Imagination, identification, and learning

We’re often told that we learn best from people ‘like us’, with whom we share a bond of identification. Along the fortified borders of identity work this is supposed to mean the big trouble categories like gender, race, and class.

I’m not going to dispute the premise, or even its vulgar applications. Clearly some women learn better from women, some working class kids learn better from teachers who share that background, and so on. Also, some white boys learn better from other white boys, which is where the liberal fantasies attached to the empirical observation run into trouble. Because we very much want white boys to learn from women and people of color, don’t we. And we also don’t want white boys to be the only ones who can see past the ends of their own noses. Nor, of course, do we want our Gen Ed business or engineering or nursing students to come out the other side of our classes still thinking of history, literature and philosophy as the wonky preserves of impenetrable weirdos.

We’ve got to learn more broadly, not less, and that means we need to construct our identifications more broadly, not less. I’m not saying anything Anthony Appiah didn’t already take for granted when he was 6. But he and I have led charmed lives that immediately enabled a more inclusive imagination about who and what is ‘like’ us enough to learn from. I was lucky to have Gerald Durrell, Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, and The Hobbit around when I was a kid. It never occurred to me you couldn’t learn from turtles, spiders, rabbits, and trees. Deliberation, patience, loyalty, and taking the long view, among other things.

I get that enabling a broader imaginative identification is more of a struggle for some folks. But still I’m fascinated that a culture busily churning out learning aids for children and imaginative entertainments peopled by plants and animals can also produce self-evident garbage about the identity-matching of teachers and students. Even that old bastard Kipling understood, in his hierarchical and racist way, that we can learn just fine from the Other. And I get that the discourses of identity and representation can be important leverage to open up spaces in education and society for people who are otherwise excluded. I get that there’s something existentially horrifying and materially disabling about a whole educational career that dramatizes the exclusion of people ‘like you’ from the positions of authority and status.

But that’s a devil’s bargain, a desperate shortcut. That ‘like you’ is a trap. The problem is not that ‘we’ are not represented in the world of learning. The problem is that we conceive ourselves too narrowly, and so we learn much less than we could, and should.

OK, so how does this cash out in my practice? Well, I can’t just come at my classes with exhortations to engage imaginatively with the Otherness of the past. They get plenty of scolding about their limitations; those just push them deeper inside their shells. And I’m certainly not going to do a little lecture in which I assure the black lesbian women that we’re more alike than they think. We are, but we’re not there yet. As always, imaginative identification has to be constructed, it can’t just be asserted by fiat.

A lot of what I do is just sidestep the whole issue of categorical identification. I don’t think it’s an issue, so I don’t make it one. I grant that the past is uninteresting (we have no ‘interests’ in it) to disable the usual defenses, then jump right in with intriguing material that’s obviously more complicated than that. Curiosity does the rest – it has to, unless you want to get into a mutually demeaning disciplinary regime of constant prodding and quizzing. But curiosity has to be enabled, which is where a classroom practice heavy in recursive questioning comes in. Every answer raises three more questions, and the mystery gets deeper the more of it we solve. This is not just process, it’s payoff, but there’s a big nut to crack here – our students have now been trained by several generations of positivistic educational assessment to think there needs to be a definite answer for an upcoming test. So here’s a place to talk about answers being more or less ‘robust’ rather than ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – but that’s another post.

So what’s the answer? I’m still finding out. But with some robustness I can say that anyone can be interested in anything by anybody as long as curiosity is engaged. And what engages curiosity is a kind of ignorance that’s readily fixed by finding out, plus an environment in which good questions are valued and good answers lead to more good questions.



  1. Ah, identification, a seductive concept, but risky to use too literally (like “experience”). I think that maybe one route to alert students to this, and make them self-aware of the phenomenon, is a concept of genre. In certain video games, we are encouraged to imagine ourselves as “the shooter.” We don’t read news stories this way. Sci-fi may encourage us to think of characters from other worlds as just like us, while certain kinds of political messages encourage us to fear our neighbors. The question is whether historical writing can engage readers in similar forms of identification and immersive exploration as video games and fantasy novels. This seems possible, though not commonplace. But I agree that the start of this is curiosity about the past, and some awareness of its nearness to/distance from the present.

  2. Another lap around the track: I’ve just finished (bedtime) reading Michael Tomasello’s ORIGINS OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION, the elaboration of a set of lectures he gave. It’s worth reading, and I’m putting the note here because this is what it’s worth reading in connection with. Chapter 3 is most relevant. Concepts like common ground get worked out, along with Grice’s idea of mutual intentions, and some other things. The main contrast in the whole book is what apes can and can’t do (his first order research) and what we can do; and that turns out to be much more illuminating than I would have thought. (It transpires that some of my students have been apes — and that explains a lot).

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