A Few Thoughts on the Passing of Maxine Greene

If you missed the news that Maxine Greene, reigning philosopher of Teachers College at Columbia, died at the age of 96 last week, I do not blame you.  However, if you are a teacher or have been a student at any time in the past 50 years, the odds are very good that you have been influenced by her work.  I think it is safe to say that future generations of teachers and scholars of education will regard Dr. Greene’s work in the same way they regard John Dewey; many, myself included, already do.  In an age when technocratic forces seem more and more in control of our public discourse, a rediscovery of Maxine Greene’s focus on aesthetics seems more vital than ever.

I did not discover Dr. Greene’s work until I was in graduate school, but I could recognize its echoes in what had mattered most in my own education and teaching up to that point.  In an interesting way, reading her work after having been a student through the college level and having been a teacher was like discovering someone who had always been immensely important to you but who you had, paradoxically, never met yet.  It is certainly empowering to discover a voice that has been articulating for decades many of the ideas you hold dear, and to discover that it is very likely that the very teachers who encouraged you to explore those ideas were probably influenced themselves by the same voice.

Dr. Greene explored the power of “aesthetic education” throughout her career as central in the picture of education, not as some extra to be provided on the fringes of learning and only if the budget allows for it.  From her 1977 essay, “Toward Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education”:

I believe this may be said, in essence, about all the arts. Liberating those who come attentively to them, they permit confrontations with the world as individuals are conscious of it, personally conscious, apart from “the Crowd.” I would want to see one or another art form taught in all pedagogical contexts, because of the way in which aesthetic experiences provide a ground for the questioning that launches sense-making and the understanding of what it is to exist in a world. If the arts are given such a central place, and if the disciplines that compose the humanities are at the core of the curriculum, all kinds of reaching out are likely. The situated person, conscious of his or her freedom, can move outwards to empirical study, analytic study, quantitative study of all kinds. Being grounded, he or she will be far less likely to confuse abstraction with concreteness, formalized and schematized reality with what is “real.” Made aware of the multiplicity of possible perspectives, made aware of incompleteness and of a human reality to be pursued, the individual may reach “a plane of consciousness of highest tension.” Difficulties will be created everywhere, and the arts and humanities will come into their own.

What is striking to me here is how unencumbered this explanation is from the tedious necessity imposed upon all avenues of study to justify itself for immediate practical aims.  The warrant is that arts provide individuals with genuine opportunities to explore, challenge, be challenged and to explore the nature of reality and meaning in existence.  How devoid of the language of “college and career readiness” is this framework, and yet who could possibly be MORE “college and career ready” than a learner who has fully engaged in the “wide awakeness” that Dr. Greene speaks of in this essay?  It is almost as if the process of becoming a thinking, reflective and “awake” individual is not a process that can be tidily mapped into proficiencies.

In a 1978 essay, “Teaching: The Question of Personal Reality”, Dr. Greene observes about the problem of teachers who encounter the political and bureaucratic demands upon teaching:

The problem is that, confronted with structural and political pressures, many teachers (even effectual ones) cope by becoming merely efficient, by functioning compliantly—like Kafkaesque clerks. There are many who protect themselves by remaining basically uninvolved; there are many who are so bored, so lacking in expectancy, they no longer care. I doubt that many teachers deliberately choose to act as accomplices in a system they themselves understand to be inequitable; but feelings of powerlessness, coupled with indifference, may permit the so-called “hidden curriculum” to be communicated uncritically to students. Alienated teachers, out of touch with their own existential reality, may contribute to the distancing and even to the manipulating that presumably take place in many schools. This is because, estranged from themselves as they are, they may well treat whatever they imagine to be selfhood as a kind of commodity, a possession they carry within, impervious to organizational demand and impervious to control. Such people are not personally present to others or in the situations of their lives. They can, even without intending it, treat others as objects or things. This is because human beings who lack an awareness of their own personal reality (which is futuring, questing) cannot exist in a “we-relation” with other human beings.

She goes on to suggest that such teachers need to rediscover themselves and their stories as a vital part of their work:

Looking back, recapturing their stories, teachers can recover their own standpoints on the social world. Reminded of the importance of biographical situation and the ways in which it conditions perspective, they may be able to understand the provisional character of their knowing, of all knowing. They may come to see that, like other living beings, they could only discern profiles, aspects of the world. Making an effort to interpret the texts of their life stories, listening to others’ stories in whatever “web of relationships”29 they find themselves, they may be able to multiply the perspectives through which they look upon the realities of teaching; they may be able to choose themselves anew in the light of an expanded interest, an enriched sense of reality. Those who wished to become nurturant beings may (having entered new “provinces of meaning,”30 looked from different vantage points) come to see that nurturing too can only be undertaken within social situations, and that the social situation in the school must be seen in relation to other situations lived by the young. Those who chose themselves as keepers of the academic disciplines may come to realize that the perspectives made possible by the disciplines are meaningful when they illuminate the experience of the learner, when they enable him or her to order the materials of his/her own lived world. Those who focused primarily on the social process may come to see that existing individuals, each in his/her own “here” and own “now,” act in their intersubjectivity to bring the social reality into being, and that attention must be paid to the person in his/her uniqueness even as it is paid to the community. Seeing more, each one may be more likely to become “a network of relationships”31 and perhaps be more likely to act in his or her achieved freedom to cut loose from anchorage and choose anew.

