Albert Einstein wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
In the early 1970’s, I joined my fellow Chicago educators in establishing a co-op school called Ujima for our children. The term ‘Ujima’ is a key principle of Kwanzaa, an African American celebration of our African heritage. Ujima embraces collective work and responsibility. A central tenet of our school is emphasizing to our students that their fellow students’ problems were their problems in the effort to solve them together. We felt that the Chicago school system was hostile to black urban youth. We believed that neither the curriculum nor the public schools’ crowded classrooms were adequate to prepare our children for their future.
Our school featured applied mathematics, entrepreneurship, world history, African and African American history. Our school’s classes were held at Northeastern Illinois University on the city’s Southside. Offering classes tailored to our students’ needs housed in a center for higher education had tremendous residual effect: it helped us produce and encourage young scholars and business minded youth with a global mindset. This was extremely important for black students who were often viewed by the larger world as either potential low skilled laborers on one end, or as teachers on the other. We broke the mould and provided them with a vision of themselves as owners of businesses and other entrepreneurial and worldly endeavors.
The students from Ujima went on to become exemplary professionals in science, medicine, business development – and some even thrived as social activists. It was important that our students developed a proud sense of self, rooted in recognition of the contributions made by their forefathers and foremothers to the world. That approach proved beneficial to not only their appreciation for the important role of black folk in national affairs and history, but in providing them with a measure of solace in just being young with a feeling that the world of opportunity lay before them. This is especially crucial to remember in our own day because, in my experience, black youth who are at risk and vulnerable to social distress typically mirror the psychological and social plight of children in refugee camps, or those in crisis across the world.
My experiences in the 1970s inform my views of the contemporary crisis in education that we face. More than ever we ned open-minded and experience based learning and intensive pedagogy. In the United States, most students are schooled to be mere “test takers” without many opportunities to become free-minded thinkers. The stress on the students as well as on the teachers is mammoth and crushing. I was shocked to discover that even at the most elite schools in the nation’s capital many students were not adequately taught civics and social studies. The United States Constitution, the sacred text for my nation’s citizenry, is no longer taught as a curricular requirement. When it is taught, it is treated in a superficial manner, in sharp contrast to an earlier period of our nation’s history when it was exhaustively examined. I believe that an uninformed student makes for an ill-informed citizen, and a voter who may be tragically ignorant of their rights and civil liberties.
The world’s many crises cannot be kept from its students. It is true that because of technology and advanced commerce the world has seemed to have shrunk, but such increased opportunities has exacerbated social and economic inequalities meaning that the world’s problems have only gotten larger. We need students who understand and appreciate the wonderful diversity of people in the world and their contributions to our lifestyle. If, for instance, we understood the vibrant religious traditions that nurture our spirits and feed our souls, we might cease our demonization of entire faith traditions and instead focus on the widely shared quest for divine communion and spiritual transcendence.
What I imagine for students in the 21st century are outdoor classrooms that encourage youth to have an Isaac Newton-like experience where they discover the gravity of their humanity beneath the trees of radical reflection. Like Newton, I imagine our children, the apple of our eyes, enjoying the opportunity to gaze, think and reflect on nature and mankind.