Thomas Friedman’s piece in last Friday’s (4/27) New York Times, “China Needs an Einstein. So Do We,” cites Einstein’s claim that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” One of Friedman’s points is that unless the U.S. does a better job of stimulating the imagination of its young mathematicians and scientists, it will inevitably begin to lose its competitive edge. In response, Emilie Parmlind, a high-school sophomore, wrote of how often learning simply becomes “a thoughtless process with rote memorization.”
This all reminded me of a passage from an essay by Alfred North Whitehead, “Universities and Their Function,” written in 1927. It’s good enough to quote at length:
“The justification for a university is that it preserves the connexion between knowledge and the zest for life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least, this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energizing as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes.
Thus the proper function of a university is the imaginative acquisition of knowledge…. A university is imaginative or it is nothing—at least nothing useful.
Imagination is a contagious disease. It cannot be measured by the yard, or weighed by the pound, and then delivered to the students by members of the faculty. It can only be communicated by a faculty whose members themselves wear their learning with imagination. In saying this, I am only repeating one of the oldest of observations. More than two thousand years ago the ancients symbolised learning by a torch passing from hand to hand down the generations. That lighted torch is the imagination of which I speak. The whole art in the organisation of a university is the provision of a faculty whose learning is lighted up with imagination. This is the problem of problems in university education; and unless we are careful the recent vast extension of universities in number of students and in variety of activities…will fail in producing its proper results, by the mishandling of this problem."
Whitehead’s slightly old-fashioned way of expressing himself shouldn’t blind us to the relevance of his ideas to our own times. How many university courses or faculty could pass the test of stimulating students' imagination in the ways Whitehead suggests they should? Not many, I suspect.