It is striking how relevant this perspective is today in 2014 as education policy has placed layer after layer of technical rationality upon teachers and seeks to hold them accountable to poor markers of their own effectiveness and influence upon learners.  Today, teachers are more in need than ever of ways to keep their focus upon the real and authentic nature of their work, and I am struck by how timely Dr. Greene’s observations are for teachers in 2014.  In danger of becoming “Kafkaesque clerks”, teachers need to rediscover their own stories and thus rediscover their purposes.

In a 1989 article in “Education and Culture” called “Reflection and Passion in Teaching”, Dr. Greene took on the current trends in education policy in the nation (trends that today have yielded us the Common Core State Standards, PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing consortia, value added measures of teacher effectiveness and labeling all children as either proficient or not proficient):

I am concerned, certainly, about competent practice and about what Schon calls “reflection-in-action” as an alternative to technological rationality. But I need to say that I am concerned about something in addition to competent action, important as that is for us to define and understand. We ought to talk more readily about what that practice is for about the purposes we define for ourselves at this peculiar moment of our history.

These words ring especially importantly today:

For educators, this is not a narrowly partisan position, I would insist, because teaching, as many have viewed the activity, is an undertaking oriented to empowering persons to become different, to think critically and creatively, to pursue meanings, to make increasing sense of their actually lived worlds. Wholly unlike “selling” or drilling or training, teaching is oriented to provoking persons to care about what they are coming to understand, to attend to their situations with solicitude, to be mindful, to be concerned, to be fully present and alive. Democratic education, certainly, involves provoking persons to get up from their seats, not to come to Christ or to be magically cured, but to say something in their own voices, against their own biographies and in terms of what they cherish in their shared lives, what they authentically hold dear. It involves getting them to leave their assigned places in the crowds and even in the marches, and to come together freely in their plurality. It means creating an “in-between” among them, a space where they can continue appearing as authentic individuals, each with a distinctive perspective on what they have come to hold in common, a space where something new can find expression and be explored and elaborated on, where it can grow. It is when people become challengers, when they take initiatives, that they begin to create the kinds of spaces where dialogue can take place and freedom can appear. And it is then, and probably only then, that people begin thinking about working together to bring into being a better, fairer, more humane state of things.

Dr. Greene not only challenged technical rationality as a basis for teaching and learning, she also challenged what she saw as insufficiently alternative view of reflective practice proposed by Donald Schon:

If it is indeed the case that, in a period like this, we ought to be making particular efforts to provoke students to think and speak for themselves, the approach to teaching outlined (but not endorsed) by Schon is entirely antithetical to the kind of practice we ought to be considering. For one thing, it is extraordinarily difficult to justify any knowledge as “privileged,” now that we know as much as we do about the diverse approaches even within the various specialties, and now that so many recognize the importance of the kind of perspectival and interpretative knowing of which Eco’s blind monk was so afraid. Moreover, many professionals now realize that their practice is almost always situation-specific. To depend upon generalized formulas and quantitative measures, to limit our concern to student success and failure in the assimilation of curriculum materials and the mastery of skills, is (more often than not) to distance the particularities of classroom life. It is to act as if the classroom were indeed an “object-in-general,” not an unstable, unpredictable human situation identical to no other in the world.

Dr. Greene’s vision was much more compelling and goes far beyond offering an alternative perspective to technical rationality:

My adversary point in this moment of “reform” concerns the significance of empowering diverse individuals to think, to be mindful, to make sense, and to reach beyond. I am not suggesting that we set aside subject matters or the disciplines, which obviously provide perspectives, modes of ordering and symbolizing and articulating experience. Nor am I arguing against the kind of professional education that introduces teachers-to-be to the human sciences, the natural sciences, the arts and humanities, and the technical literacy that can inform situations of practice as well…This is quite different from the application of technical or scientific constructs to fluid situations where they frequently do not apply; it is quite different from the application of conclusions from research external to the actual concerns, the unease of teachers and students immediately involved. I am not sure but that one of the unwanted consequences of technical rationality and a skills orientation has been the desire for the folding screen, the submission to kitsch, or the hidden fear. But if we are the kinds of educators who want to provoke, to motivate persons to move and become challengers, I believe we have to reconceive.

And to stir ourselves, to disturb, to transform. An emotion, a passion can be a transformation of the world. It can break through the fixities; it can open to the power of possibility. It may even render practice more reflective. We need to open spaces for this in education at this time in history, to renew as we reform


We are, as then, in a moment where such visions of teaching and learning and the very purposes for why we have pursued them over a 200 year history of common schooling are vitally important.  Education lost Maxine Greene last week, but her writings will continue to speak about what really matters and to what those who want to improve our schools should truly pay attention.  There is much more to this work than can be captured in a standards document or in a standardized examination or in a teacher effectiveness score derived from those exams, but those are the matters that have dominated our conversation about schools for far too long.  It is past time to consider what it means to “stir ourselves, to disturb, to transform”.






1 Comment

Filed under politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching

One response to “A Few Thoughts on the Passing of Maxine Greene

  1. Pingback: What Does It Really Take To Evaluate a Teacher Preparation Program? | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

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