C.S. Lewis once wrote “Reason is the natural organ of truth but imagination is the organ of understanding.” Although I have no proof of this, I like to think that Lewis was building from something that one of his heroes, G.K. Chesterton had written in his book, Twelve Types. In one of the miniature biographies, Chesterton retold the biblical story of Nehemiah, the king of Judea who rebuilt Jerusalem. The Bible said that Nehemiah rebuilt the walls with a sword in one hand a trowel in the other. Chesterton used this imagery to talk about truth and the imagination. To Chesterton, truth was the sword; it was very useful in cutting down an opponent but it was not the best tool for building anything. The trowel, on the other hand, was the tool needed for building and it was the trowel that represented the imagination.
What Lewis and Chesterton were both saying was that imagination is necessary for someone to understand a truth. How many times have you remembered a story or a movie longer and in greater detail than a rather dry book? That is one reason why some of the greatest historians were story-tellers; they not only knew history, not only analyzed history but were able to see the story that the people and their actions wove. That was why Rudyard Kipling said that if history was taught as stories, there would be no need for historians since everyone would learn it and remember it.
This is not to say that truth is unimportant. The imagination, in fact, must be kept in check by the truth and its natural organ, reason, or else it will run wild, dragging us behind with it with less than stellar results. Reason and Imagination, instead, have to work together. Reason is like the miner who digs and finds the nuggets of the Truth. Reason, then, gives those nuggets of Truths to the Imagination who is like a craftsman. Like any good craftsman, Imagination takes the raw material and does not change its substance—what it is—but only changes its outward appearance, like a goldsmith takes raw gold and makes a ring or a jeweler takes a diamond and turns it into a girl’s best friend.
The problem today is that while Reason and the Imagination are both given short shrift today, of the two of them, Imagination is the more neglected. How many times have we heard that we need to reintroduce reason back into our public discourses, that we need to use our reason to follow the facts, regardless of where they lead us and how we personally feel about the destination? I’ve said the same thing—or a variation of it—myself. But without the Imagination the Truth is cold and impersonal. People, usually, will not treasure or cherish a mathematical equation, regardless of how true it is.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why our understanding and love of America and the Revolution and American history in general have decreased. Granted, American history has other problems as well. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2015, revealed in their annual report card that only 12% of American high school students, could be considered “proficient” in American history. Part of the reason is that schools no longer teach the basics of American history. Karol Markowicz, a writer at the New York Post, in 2017, told her readers that her daughter—who, at the time was a first grader, in one of New York City’s best public schools, had never heard of George Washington outside of the lyrics to Hamilton. Part of the reason for this ignorance, Markowicz said, was that state tests emphasize English and Math. School districts are granted money based on how well students do one these tests. If a certain topic is not covered in the tests that decide the amount of money a particular district will receive, the school will not spend time in teaching it. Another reason Markowicz mentioned is that teachers feel that they are treading on thin ice when teaching history, particularly in a society where certain segments demand the removal of statues of Jefferson and Washington because they are no longer “appropriate.” When Huckleberry Finn requires trigger warnings before students read it, it’s perfectly logical for teachers to be nervous.
But another reason, I believe, is that history has become too analytical. Michael Conway, in The Atlantic, argued in 2015 that history taught in school should be analytical above all else, partially because it should be taught through historiography so that not one single version of history would be made the dominant one (history being, in part, a never ending argument). And he is right, to a point. But if the analytical—reason—is emphasized too much, then the Imagination will be left to die and some truths may be left out of the telling.
Take the example of the George Washington and the cherry tree. It is fairly certain that there was never a cherry tree that George Washington cut down as a boy; it does not make much sense that a boy Washington would even be given an ax as a president seeing as his family owned a plantation. The story first appeared in Mason Locke “Parson” Weems’s biography of Washington, the first biography of Washington which was written immediately after the latter’s death. Tellingly, the story about the cherry tree was not in the book until the fifth edition, published in 1806. From there, it spread as a children’s story when Presbyterian minister and professor, William McGuffy, included it in his McGuffy Reader, a reading textbook for children in 1836.
Obviously, the story about the cherry tree is what we would today call a myth; it never happened and what was learned by school children in the 19th century is now entirely ignored by teachers and students of the 21st century—unless it is to talk about Weems and his hagiography. And, in a sense, it makes sense to do that; history is about facts, after all. But the story was never meant to be a fact. Instead, Weems and McGuffy meant the story to illustrate Washington’s private virtue. That Washington was a man of honesty, integrity, and strength is an historical fact; the story of the cherry tree was meant to illustrate that fact, to take those virtues and to incarnate them so that people would be able to imitate an action, rather than memorize a recollection written in a diary or a letter.
Other myths of the Founding are the same: the midnight ride of Raul Revere, Molly Pitcher, Betsy Ross, the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. None of these things actually happened, at least, not as they do in the popular imagination; these people didn’t exist, at least, not in the way they are usually portrayed. But they served a purpose. They gave us, as Americans, a story, a narrative that allowed us to see our past, to understand from whom we came. And, like Weems and McGuffy understood, they also served as examples of personal imitation. As I wrote in my last post, the Founders understood that a republican society could only exist if the people themselves were virtuous. The question became then: How could the people become and remain virtuous? One answer was by holding up men and women as role models, just as we do today. Washington’s honesty and Molly Pitcher’s courage and patriotism were then held up as lights to children, the next generation, to whom it fell to continue and preserve the American experiment.
Rather than banishing the stories and the Imagination, history should embrace it. Ironically, it might be that only by allowing the imaginative to exist side by side with the analytical, that history will become alive again. And if it becomes alive again, people will take notice again of it and will fall in love with it again.