Imagination in History Teaching

John Fines

This essay is from the late historian and teacher, John Fines (1938 – 1999)

Published posthumously in the International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, 2002

I wish to consider the nature and function of imagination in the teaching of History, and I must confess straight away that this is not the first time I have attempted such a task. Indeed it is perhaps worthwhile admitting that I approach this essay with three largely different drafts behind me, and hope that in the writing they might consolidate themselves somehow into a more coherent picture.

It may seem strange that such a topic should be so daunting, for we use the word imagination in education with fair regularity and not a little conviction: we urge our pupils to show imagination, we often judge them ostensibly on the quantity of imagination they have demonstrated and, to be brief, apart from some caveats to which I shall return in a moment, we consider imagination to be a good thing.

I think also that many teachers would automatically assume that imagination shown by the pupil would come in a written response, rather than in any other form. I suppose the long traditions of English education partially dictate this, but it has also been reinforced by the ‘creative writing’ boom of recent years as well. We should note, however, that imagination can be just as well exercised and shown in speech, painting, construction, dance, acting – a plethora of things; but it may also be seen at work in how one tackles humble jobs, too: it takes an imaginative person to work well in the confines of time, and in strange places (like libraries); people should see the need for imaginative design of approaches to work and study.

For most people, I guess, imagination as shown in a pupil’s response. It consists in the individuality of that response, its uniqueness, as it were. From our own imaginations we pluck that which is new, but it is not just the novelty we admire, for any piece of trumpery rubbish could be novel; the newness of the idea produced by the imagination is a newness that we all suddenly recognise as valid, and wish, perhaps, that we had thought of it first; indeed if it is a particularly good idea we have half a mind to think we did vaguely approximate to that idea ourselves, but never quite got round to expressing it, a night thought that got away. Some new ideas are so blindingly simple as to draw universal conviction, as when the poet speaks. The line of poetry, the form the sculptor finds, the theme of the symphony, all seem to have been present from the beginnings of time, only awaiting discovery and expression.

And here I think we meet the first major difficulty in considering the use of the term imagination in education, for it is a word that attaches itself to the finest products of the greatest minds much more naturally than to the grubby essay of the schoolchild, and in a comprehensive world are we at all wise to expect such quality? Imagination deals with images and symbols, helping us to enter new worlds and fix their dimensions with a figure. It aids us to engage in mental gymnastics in which paradoxical associations and reorderings of the known can effectively create new views of a startling and stimulating nature. It enables us to break the normal rules of thought by using exhilarating side-slips, free-wheeling, out of gear racings to fit together intuitions, hunches and guesses into whole new sets of possibilities. It enables us to think in other men’s minds, to assume roles for the time being in order to understand more completely than our own personal vision can manage. To be brief, it enables us to see, and to see how, beyond the capacity of our neighbour.

And we expect this of schoolchildren? Why, surely not? Yet without falling completely into the romantic traps of the Blakean image, it is fair to say that the child’s mind, whilst not possessing the capacity of that of the poet or inventor, does frequently operate in similar dimensions and uses similar techniques, until the twin forces of social and physical maturity clamp down those inhibitions that make so distressingly many of us into ‘normal chaps’. The child can frequently operate in the domain of ‘let’s pretend’ and ‘what if’ when the ‘normal’ adult will respond with cries of ‘Don’t be silly, dear, that’s pure imagination on your part’. For we must not forget the pejorative use of the word in education (and indeed the world at large); to say of someone ‘he imagines things’ can be very close to saying ‘he thinks he’s Napoleon’ which tells us at once that the man is mad. We have a wariness about ‘let’s pretend’ and ‘what if?’ that indicates a deep-seated fear of fantasy; it is all very well for novelists, but children are told ‘now don’t tell stories’ for ‘stories’ are lies, assaults upon the conventional picture of the world, attacks upon normalcy.

This fear of and easy denunciation of ‘silliness’ is a constant factor in adult-child relationships, and is very natural. Anyone who has taught will recognise the potential for destruction, chaos, wild uncontrolled giggling that rests just underneath the surface of groups of children who are ‘off the hook.’ What teachers need to see (and here they must use their imaginations) is the direction that children’s imaginative perceptions might tend towards, if given sufficient support and encouragement. Good teachers learn that at the moment they wish to say ‘that’s just silly, dear’ they should be thinking how it might be made into a greater sense.

