty in things badly made or grown would be most quickly perceived by one who was properly educated in music ["music" here includes all the fine arts], and so, feeling distaste rightly, he would praise beautiful things and take delight in them and receive them into his soul to foster its growth and become himself beautiful and good. The ugly he would rightly disapprove of and hate while still young and yet unable to apprehend the reason, but when reason came the man thus nurtured would be the first to give her welcome, for by this affinity he would know her.

We should foster in our children a love of the beautiful and true, and a corresponding distaste for what is ugly and false. Children's sense of beauty can be encouraged in various ways; those of us who are homeschooling may include beautiful art and music regularly in our curricula, in ways that are appropriate to the various stages of the child's intellectual formation. Attention to such things will aid in the kind of intellectual formation that is the object of a classical education, because it will strengthen and inform the imagination.

We can also include good literature in the lives of our children, that is, stories that are well written and conform to the real world. The matters with which the storyteller concerns himself have to do, most of all, with the moral order. Universal truths are implicit in these stories, since they are about human actions, and human actions are either good or bad. Thus, the stories are going to have to portray the characters' actions in such a context.

When reading a story, the reader identifies with the main characters. The delights of the hero become the reader's delights, his fears become the reader's fears, and the reader grows to hate the things his hero hates. This is a very powerful influence in the lives of children.

For those of us who want to fill the rooms of our children's imaginations with beautiful furniture, the pictures they look at, the music they hear, and the stories they read, will all be judged with these truths in mind.

If the furniture of their imagination is made up of good, true and beautiful objects, they will be better prepared to recognize the author of the good, the true, and the beautiful, both in this life and the next. And that is the goal of our lives.

Laura Berquist is a homeschooling mother of six, author of Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum and director of Mother of Divine Grace Home Study Program. She welcomes your suggestions or comments. You can send them to her at the Mother of Divine Grace School office, Attention: Laura Berquist, P.O. Box 1440, Ojai, CA 93024; (805) 646-5818.

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