Maxine Greene, TC's Great Philosopher, Dies at 96
Maxine Greene, the philosopher, author and professor emerita who was perhaps the most iconic and influential living figure associated with Teachers College, passed away on May 29th at the age of 96. Described by The New York Times as “one of the most important education philosophers of the past 50 years” and “an idol to thousands of educators,” Greene was regarded by many as the spiritual heir to John Dewey. Her work remains a touchstone for generations of TC faculty, alumni and students, as well as for scholars and artists around the world.
“With the passing of Maxine Greene, Teachers College has lost an extraordinary mind and spirit embodying all that is best and most essential about our mission and work,” said TC President Susan Fuhrman. “Maxine’s brilliant vision of art as a means to awaken each of us to how we respond to the world will endure as her greatest legacy. She will be tremendously missed and deeply mourned.”
The author of works such as The Dialectic of Freedom (Teachers College Press, 1988), Landscapes of Learning (Teachers College Press, 1978), The Public School and the Private Vision: A Search for America in Education and Literature (Random House, 1965, and New Press 2007), Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age (Wadsworth Publishing, 1973), and Variations on a Blue Guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute Lectures on Aesthetic Education (Teachers College Press, 2001), Greene is perhaps best known for her exhortation to “look at things as if they could be otherwise” and for her passion for the arts as a catalyst to “wide-awakeness.” She articulated the latter concept in response to Henry David Thoreau’s assertion that “the millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life.”
“I am suggesting that, for too many individuals in modern society, there is a feeling of being dominated and that feelings of powerlessness are almost inescapable,” Greene wrote in “Wide-Awakeness and the Moral Life,” an essay in Landscapes of Learning. “I am also suggesting that such feelings can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them, to interpret the experiences they are having day by day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life.”
In an essay in TC Today magazine in Fall 2010, Greene’s long-time friend Janet Miller, Professor of English Education, wrote that “The gift that Maxine Greene has offered and continues to confer on the field of education writ large is her passion for forging ways to ‘come together to act on the possibility of repair,’ a possibility that she herself so magnificently has envisioned, embodied and enacted.”
At her death, Greene was Teachers College’s William F. Russell Professor Emerita in the Foundations of Education, and was teaching courses through the College as recently as this spring. In past years, the salons she held in her apartment on Fifth Avenue, near the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were legendary.
Since 1976, Greene had also served as Philosopher-in-Residence of the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education (LCI). In 2004, the Teachers College Trustees created the Maxine Greene Chair for Distinguished Contributions to Education. Greene was also a past President of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Philosophy of Education Society, American Educational Studies Association (AESA) and the Middle Atlantic States Philosophy of Education Society, and a past Editor of the Teachers College Record. She received the Medal of Honor from Teachers College and Barnard College; the Educator of the Year Award from Phi Delta Kappa; the Scholarly Achievement Award from Barnard College; AERA’s Lifetime Achievement Award; a Fulbright fellowship; and more than 10 honorary degrees. Greene’s life story is the subject of a documentary film, “Exclusions & Awakenings: The Life of Maxine Greene,” by Markie Hancock.
In Search of the Real World
Maxine Greene was born on December 23, 1917 and, as she has described it, was “brought up in Brooklyn, New York, almost always with a desire to cross the bridge and live in the real world... beyond and free from what was thought of as the ordinary.” Though she came from a family that, in her words, “discouraged intellectual adventure and risk,” she was a compulsive story-teller who came to political consciousness in college after meeting members of the anti-fascist forces in Spain. She was an ardent feminist, a crusader against anti-Semitism and a critic of capitalism who disdained her own privileged background.
She graduated from Barnard College in 1938 and earned a master’s degree in 1949 and a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Education in 1955, both from New York University. She taught at Montclair College and Brooklyn College before joining the faculty of TC in 1965 as the sole woman in the Philosophy of Education Department. Before an interview for that position that took place at the College’s Faculty Club, she had to wait in a restroom because the club admitted only men.