But before we can encourage imagination in children we must needs consider its relationship to other forms of thinking, knowing and learning; a simply unrestrained encouragement to imagine can produce all those false notions bound up in idle fantasy we have noted above as constituting the adult’s fear of imagination. This may be seen in the sort of vapid question teachers often ask, such as ‘Imagine you are Louis XIV. Write an essay on how you spend your afternoon’. The setter of that question quite clearly deserves all he gets, and is of course in no way promoting imagination, merely behaving stupidly.

I want at a later stage to suggest that imagination is a quality intermixed with other processes, and treat it as best understood and best promoted when it is seen in that way; but at first we must attempt to crawl, rather than to run, so I will be making two propositions about imagination assuming it to be an entity; later reasoning may well require some modification in these propositions, of course.

First I wish to propose that there are two kinds of imagination, similar in process but leading to different ends, and second that both involve certain levels of imaginative thinking that may be roughly defined.

The first kind of imagination, I would suggest, concerns itself with seeing and picturing a part of the past, a faculty that at its extreme and yet most primitive form is expressed in the notion of the seer, the conjurer-up of the dead. This, in History, is the function of the story-teller, and may have many dynamic aspects, in that the story may well be complex and moves forward in time; yet the basis is an attempt to picture one thing, to show what happened more than to explain. Now it is well appreciated that the narrative form is one vehicle of historical explanation, indeed for many historians (and for most historians for a proportion of their time) it is the supreme explanatory tool. We cannot deal with the past except in terms of an answer to the question ‘What happened?’ (or, in the more simple form of the extreme narrative historian, ‘What happened next?’); yet there is a somewhat static form to this visionary aspect of the imagination, for it is a unitary task (however great may be the effort) to see and to show. The very choice of subject for picturing implies some comment, and in the telling, all sorts of points of view may be used, moral values implied, but the imaginative artist is trying to paint one picture, and if he has any respect for his craft as an historian, he will be trying to paint it in Rankean terms. One need only pose the opposite position (that is trying to show the past as it didn’t happen) to show the poles of historian/not historian. One may, of course, debate the possibility of the Rankean aim, its sensibility, its implied assumptions endlessly, but that is not the point here. All we need to know is that this kind of imagination is trying to show a portion of the past as it actually happened.

If we, for the time being, call that the static imagination (and I am all too aware at this moment of the falsity of many of the implications of this term) what of the dynamic? This I wish to denominate the perhaps more scientific cast of the imagination that wishes to explain, to interpret, to evaluate, to understand, to reconstruct in action.

In this domain we might put questions of the order of ‘Why did she do that?’ ‘Why did prices increase?’ ‘What effect did that have?’ ‘Was this caused in this way or another?’ ‘How did this happen?’ ‘When did this begin or end?’ and ‘Where was the centre of this movement?’ The list of questions could be much more thoroughly explored and examined, but it is their type I wish to explore for the time being. Now all of them require many other features of thought than just imagination (the detective function of logic is clearly important here) and we shall be exploring that interrelationship in a later part of this essay; but what elements of imagination do we see here?

Interestingly I think it is that intuitive aspect of empathy that comes to the fore, for unless the thinker can see different propositions at work in a human context (of real and specific human beings about whom we know some unalterable facts) he cannot proceed. Logic may aid the student to reclassify his evidence (he may for example have learned by rote to rearrange his evidence in terms of chronology, geography, or the standpoint of individuals concerned), but until he may see the reclassified evidence working according to the new pattern he cannot judge the validity of the reclassification.

Effectively, explanations made largely by logic may only be tested and enlarged by the imagination. I say here ‘largely by logic’ because it is very clear that imagination frequently takes a part in the making of that first hunch about association, but this is a factor not easily explored in the historical process, and requires considerable psychological expertise which I lack, so for the time being I must leave that aspect alone.

