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Excerpt from:  “Liberal Education, Human Development, and Social Vision,” Journal of General Education XXXIV.2 (Summer, 1982):  143-58.


What does a liberal arts education accomplish? Specifically, it develops the ability to use certain powers independently; it tends to make a person autonomous as a human being. In the words of Northrop Frye, the ethical aim of education is “transvaluation, the ability to look at contemporary social values with the detachment of one who is able to compare them in some degree with the infinite vision of possibilities presented by culture. One who possesses such a standard is in a state of intellectual freedom. One who does not possess it is a creature of whatever social values get to him first: he has only the compulsions of habit, indoctrination, and prejudice.”


If Frye is right, then we may ask what powers permit the creation of this intellectual autonomy? Generally speaking, there are two overarching powers—that of criticism and that of the imagination upon which autonomy depends, and the development of which a liberal education addresses. The power of criticism (the ability to analyze, discuss, and expose the underlying structure of values, assumptions, and arguments) requires no special definition or defense here. Its value is one of the frequent themes in Western educational philosophy over the centuries. The power of imagination, however, is not generally discussed and the intimacy of its relation to criticism is not widely recognized.


The importance of imagination as the faculty of creating images in the mind and holding them there indefinitely is pointed out by Jacob Bronowski, who says that “the human gift is the gift of imagination—and that is not just a literary phrase. Nor is it just a literary gift; it is, I repeat, characteristically human. Almost everything that we do that is worth doing is done in the first place in the mind’s eye.” . . . . Much behavior may begin as merely physical—the drives of hunger, sex, and survival, for example—but it develops in the imagination. It is the mind’s pictures, not the body’s drives (which are blind and mechanical), that give rise to particular forms of conduct. It is clear, moreover, that every physical requirement, including even the drive for survival, has been overridden by persons whose imaginations have erected models of behavior sufficiently vivid to short-circuit the physical demands. Cases of self-sacrifice among soldiers in war and martyrs in religion are only two examples. In brief, imagination is the ability to hold models in the mind as a kind of psychic, or imaginative, space into which we constantly move. The path of our existence is always directed toward the fulfillment of imaginative possibilities. . . .


This power to construct images of what is not is the source of life’s richness, for the true richness of existence is that we lead not one life, but many, and that most of our lives are lived only in the imagination, not in the body.