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Imagining Maxine Greene

Published: 6/1/2004


Maxine Greene

Maxine Greene

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It is hard to keep Maxine Greene from talking about things, especially the arts and education. "Whatever success I've had is through writing and talking a lot," said Greene, the William F. Russell Professor Emeritus in Foundations of Education and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Education. And, at 86, she shows no signs of stopping.

In recognition of the decades she has spent awakening the imaginations of her students, the Trustees of Teachers College recently created the Maxine Greene Chair for Distinguished Contributions to Education. The chair recognizes Greene's many noteworthy accomplishments in the fields of philosophy and education, social theory and the arts and aesthetics. It also honors the extraordinary contributions that she continues to make to Teachers College, as well as to her field. The Trustees created the chair as a new way to honor outstanding members of the faculty for their accomplishments as educators and researchers. The first professor to hold the chair will be Nancy Lesko, Professor of Education.

"Maxine Greene is a national treasure who has had a long and distinguished career at Teachers College. The Board wanted to show how deeply honored the College is that Maxine chose it as a place to make her career and to educate the world. She is a model to all of us of what it means to be a professor," said TC President Arthur Levine, who recently announced that Lesko received the chair.

When Lesko found out about the honor, she was stunned. "Frankly I cannot yet really comprehend being named the Maxine Greene Professor. Given Maxine's status as an icon, tireless leader and scholar, I can only feel inadequate," she said. "I do feel deeply honored by Maxine's respect for my work, and I am confident that this Chair will have a nourishing and invigorating effect on my scholarship as well."

"I am also grateful to the TC Trustees, President Arthur Levine, and Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs Darlyne Bailey for acting to honor Maxine Greene's long and distinguished association with Teachers College and for supporting my nomination as the inaugural professor," she added.

Lesko's academic interests include curriculum theory and history, gender issues in education and citizenship education in times of war. Recently, Lesko spent time in Kabul working with the Afghan Ministry of Education and UNICEF on textbook preparation and teacher education as part of the new TC Afghan Project.

"I don't have an arts-steeped background similar to Maxine, but my interests in curriculum, feminism, cultural studies and social change also lead me to focus on the importance of creative production in education," said Lesko. "That means that I do see imagination and the arts--from poetry to filmmaking, photography to drawing, and music to dance--as central cultural experiences and critical processes for students, teachers and scholars."

Greene's ideas resonate with Lesko. "Her philosophy of education acknowledges and investigates the tragic in human life, art, and what that means for education. I am similarly drawn to the tragic, to the ‘un-celebratable' moments and questions," said Lesko. "That means that I share Maxine's conscious attention to the political dimensions of social life and education and her attempts to describe and name the cultural fogs that silence and numb us."

Greene, using imagination and the arts, leads her students out of those cultural fogs by asking tough questions. She inquires about the purpose of the war in Iraq. She asks how we can teach students here while prisoners are being tortured there. She inquires about the pain of a third grader who gets left back because she didn't pass a test. But most of all, she wants to know why everyone is not asking themselves these questions.

"We should try to talk about the terrible impact of feeling powerless and apathetic. We want to accept it and not resist it, but it is exciting to find in yourself the dream of what might be possible even in a capitalist society," said Greene.

Bringing people together in a public space where they can meet as individuals is essential for making changes in society. "We need to combine the public space idea with growing and becoming an individual," said Greene. "Then create a version of this in the classroom to open kids to what is wrong in society and what could be fixed."

Though she was recently ill, Greene hasn't missed a beat. She recently participated in a TC panel discussion of the new book, Letters to the Next President: What We Can Do About the Real Crisis in Public Education. The panel, which included Michelle Fine of The Graduate Center at CUNY, Pedro Noguera of New York University and TC's Tom Sobol, discussed the book, public education, citizenship and the 2004 elections. Greene also hosts salons in her home that allow teachers to talk freely with writers and artists.

Involved in many spheres of the world of education, Greene founded and directed the Center for Social Imagination, the Arts and Education at Teachers College. She has been philosopher-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute of the Arts in Education for more than 25 years. She was the editor of the Teachers College Record, and has served as past president of the Philosophy of Education Society, the American Educational Studies Association, and the American Educational Research Association.

In addition, she has contributed more than 100 chapters to various educational collections in the domains of art, curriculum, literature and social philosophy. Greene also has written seven books, including Teacher as Stranger, Releasing the Imagination and most recently, Variations on a Blue Guitar.

"The arts are so important because they awaken people to pay attention, not just to the cherry trees, but to the recognition of alternative realities. Then, we are less likely to say, ‘this is just the way life is,'" said Greene. "If we enlist the arts and imagination in teaching, we allow students to take advantage of their lived experiences. We are not just teaching them in an abstract way. As John Dewey said in Democracy and Education, imagination is not just building castles in the air, it's a way to think of alternatives and break through the walls to see them."