Maxine Greene and the “Frozen Sea Inside of Us”

The image of Franz Kafka that captures most clearly Kafkan for me is the one of Kafka himself coming to consciousness in the morning, numbed from the waist down after sitting in one spot writing all night. He, of course, was lost in his text in a way that is something like dreaming—a hybrid of consciousness and unconsciousness.

The text of Kafka that speaks most directly about Kafka for me is his January 1904 letter to Oskar Pollack:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

And although Kafka is writing here specifically about fiction, I think the core sentiment (“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”) is the perfect entry point into why Maxine Greene’s works remain more important than ever, her voice the axe against the frozen sea of relentless but misguided education reform.

Greene’s Releasing the Imagination, a collection of essays, is one such book.

Releasing the Imagination: “Breaking with Old Quantitative Models”

Published in 1995, Releasing the Imagination speaks from the middle of the current 30-year cycle of accountability-based education reform driven by standards and high-stakes testing. But the volume also speaks to the resilient nature of the fundamental source for why education reform remains mired in the same failed policy paradigm that is repackaged over and over:

In many ways, school restructure does, indeed, mean breaking with old quantitative models; but countering this break is an anxiety that is driving people into what John Dewey called “the quest for certainty” (1929). Present-day economic uncertainty has much to do with this anxiety as does the current challenge to traditional authorities. In response to school changes, many parents yearn not merely for the predictable but also for the assurances that used to accompany children’s mastery of the basics. (p. 18)

Threads running though Greene’s work are powerfully weaved into this important recognition of the Siren’s song of “certainty” that appears to be captured in quantitative data (think test scores as evidence of student learning and teacher quality): Greene’s existential philosophical lens, her rich progressive commitment, and ability to frame education within larger societal and cultural realities.

Greene continues her examination of breakthroughs by referring to the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Denise Leverton (again, the style that distinguishes Greene), which she incorporates seamlessly with the framing of Dewey and then Paulo Freire. By example and then explicitly, Greene is making a case for setting aside the veneer of certainty presented by measurement and numbers for the ambiguity and unexpected of art:

In contradicting the established, or the given, art reaches beyond what is established and leads those who are willing to risk transformations to the shaping of social vision.

Of course, this does not happen automatically or even naturally. Dewey, in Art as Experience, talks about how important it is for people to plunge into subject matter in order to steep themselves in it, and this is probably more true of works of art than other subject matters….In our engagements with historical texts, too, with mathematical problems, scientific inquiries, and (not incidentally) the political and social realities we have constructed along with those around us, it is never enough simply to label, categorize, or recognize certain phenomena or events. There has to be a live, aware, reflective transaction if what presents itself to consciousness is to be realized.

Dewey asked for an abandonment of “conformity to norms of conventional admiration” in approaching art; he asked that we try to avoid “confused, even if genuine emotional excitation” (1934, p. 54). The beholder, the percipient, the learner must approach from the vantage point of her or his lived situation, that is, in accord with a distinctive point of view and interest….Imagination may be a new way of decentering ourselves, of breaking out of the confinements of privatism and self-regard into a space where we can come face to face with others and call out, “Here we are.” (pp. 30-31)

From A Nation at Risk and then No Child Left Behind as that morphed into the Common Core movement, education reform has remained focused on the exact measurement (“label, categorize, or recognize”) Greene warns against while that reform has also concurrently erased the arts from the lives and education of children (more often than not, from the lives and education of the most marginalized children).

Along with the allure of quantifying as the pursuit of certainty, of control, bureaucracy is also exposed as a recurring flaw of education reform: “Community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict,” Greene recognizes (p. 39), adding:

Community is not a question of which social contracts are the most reasonable for individuals to enter. It is a question of what might contribute to the pursuit of shared goods: what ways of being together, of attaining mutuality, of reaching toward some common world. (p. 39)

The bureaucracy of education reform built on recycling the accountability paradigm also fails because we remain committed as well, not to community and democracy, but competition and market forces (charter schools and dismantling teachers unions and tenure, for examples). Education reform is, in fact, not reform at all; education reform insures that public institutions, such as schools, maintain the status quo of society. As a result, students are being indoctrinated, not educated—as Greene confronts about the trap teachers face:

This brings me back to my argument that we teachers must make an intensified effort to break through the frames of custom and to touch the consciousness of those we teach. It is an argument stemming from a concern about noxious invisible clouds and cover-ups and false consciousness and helplessness. It has to do as well with our need to empower the young to deal with the threat and fear of holocaust, to know and understand enough to make significant choices as they grow. Surely, education today must be conceived as a model of opening the world to critical judgments by the young and their imaginative projections and, in time, to their transformative actions. (p. 56)

Education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, may at best be preparing students to make choices between buying a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry (which is no real choice at all), but education today, in this time of high-stakes accountability, is not empowering students to choose not to own or drive a car at all, not empowering them to imagine another world, a better world.

Greene recognized that we are tragically paralyzed by the pursuit of certainty and the need to complete our tasks; as a result, we remain trapped like bugs in the amber of capitalism, never freeing ourselves to pursue democracy:

Dewey found that democracy is an ideal in the sense that it is always reaching toward some end that can finally never be achieved. Like community itself, it has to always be in the making. (p. 66)

And so we stand in 2014, in the wake of Greene’s death, and before us is the frozen sea of education reform. Greene’s Releasing the Imagination is one of the axes waiting for us to take it in hand, to break us free.

