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    A provost examines the world on campus and in higher ed.

High on Imagination
July 31, 2011 - 7:12pm

One of my favorite birthday gifts given to me this year was a membership to the High Line, and so a few days ago my kids and I went to visit there. What is the High Line? Before I answer that question, let me answer the question that should come first — what was the High Line? It was an elevated freight train structure including of course the tracks, and freight trains ran on this structure until the 1980s. And as a kid, riding in a car down or up the west side drive, I still remember the trains running. The High Line, and before that time, surface level tracks, were prominent parts of the west side of Manhattan corridor during the time that railroads were an indispensible mainstay of our transportation infrastructure. Those days are long gone, and even the rail facilities that continue to exist aren’t treated with the respect that this still important form of transportation should be accorded.

So what happens to the structure and the tracks when the need disappears? More than likely, in the name of progress, the raised tracks and the necessary elevated structure also disappear. And that was starting to happen here. But thanks to a group of individuals who had the imagination and the wherewithal to push for a park, the High Line now flourishes. We entered the High Line on 14th Street. My kids were not really sure what to expect, and the thought of an elevated park seemed strange to them. I also had wondered whether this was really a park or was it a gimmick. From the second we got on, and from the walk to Gansevoort Street and then from Gansevoort to 30th Street, we were enthralled. We walked, we sat, we looked at the sights including the buildings, the plantings, the art display, and the Hudson River; and we were all enthralled. The kids have already decided that we need to go back soon and take some of their friends along for the experience.

New York was fortunate that much of this structure was not torn down and that this park exists. But the greatest good fortune lies in the imagination of those individuals who pictured the High Line as what it could be rather than what it was.

The emphasis in much of education today is on testing. Test results carry great weight in evaluating a school district; test results carry great weight in determining where you will be able to go for higher education as well as graduate education. We are all familiar with school districts whose claim to fame is their test results and whose students help populate many of the best colleges and universities. But where does imagination play a role in this equation. We know it can make all the difference; we know that meaningful change often requires imagination and the ability to see things differently. I’m an economist. I think that economics is invaluable but I know that fostering imagination is enormously helped by a meaningful exposure to the arts. Music and art bring out the creativity and allow the mind to expand. In this era of constraints, when choices in education may become more limited, we have an obligation to support the arts and to encourage students at all levels to take arts courses. Test results do matter but test results without imagination lead to the same things being done in the same way. The arts are one meaningful way of expanding the possible. And for so many of the problems we face today, expanding the possible is the best hope we have for a better quality life for ourselves and the other inhabitants of our world.

 

 

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