My first proposition, then, suggests that there are two ends to the imaginative process in historical learning, one that produces a picture, the other an explanation. Quite clearly these processes cannot be seen as exclusive and we should not give the name of ‘History’ to anything that doesn’t partake of both; this is merely an attempt to classify that may or may not prove useful in the end. Their interrelationship is most clearly shown in my next proposition, in that they share a similar hierarchy of achievement.

One might pause here to question whether we actually need a hierarchy of achievement. It is easy to see the need teachers feel for some way of testing how well their pupils are doing in any particular piece of learning, but it is not always right to follow this need and provide the tools. What I am suggesting here is one possible way of defining the steps taken along the road of learning, in the knowledge that these steps depend on circumstances, and may be taken many times. This implies that a very great historian may, in certain circumstances, find him or herself in the position of taking only step one, and a small child might well find in his circumstances the need and the possibility of taking step three. The hierarchy I shall put forward is a very simple and unoriginal fourfold sequence: moving from description, through analogy (or simile) to image (or metaphor) on to the final stage of symbol. These terms are mostly drawn from aesthetic domains, but for the moment they will serve our purpose.

The first level of the imaginative process is the minimalist position of describing, in which the learner is saying ‘I can only tell you what I see’. It is this level of description which has brought a bad name on narrative history and on what I have called static imagination in both historians and students of history. For although the imaginer is making a small effort to see, to define the area of problem, he is for a variety of reasons unwilling or unable to go further. Yet that cautious first step is a necessary part of the sequence if the remainder is to be undertaken with any honesty and critical skill. Alone it is pointless; without it, the rest is merely fantasy.

The second step is a large one, the move to show and explain by reference. What the pupil is saying here is ‘What I have described looks like so-and-so, or seems to be this type of thing.’ Here knowledge and experience are brought into play in order to give focus and actuality to the subject in a process of discovery of what is really going on. But we should also note a larger, more poetic quality seeping into this simple exercise, for each comparison enlarges our view of the nature of the object of study.

The third step is even greater, for it involves a movement from ‘it looks like’ nearer to the area of ‘it is’ and involves that willing suspension of disbelief so essential to the imaginative process. The metaphor that becomes an image has a fixing quality when we dare to use it, and it requires us to enter the subject of study with our whole personality and belief. Here the empathetic process must take place in which people are not just described as ‘working like ants’, for example, but where we get a sense of their sweat and the cracking pains of their muscles. Similarly in dynamic imagination this is the stage where the theorist must start to believe in his theory a little in order to test it out:  ‘So, now let’s imagine HitIer didn’t intend to go to war, how would it all look then?’

The fourth step, into symbol, is the hardest yet and in that it crowns the process we might reserve it as an unachievable peak. This is a matter of judgement, but there have been many occasions in classrooms when I have seen it quietly but perfectly competently achieved. The level of symbol in this formulation is the level where one hunts out the words and phrases (following the pictorial and comparative pattern enunciated above) which will give newness to old material – succinctly it is the putting of old wine into new bottles, a thing the historian constantly attempts. Thus all historians of the period knew the old facts and interpretations of Thomas Becket, and felt that they could not be surprised when Professor Knowles gave his Raleigh Lecture. He didn’t tell them anything new, any fact they didn’t know, but by the stresses he placed on certain elements, by the arrangement he made, they saw afresh the man Becket, and said ‘How true it seems – I never really thought of it that way, yet it rings true to my way of thinking as well’. For Knowles took the blushing of Becket and made it significant, made it a symbol of the man – the man who lacked control, who stammered, grew angry, loved, was impetuous – and flushed with pleasure. Thus the little was made big; because it showed and explained, the symbol held.

So far imagination has been treated as an entity, a type of behaviour that may be viewed separately. This has been for purposes of analysis only, for it is obvious that there is no state of mind which may be defined as ‘just imagining’ nor is there any classification of mental activities wherein we may apportion exactly some parts to imagination and others to logic. Thinking is an intermixed process, and when we try to reduce it to tabular arrangement we are in danger of over-simplification.

