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Flunking Retirement: A Chat with Maxine Greene

"I am what I am not yet," said Maxine Greene on a snowy morning last winter about her retirement. Her existential theory of retirement is the same as the one she has maintained for her theory of her career: she is always in pursuit of herself.

Greene's rigorous retirement schedule includes being philosopher-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute of the Arts in Education and the founder and director of Teachers College's Center for Social Imagination, the Arts and Education. She is the William F. Russell Professor Emeritus in the Foundations of Education and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College. Greene also hosts salons in her home and is asked to speak all over the country.

Maxine Green Collage

However, this schedule is nothing new for Greene. She was the editor of the Teachers College Record, is a past president of the Philosophy of Education Society, the American Educational Studies Association, and the American Educational Research Association. She has written more than one hundred chapters in various educational collections in the domains of art, curriculum, literature and social philosophy. She is the author of six books: Teacher as Stranger, The Public School and the Private Vision, Existential Encounters for Teachers, Landscapes of Learning, The Dialectic of Freedom, and Releasing the Imagination. Also, this spring a collection of Greene's lectures called Variations on the Blue Guitar will be published by TC Press.

She also wore the hats of both mother and doctoral candidate while her children were growing up. Among her most vivid memories of her initial studies for her doctoral degree thesis is "one of propping up a huge book on eighteenth-century philosophy while feeding [her son] Tiny Tim from a bottle."
Greene laughed when she said that she got her doctorate at New York University almost "by accident." While her daughter, Linda, was in elementary school, Greene decided to go back to school herself. She wasn't sure what she wanted to take, but she did know that the classes had to meet between 10 a.m and 2 p.m., the hours her daughter was at school.

Fortunately, there was a class in philosophy and the history of education at New York University that met at the appropriate times. Her three professors were Adolphe Meyer, Theodore Bramheld and George Axtelle.
"I was plunged into what now seems like a far-ranging, pragmatically oriented history of ideas with educational concepts vaguely fixed at the center," she said. "I had never thought of myself as a teacher or writer in education; but all this fascinated me, and I managed to do well."

During her studies, Greene had her second child, Tim, and she remembers having to leave a philosophy seminar "with a careful explanation that the babysitter was leaving-and seeing the aged and diginified William Heard Kilpatrick get up as well, calling, 'Take me with you.'"

Greene has been making history ever since and continues to do so. At last year's Founders Day, she urged her listeners that the "College still carries with it memories that should not be thrust aside: the voices of protest in the 1960s, asking for recognition and attentiveness to those who have been slighted."
"And perhaps, with the 1960s in mind," she continued, "we can recommit ourselves to opening situations in which people can make their own choices as they come together, situations in which they can make themselves heard as they move to bring about a new community and so to recreate themselves."
Recently she was asked to attend a reception when Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, walked in to do the reading there. He looked at Greene and said, "Maxine Greene. You were my first professor at NYU when I came to this country."

Angela's Ashes represents her theories because her teachings are based on "reader perception theory." This means that the reading is "participatory and you create it as meaningful-you don't find the meaning."


Many people think that this book is an autobiography that truly represents Limerick, Ireland. Greene said that it isn't. "It's as much of a shaped work of art as Walden is. I always get my students all riled up that Walden is not a journal. It's a shaped work of art."

Greene is constantly recreating herself with further reading, lecturing and new workshops. She has a long list of activities and readings to maintain her failing grade in retirement. "I have another way of flunking," said Greene. "It's what I call a 'salon' at my house once a month."

At one salon, she hosted two poets, who discussed the process and product of making poetry with a group of teachers. "Sometimes I get 40 teachers sitting on the rug with sandwiches and coffee." Greene enjoys getting the artists and teachers together because the teachers get the chance "to talk differently than they do in schools."