These essays now about two decades old serve as foundational explorations of all that is wrong with how we fail to re-imagine our schools in our commitments under the misnomer “reform.” In “Teaching for Openings” (Chapter Nine), Greene presents a tour de force for those of us who embrace the label “teacher,” and it is here that I argue for the enduring importance of finally listening to Greene:

Still, caught in the turmoils of interrogation, in what Buber called the pain, I am likely to feel the pull of my old search for certainty. I find myself now and then yearning after the laws and norms and formulations, even though I know how many of them were constructed in the interests of those in power [emphasis added]. Their appeal to me was not only due to the ways in which they provide barriers against relativism. It was also due to my marginality: I wanted so much to be accepted in the great world of wood-panelled libraries, authoritative intellectuals, sophisticated urban cafes….

That means that what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has called the elite culture must be transformed. This is the culture white male scholars tend to create, one that has “functioned in relation to women, the lower classes, and some white races analogously to the way in which imperialism functioned for colonized people. At worst, it denied the values of all others and imposed itself as an absolute standard….As a set of techniques, literacy has often silenced persons and disempowered them. Our obligation today is to find ways of enabling the young to find their voices, to open their spaces, to reclaim their histories in all their variety and discontinuity. Attention has to be paid to those on the margins [emphasis added]…. (pp. 114, 120)

As I wrote to implore us all to beware the roadbuilders, as I drafted that piece while skimming through Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to find the truth I felt compelled to offer, I stood on Greene’s shoulders, as I often do, trying in my very small way to pay attention to those on the margins because with the axe Greene provided me, I was able to begin breaking the frozen sea of my privilege.

In her death, then, we must return not only to Greene’s words, but to the alternative she points to with those words:

Art offers life; it offers hope; it offers the prospect of discovery; it offers light. Resisting, we may make the teaching of the aesthetic experience our pedagogic creed. (p. 133)

Maxine Greene, Released to a New Landscape

Throughout my life as a student and career as a teacher, I have always been drawn to the philosophical; thus, my scholarly interests have leaned heavily toward educational philosophers such as Paulo Freire and Maxine Greene.

In Greene, I found not only a philosophical kinship but also an eclectic style of scholarship that appealed to my essential nature as a lover of literature and English teacher. Greene pulls from literature and history as she weaves a view of the world and education that demands something better than what we have achieved so far.

So it is with great sadness to share—Maxine Greene, TC’s Pre-eminent Philosopher Queen, 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 yesterday at the age of 96. Described byThe 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.

Please read the entire overview above.

As well, I offer my own Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene’s Mystification in Teacher Education, included in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy dedicated to Maxine Greene:

Greene (1978) creates an apt literary framework for her discussion of teacher education with an analogy drawn from Moby Dick (Melville, 1851)—acknowledging the broader context of navigation and the narrower flaw of “mystification” in the field. She reminds her reader of Ahab using rewards to manipulate his crew, to mask his true goals in order to increase the cooperation of that crew: “The point is to keep hidden a ‘private purpose’ that takes no account of the crew’s desires and needs” (p. 53). Then, she adds more directly:

“Traditionally, teacher education has been concerned with initiating the ‘forms of life’ R. S. Peters describes, or the public traditions, or the heritage. Even where emphasis has been placed on the importance of critical thinking or experimental intelligence, there has been a tendency to present an unexamined surface reality as ‘natural,’ fundamentally unquestionable. There has been a tendency as well to treat official labelings and legitimations as law-like, to overlook the constructed [emphasis in original] character of social reality.” (p. 54)

Greene writes here of teacher education, but also moves beyond the classroom, arguing for a critical reflection in all people, both a reflection on Self and a reflection on that Self within a community—“not merely as professionals or professionals-to-be, but as human beings participating in a shared reality” (pp. 54-55).

The books by and about Greene that remain prominent on my bookshelf, packed with sticky notes and reached for often include:

Well before No Child Left Behind and the inevitable move toward Common Core, Greene wrote in Chapter Thirteen of Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change:

Academic rigor, high standards, common learning, technical proficiencies, excellence, equity, and self-development—these themes have arisen over and over since the founding of the public schools. Considering them in present moment of hope tinged with anxiety, we teachers find ourselves (at least on occasion) pondering the nature of our democratic society, wondering about the future of our world….For all the optimism of movement for reform, the moment of hope among educators that I just cited, often a hopelessness infects those who administer and those expected to learn….

What I have been calling the common, then, has to be continually brought into being. We may indeed use representative texts and works of art at certain times; we may us paradigm cases in the various domains; we may even use the popular arts. There is always a flux in the things and ideas of this world, and there is always the need to catch that flux in networks of meaning. Whatever the networks, the focus should be on that dislodges fixities, resists one-dimensionality, and allows multiple personal voices to become articulated in a more and more vital dialogue. (pp. 169, 183)

As Greene has been released to a new landscape, let us dislodge fixities, and resist the siren’s song of misguided reform that fails again and again the humanity of each and everyone of us.

Let’s us fight on as you, Maxine Greene, rest in peace.

As a final small token, a flower picked and offered tentatively:

[375]

Emily Dickinson

The Angle of a Landscape—
That every time I wake—
Between my Curtain and the Wall
Upon an ample Crack—

Like a Venetian—waiting—
Accosts my open eye—
Is just a Bough of Apples—
Held slanting, in the Sky—

The Pattern of a Chimney—
The Forehead of a Hill—
Sometimes—a Vane’s Forefinger—
But that’s—Occasional—

The Seasons—shift—my Picture—
Upon my Emerald Bough,
I wake—to find no—Emeralds—
Then—Diamonds—which the Snow

From Polar Caskets—fetched me—
The Chimney—and the Hill—
And just the Steeple’s finger—
These—never stir at all—

Please see also:

In Print!: Maxine Says from Nick Sousanis

24/7: 24 Love Letters to Maxine Greene (In no particular order) Followed by 7 Questions from Bill Ayers