It is clear that there are a number of elements that go to make up ‘historical thinking’: we need knowledge of historical facts and a store of experience about human behaviour from which to draw when we are trying to understand those facts; we need a number of skills of organisation and deduction; and of course we need imagination. It may be objected that the knowledge of facts and experience is merely ‘mental baggage’ which shouldn’t be accorded a place in a study of mental processes, but the having of these things is inextricably bound up in the desire to gain more, and the ability to make use of the materials themselves. Of course all this depends absolutely upon the motivating power, the will to do History (which we can most conveniently call curiosity); without this, the ghost in the machine, nothing can work.

Wherever we look at the use of facts, experience and skills we find them not only bound up in one another, but also reliant upon imagination in some way. Without prior knowledge, for example, speculation cannot begin, but it is the speculation that drives us to search for more, and it is the speculation that uses the knowledge, validates it for memory. The more knowledge we have, the more we soak ourselves in the period or topic, the nearer we are to getting the picture, but without the functioning of the imagination the picture will not come.

A similar interconnection may be established between experience and imagination: the person who lacks experience cannot compare, cannot ever find a name for what he sees. On the other hand the unimaginative person may be possessed of a wealth of experience which is never used: haven’t we all met the bore who has been round the world? The child with a very small amount of experience can still recognise anger, for example, by reference to his small store of experience, and can look for causes and results of that anger, if he has the imaginative capacity to do so.

In relation to the operation of skills (particularly the use of logic) imagination has also a vital role to play, and is totally intermixed in the process. One may operate the rules of deduction automatically at command, but if the activity is to be self-generating, the idea behind the deduction must appear first, to stimulate and guide the process.

Let us take one simple operation to stand as an example: we often ask learners of History to apply the test of plausibility to evidence; in doing so we require all four aspects of historical thinking. We need to know the facts, and almost certainly to find more; we need to draw on experience to say ‘Would I believe it, would they believe it?; we need a number of technical and logical tests (was it possible for this man at this time to have said such a thing?); and finally we need imagination to summon up the picture and to suggest and test the hypotheses for explanation.

Thus we must be very wary of considering the function of imagination in isolation; clearly it is both allowable and valuable for philosophers to attempt a separate definition, but if we are considering the working of imagination, when defined, we must see it as it is, but also as a part of the process. How, then, might we act as teachers, following this discussion of the issues? Only a tentative answer may be given at the moment, because this paper is concerning itself with principles, but it should be possible (if it has any validity) to translate those principles into action fairly readily.

First, teachers should recognise what they mean by imagination in historical learning (which may involve being aware of the two kinds), and encourage it by rewarding it. Once they have seen it in action they should be able to operate a simple scale, looking to the fourfold hierarchy established here as a guide. Quite certainly, few pupils will reach the fourth level, but it is still important to press most pupils to reach levels two or three when the occasion offers.

Secondly, teachers need to be clear that, although they may recognise and reward imagination separately, they must encourage it in all aspects of historical learning. Thus when the pupil is searching for information this must not be seen as merely a routine operation, but an area where imagination can operate as well. The pupil must ask some questions of the process: not just ‘What am I looking for?’ but also ‘What will I be surprised to find, and what will confirm present opinion?’ The formulation of questions which guide the process is a most important issue in determining its success.

One thing is very clear, at least: if we are to encourage imagination in every aspect of historical learning there will have to be a great deal of thinking, talking and discussing about what is happening, in process terms, and not just talk about the materials, the evidences themselves. One of the great lessons of the evaluation of the Schools’ Council Project History 13-16 has been that asking pupils to think and talk and debate about what they are up to when they are doing History is one of the key factors in developing historical learning. It is the consciousness with which we do things that counts in success; this is not to deny the validity of the intuitive steps the poet and the inventor takes – the most important things they know are that they are poets and inventors.

One Comment

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  1. Tony September 15, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    What a fascinating article, confirming much that I have believed in my teaching. Imaginative work is better when discussion and debate occurs and this is based on real knowledge. Early stage play develops this in children and like early unrestrained art this is so often knocked out of them by the confines we place on their free expression. Children need to say ‘lets pretend’ without ‘grown ups’ saying’ don’t be silly’ and killing off their creativity and imaginative ideas.

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