With her speeches that are peppered with literary allusions, Greene leads her listeners on a fantastic journey through her world, the worlds of famous authors and eventually back into the listener's own realm as he or she applies it to life. With a chuckle, Greene remembered a friend who said that trying to place her allusions is like "trying to pick hubcaps off the Indianapolis speedway."

She explained that she loves the way these quotes and ideas can so succinctly describe her thoughts. "And I think that's true with all of us who love literature, for example the 'damp drizzly November in my soul' at the beginning of Moby Dick. I couldn't find a better description than that."

Coupled with her passion for literature, philosophy, and art, Greene's thought-provoking references to literature inspire and challenge her students to use their imaginations. They leave her classes with both answers and tantalizing questions.

"I really believe in the cause of teaching kids, that what you have to give them is that 'not yet feeling,' of 'being on the way' and that the question is still not answered. I want students to love the question and the wonder and mystery of it," said Greene.

She referred to the story, "The Maypole of Merrymount" by Nathanial Hawthorne. She asks her students to "read it as a work of art. Just engage with it, without thinking what this has got to do with education. And then of course, in discussion, that story brings up questions a teacher should ask herself."

After digesting the literature, Greene's students come up with their own questions that relate both to literature and education. They ask questions like "What right do I have to keep a child from dancing around a maypole?"
She said that reading literature in this way "releases questions that are much deeper than, 'What are the years of the first education act in Massachusetts?'"
Poetry often appears in her speeches, writings and workshops. Greene reminisced about how she met the poet Elizabeth Bishop while she was on a student trip to Greece.

"By then I'd read a lot of her poetry and was absolutely in awe," Greene said. Bishop related her vivid memories to Greene of John Dewey writing furiously when he stayed with Bishop while her house was being painted.
"I never saw her after we got back, and she died that October. But I always treasured those memories," said Greene.

When Greene went to Bishop's funeral, one of the publishers from Ferrar, Strauss and Giroux did her eulogy. She remembers how the publisher likened Bishop's death to seeing the play "La Boheme" with his little grandchild. When his granddaughter's mom asked if she liked the play, she said, "We were all having such a good time until Mimi died." The publisher felt the same way about Bishop.

Greene talked about a workshop that she has been doing for ten years called "Literature as Art" that she started because "for so many years the arts didn't include literature."

"What's so wonderful about it is that other artists can come in. One year we read a lot of Elizabeth Bishop. They focused on one part of the poems about 'falling off the churning world.'"

Greene continued, "I had a dancer friend who was also a teaching artist at Lincoln Center. She worked with me to get the teachers to create images out of that poem. It was wonderful because it sort of extended what the poem was."

She mentioned using the same dancer friend when she discussed Toni Morrison's Jazz. The teachers acted out scenes in the book and tried to figure out how they would walk or carry a baby in specific situations.
"It is very important to use your imagination and to have your physical self involved in poetry."

Greene believes that it is necessary to keep teachers learning and communicating what they learn to students.

She refers to a lecture by Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum and the curator of the Egyptian show there. "They were talking about the five years spent in unearthing those absolutely marvelous things. And all that wasn't discovered, yet."

"The way he was talking," Greene added, "how they worked and how they investigated, makes scholarship a delight-an absolute wonderful thing. I love teachers to realize that-the glory of scholarship."

"Some musicians, like Isaac Stern, can do that, too," said Greene. "The idea of saying, 'I haven't mastered that yet,' is wonderful."

Greene is constantly flunking her retirement with flying colors by giving lectures, workshops and speeches around the country. Her Conference last April at TC was called "The Ambiguities of Freedom" and her next conference will deal with the city and the lost landscape for city children and immigrant children from rural places who are adjusting to the lack of nature in urban living.

"You are always striving for completion, for a kind of wholeness, that, if ever you achieved it, you'd really be dead," said Greene. "But a lot of it is to say that I absolutely couldn't live if I didn't think there were so many things I hadn't done, so many books I haven't read, so many papers I hadn't written, or so many risks I hadn't taken."

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