Sunday, November 24, 2019

Imagination, STEM and Reading Lolita in Tehran

Azar Nafisi, author of the international bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, explains that the title of her book came from her diary in which she kept track of activities that were no longer allowed in post-revolutionary Iran, but which people engaged in as a form of resistance. One of those activities was reading Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel, Lolita, about a middle-aged professor of literature who finds himself sexually pursuing a 12-year-old girl—a tale that is not exactly consistent with Islamic revolutionary clerical sensibilities.

Nafisi spoke recently to a small gathering I attended at the home of a friend about her life, her writings and her fears for American democracy. She shared her concerns that warning signs are all around signaling the decline of democratic life in her adopted country. She did so in part by invoking a recurrent theme in the academic world to which she belongs. That world contains two cultures which seem forever split, the sciences and the humanities.

The craze over so-called STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—in education policy and practice has devalued the development of individual imagination which Nafisi regards as the cornerstone of an educated mind. Instead, cultivation of the imagination is replaced with the notion of a "race" against the Chinese and other commercial rivals to dominate world markets with new, domestically developed technologies.

No thought is given to whether those technologies will enhance our individual lives. More likely, those technologies—the cellphone was much on her mind—are designed to do our imagining for us. You might say that the STEM crowd is substituting their imagination for ours. (Here and below I mix in my own reactions to Nafisi's presentation.)

The problem with that is two-fold: First, the STEM imagination is profoundly impoverished. It speaks only of that which is part of the utterly now. History is an irrelevant burden. Literature is something to be turned into an E-book and sold for 99 cents. Art is something people do with their spare time, either by creating it or merely looking at it. Philosophy is of interest only if it can be joined with the word "business." Religion is for Sundays or for another day as culturally appropriate. STEM has become not a search for the truth, but merely an extension of the search for profit.

Which is why what are called the humanities seem like indigent orphans in the college curriculum. Nafisi has heard the story over and over again. Students choose such and such a major because it will allow them "to make money." I would offer that a mind thus focused is so impoverished that no amount of money will make up for its poverty.

The second problem with the STEM approach to life is that it lacks empathy. In the STEM imagination the world is something to be acted upon, to be controlled and channeled for the purpose of increased power, wealth and comfort.

Of course, the STEM imagination believes that it means to do only good for the world and its citizens. But that narrow imagination lacks the cultural understanding required to evaluate such a claim. The STEM imagination does not place itself "in" culture, but above it and acting on it. In short, it lacks empathy. This was a prime theme in Nafisi's talk. Without empathy we will drift ever closer to the shores of totalitarianism. That totalitarianism might very well come in the form of a technological nightmare promoted by the elites, military, governmental and corporate, who tell us that we must beat the Chinese in a race to technological superiority.

I'm imagining that it's a race to dominate that latest iteration of capitalism called "surveillance capitalism."

So, where does that put us in America? After the presentation I talked briefly with a philosophy professor. She had grown up in mainland China and powerfully identified with Nafisi's emphasis on free expression and a liberated imagination. The professor said something that struck my American ears as both curious and cautionary. She said that Americans don't appreciate what little freedom they have left. She has apparently been here long enough to see those freedoms fading away.

So, how does one revive our individual imaginative powers and why is that important? The individual imagination is a way to suspend the "utterly now" mentioned above. It allows one to see what might be possible beyond what is right before us—either physical settings, for example, the urban landscape with all its assumptions about humanity made into solid objects or the world of ideas as presented in the news media and modern entertainment.

Literature, philosophy, history and art are raw materials for imagination because they give us access to other times, other minds, other values and other aspirations than our own or those of own era.

The STEM imagination—like Dr. Pangloss, a character in Voltaire's novel Candide—is trying to tell us that we live in the best of all possible worlds and that that world is getting better and better. It seems that to find the truth offered by the STEM imagination, we need only to suspend our judgement and leave our doubt behind so that we can join in the celebration of this unbounded future.

But then most STEM graduates wouldn't even know what I'm referring to when I cite the novel Candide—which is precisely my point. To say this is not mere snobbishness. Rather, I am pointing out that it would constitute an expansion of the imagination just to find out who Dr. Pangloss is. And, it could be a potential act of resistance to apply any understanding obtained from that discovery. With this new understanding someone could conceivably begin to question the perilous trajectory that the STEM crowd would lock us all into if we let the limits of their imagination become our own.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at

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