Higher Education in a Digital Age: Imagination Matters

Some books just push me to write—Joseph Aoun’s (2017) book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence is one of those. It’s full of compelling arguments for educating the imagination.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know I’m an accomplice for imagination. The truth is, we still live an age when we have to justify talking about imagination in most contexts. It is desperately misunderstood. Talk of imagination in education continues to comfortably reside within the context of elementary school education—less comfortably discussed among highschool educators and for the most part missing, essentially, from discourse within higher education. Consider this post an additional argument—a call to action—for bringing imagination centrally into higher education pedagogy.

This post doesn’t offer a detailed description of Aoun’s book—I urge you to read it for yourself. Instead, I focus on core arguments in Aoun’s innovative educational model and add another layer (or language) to his discussion. I believe that Imaginative Education pedagogy supports his model for education in a digital age and offers a much-needed approach that can grow imagination as students learn content knowledge in any domain. IE offers a rich theory and diverse practical resources that support growing imagination as we teach content in all higher education contexts. Every lesson, lecture or lab offers an opportunity to engage and grow student imagination in higher education.

Humanics: Aoun’s Model for a Robot-Proof Education

…a robot-proof education nurtures our unique capacities as human beings. And the most elevated of all human capacities is the one that may be the most elusive and difficult to define and therefore the trickiest to teach. This is humanity’s unique talent for creativity (2017, p. 48)

Aoun proposes a model for learning in higher education called “humanics”. The goal of Humanics is, in large part, to grow imagination, and to develop creativity; the goal is to ensure all graduates are flexible creators. This, in Aoun’s view, is how we robot-proof education: we equip humans to do what computers can’t do. Aoun describes the content of Humanics in terms of three new “literacies”—data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy. Rather than being knowledge-driven, however, Aoun’s model is driven by developing what he calls “cognitive capacities”—mindsets or higher-order ways of thinking that include systems thinking, entrepreneurship, cultural agility, and critical thinking. Moreover, Humanics must be part of a differently structured university experience that includes extensive experiential learning opportunities, university-community-corporation partnerships, and flexible multi-university networks.

Why Imagination: Aoun

Aoun asks: What are human beings singularly good at?  The answer: envisioning the possible.

We have evolved to imagine. We have evolved to be creative. Other animals apply intelligence to solving problems: crows fashion tools to pluck bugs out of wood, and sea otters wield rocks to crack clamshells. But only humans are able to create imaginary stories, invent works of art, and construct carefully reasoned theories explaining perceived reality. Only human beings can look at the moon and see a goddess or step on it [and] say we are taking a leap for all mankind. Creativity combined with mental flexibility has made us unique—and the most successful species on the planet. (p. 21)

Human beings have incredible mental flexibility. We live and thrive in communities. We imagine ideas, stories and images that unite us and help us evolve within communities. This imaginative capacity to envision the possible, this generative feature of mind that brings together ideas in novel combinations and, thus, enables us to create is what sets us apart from other animals and from the machines we develop. So, we need to educate imagination and creativity in schools; we need to maximize our mental flexibility. Unfortunately, schools (at all levels) are not particularly good at educating imagination. Rather, Aoun argues, schools reinforce an unbalanced view of human intelligence that makes us vulnerable in an age of automation:

“the view that mastery of facts and knowledge is what makes a person “smart” or “prepared” is a lopsided view of human intelligence—and never more so than in the present moment, when robots, advanced machines and AI are increasingly able  to master facts and knowledge as effectively as the “smartest” of us” (pp. 51-52)

Enter: Imaginative Education. Dr. Kieran Egan’s work offers all educators a way to grow learners’ imaginations. For Egan, an educated mind is one with developed sets of cognitive tools for making sense of the world and envisioning the possible.

Why Imagination: Egan

Readers familiar with imaginED will know that I write a lot about the power of cognitive tools for enriching human understanding and development—and, specifically for growing the imagination of learners of all ages. Elsewhere, I have described extensively how we can routinely and effectively develop imagination in K-12 education. (Start with the Tips for Imaginative Educators series). This post focuses on higher education and the need to teach specific content knowledge.

Aoun rightfully points out that “most colleges’ curricula and pedagogy still place inordinate weight on the transfer of info into students’ minds” (p. 52). This is a problem if the teaching of that content doesn’t engage and grow the imagination. It can. We can’t wait to engage imagination after that learning is done. Instead, we need to grow imagination in the teaching of the necessary content.  Lessons, lectures and labs in higher education need to engage and grow imagination. Cognitive tools of Imaginative Education can do this. I believe Dr. Kieran Egan’s pedagogy can provide the needed imagination-growing focus within Aoun’s vision.


Imaginative Education: Egan’s Vision for Educating the Mind

Imaginative Education, or IE, is a view of education that argues education must maximize learners’ capacity to envision the possible. Rather than letting particular knowledge acquisition drive our educational decisions, we must let the growth of imagination through the use and development of learners’ cognitive tools be the focus of education. Our aim? To graduate students with the most flexible and sophisticated use of the imagination, the most flexible and sophisticated ability to envision the possible and the suitable depth of knowledge to do so.  (Knowledge acquisition is, of course, incredibly important, but not the driver of pedagogical decisions.  We need knowledge to imagine with—but when teaching, an Engineering professor, for example, would be wise to think about how to tap into the imaginative/emotional life of the learner, engage a cognitive tool and grow that tool by tying it up with the particular subject matter.)

Egan’s socio-cultural theory acknowledges the powerful role imagination and emotional engagement has always played in human learning.  The cognitive tools human beings have invented to make sense of their worlds—the stories, vivid images, mysteries and puzzles, the wonder, the patterns—these are the tools that engage and develop the imagination. The unique feature of the human mind that—as Aoun notes above—enable us to evolve within complex social networks.

This is a handout that provides a summary of some of these cognitive tools for use in Higher Education:

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Common Ground: Possibilities

Both Egan and Aoun argue that the “best educated” people moving forward (and now) are those who possess the highest capacities for imaginative and creative activity. Similarly, they both want us to consider how best to educate students so that they have the mental flexibility and capacity to create new knowledge, to flexibly understand current knowledge and envision what is not yet. Both are urging us to consider how to increase  learners’ abilities to engage story:

 As the boundaries between technology and the humanities dissolve, even the engineer needs to consider human interfaces, and even the programmer must learn to be a storyteller.” (Aoun, 2017, p. 60)

Educating people to be storytellers all the way through education needs to happen by example. Teaching must be understood as storytelling. That is, teaching should be made to feel and be experienced like engaging stories. This is the distinctive feature of IE. To educate storytellers is to maximize learners’ abilities to engage the tools that wake up the imagination in relation to any subject area. Many of these tools are not activities we typically see associated with university learning. Enter: playfulness, curiosity, risk-taking—it’s a problem that we leave “play” and playfull learning to kids. (More on Play in Higher Education)

Aoun’s has a brilliant vision for a new direction for Higher Education. Egan’s scholarship offers tools that we can employ at all levels of education, to grow imagination as we teach particular knowledge, maximizing learning by bringing emotional engagement into the equation.

Want to talk more about the synergy between these ideas? Leave a comment with your name and contact information and CIRCE can host a video chat.


Aoun, J. E. (2017). Robot-proof: Higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.



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