Greene went on to write and comment on topics ranging from the imagination, aesthetics and multiculturalism to standardized testing, the Columbine shootings and films by Mel Brooks. Influenced in part by personal tragedy – she lost her beloved daughter, Linda, to cancer – she frequently addressed the darker sides of human experience and human nature, but her message was consistently one of hope. In a New York Times profile of her a decade ago, Peter Willis, a faculty member at the University of South Australia who had taken a series of workshops with Greene, called her “the most incurably romantic person I’ve ever met…a person who dreams of human betterment… She makes people feel optimistic, as if it’s all worth the struggle.”
Greene’s work is too far-ranging and diverse to lend itself to easy labeling. Her education theories draw on the writings of phenomenologists and existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Soren Kierkegaard and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but among her contemporaries she is often spoken of and written about in the context of social activists and teacher-scholars such as Paulo Freire, Hannah Arendt, and Fritjof Capra. The Maxine Greene Center for Aesthetic Education and Social Imagination (formerly The Maxine Greene Foundation for Social Imagination, the Arts and Education), founded by Greene, seeks to “generate inquiry, imagination, and the creation of art works by diverse people.” Organizations funded by the Greene Foundation include Barnard College’s Storytelling Project, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, the Boston Arts Academy Foundation, the Bronx Charter School for the Arts, and the Center for Peace Building International. In the 1990s, collaborating with Teachers College and her friend and Teachers College Press publisher, Carole Saltz, Greene created a series of conferences on “Exploring Imagination.” Hundreds attended; among the invited speakers were such luminaries in the world of education and the arts as poet Sonia Sanchez, musician Midori, educators Leon Botstein, Nel Noddings, Elliot Eisner, Michelle Fine and Linda Darling-Hammond, and New York City public school teachers, principals and students.
“There are, of course,” Greene wrote, “young persons in the inner cities, the ones lashed by ‘savage inequalities,’ the ones whose very schools are made sick by the social problems the young bring in from without. Here, more frequently than not, are the real tests of ‘teaching as possibility’ in the face of what looks like an impossible social reality at a time when few adults seem to care.”
Maxine Greene is survived by her son, Timothy Greene; her sister, Jeanne Shinefield; her step-daughter, Elizabeth Greene; her daughter-in-law, Constance Gemson; and her grandson, Daniel Greene. Her brother, Joseph Meyer, died in 2002; her sister, Carol Meyer (who was a professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work), died in 1997; and her daughter, Linda Lechner, died in 1986. – Joe Levine
Maxine Greene on video
In 2008, the College celebrated Greene’s 90th birthday with festivities that included a lecture by Greene titled “Toward Pedagogy of Thought and Imagination” and lectures by Greene, Broughton and Nancy Lesko (the College’s first holder of the Maxine Greene Chair) collectively titled “Education in Exceptional Times.”
WATCH: 'Towards Pedagogy of Thought & Imagination' from The Cowin Center on 3/5/2008
In spring 2010, Teachers College created the Maxine Greene Society to “thank a community of donors whose reliable participation – year after year – exemplifies Maxine Greene’s value of deep engagement and helps further our common purpose here at Teachers College.” At the launch of the Greene Society, Greene herself spoke as part of a conversation with Janet Miller and another TC faculty member, John Broughton. In addition, TC’s Maxine Greene Scholarship in Philosophy and Education supports students in the Philosophy and Education program who mirror Greene's inspiring commitment to philosophical inquiry and poetic imagination in the life of the nation.
2010, at another gathering of the Greene Society, the College aired a video interview with Greene in her home. That same year, Greene
also recorded an interview for the TC oral history series, Mini Moments with Big Thinkers.
WATCH: Part I of full Maxine Greene interview from the TC Oral History Project. Click here for Part II.
Published Thursday, May. 29, 2014