Maxine Greene: resisting one-dimensionality

Maxine Greene, the eminent American teacher, teacher educator and educational philosopher died last month aged 96. She is relatively little known in the UK and her passing doesn’t seem to have registered much in the British education media. It’s too early for a full assessment of the importance of her work but I think that anyone interested in education will get a lot from reading Greene. I think we will be doing so for some time and finding new meanings and new inspiration from what she has left us.

What I’ve read of Greene’s work is a delight. ‘The Dialectic of Freedom’ and ‘Releasing the Imagination’ are full of ideas while far from being academic philosophical texts. Greene repeatedly draws on her personal response to art and literature to offer insights into our common humanity and the constant tension between self and community. She often starts from a “cultural” experience and then gently and tentatively draws out some reflections on personal and collective learning.

I think this easy movement from the personal to the social and political and back again is what makes her work so compelling. Because she is not dogmatic and sees contingency, tension and change wherever she looks it’s the kind of writing you want to return over and over to test your own thinking again and again.

Maxine Greene worked in very practical ways at New York’s Columbia University Teachers College and Lincoln Centre Institute to enhance young people’s aesthetic learning. She believed that all children should have a wide range of opportunities for perceiving, noticing and being ‘wide-awake’ as an essential starting point to thinking about their condition in the world and being open to change; both personal and social.

“…one of the great powers associated with the arts is the power to challenge expectations, to break stereotypes, to change the ways in which persons apprehend the world.”

I first came across ‘The Dialectic of Freedom’ at a time when I was starting to think about education as being built on tension, challenge and difference – in other words as a dialectical social process and it was the title that caught my eye. The book is a revelation, full of fresh insights and juxtapositions drawing on a wide and eclectic range of influences: W.H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Scott Fitzgerald and Antonio Gramsci – and that’s leaving out all of H to Z.

In ‘Releasing the Imagination’, Greene argues passionately for the place of the arts, reading and writing in school and against a standards-driven agenda which appears to value them so little.

I love the way she builds a whole chapter from her reading of a brief passage from a Thomas Mann novel (‘Confessions of Felix Krull’) about the need to “see the world small”; to be aware of social and systemic change, as well as to “see the world big”; to adopt the perspective of individual participants. Greene uses this to make the case that teachers need to be able to move back and forth between considering education systems and policies in an unequal society (seeing the world small) and understanding the specific challenges faced by their individual students (seeing the world big).

“at least part of the challenge is to refuse artificial separations of the school from the surrounding environment, to refuse the decontextualizations that falsify so much.”

To make sense of our lives and our work, all of us need to see the world both small and big at the same time and to learn to translate between the social and the personal levels of our experience.

Maxine Greene shares with John Dewey a burning passion for education as a shared social endeavour, one which is vital for the creation of a democratic society and which only has meaning for us as individuals if we work at it collectively. She is as earnest and rigorous as Dewey but always brings a freshness and lightness of touch which welcomes us into dialogue.

“What I have been calling the common…has to be continually brought into being…There is always a flux in the things and ideas of this world and there is always the need to catch the flux in networks of meaning. Whatever the networks, the focus should be on that which dislodges fixities, resists one-dimensionality and allows multiple personal voices to become articulated in a more and more vital dialogue.”(‘Releasing the Imagination’)

“The crucial problem…is the problem of challenging what is taken for granted and transmitted as taken-for-granted: ideas of hierarchy, of deserved deficits, of delayed gratification and of mechanical time schemes in tension with inner time.” (‘Landscapes of Learning’)

 There are excellent personal tributes by Paul Thomas and Bill Ayers and her own website is a good source.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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