The role of art and imagination in a vibrant democracy

Dear Editor:

2019 marks the silver anniversary of my career as an educator. Wow, has it really been 25 years? I recall day one, as a substitute teacher at Hoboken’s Demarest Middle School, like it was yesterday. Charming Beaux-Arts building. Frank Sinatra went there. Ole Blue Eyes dropped out but, hey, that never held him back.

Fittingly, given the Sinatra connection, music played as I walked through the classroom door. In an act of magic serendipity, as band students rehearsed for “The Lion King,” the melody of Elton John’s “Circle of Life” greeted my entrance into the golden door of this noble profession.

I soon became one of the more popular subs on the Board of Ed payroll. “What’s your secret?” a befuddled administrator once asked me. Keep in mind this was the mid-1990s, and the Hoboken schools were considered more troubled, ghetto, or inner-city back then. When I looked puzzled at the question, she went on:

“You’re the only sub who actually comes back!”

Part of my secret is being enamored by the ideas of Martin Buber. Buber’s faith in the sacredness of human dialogue (he believed “all real living is meeting”) is fundamental to my teaching practice. Which means I show up as much to listen, as deeply as I can, to the stories, ideas, wonderings, and questions of my students as to share my own knowledge.

The result is the creation of authentic community, so vital to the health of a democracy. For it is only in such communities of trust that we can help people, in the words of Hannah Arendt, to “appear before one another the best they know how to be.” These days I nurture such liberating spaces not only in classrooms, but in an ongoing lecture tour; along with a nonprofit TV show I co-produce with my wife called Public Voice Salon.

So where does imagination come into play? The philosopher Maxine Greene, whose salons I used to attend, taught me that imagination—which we get from art encounters—gives human beings the capacity to “think of things as if they could be otherwise.” By “otherwise” she meant both a world that might be different—more just, loving, joyful, and peaceful—along with the growth of our unique personalities.

In speaking for myself, I can’t imagine being the person I am today without the writings of Shakespeare, Austen, and Dostoevsky, the films of Godard, Rohmer, and Woody Allen, and the songs of too many musical artists to mention. As for cinema, I have a particular fondness for a medium that my relative Blanche Walsh—a great forgotten actress—played a key role in elevating to a genuine art form.

Art, Herbert Marcuse said, “makes the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance.” That makes me think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, dancing and boldly speaking her truth to power. Let’s follow her wonderful example; even if we’re nervous and our voices shake.

Your reactions are welcome at

John Bredin