Maxine Greene: The Importance of Personal Reflection
Credit: Peter Hoey
"I grew up in a family that discouraged intellectual adventure and risk," Maxine Greene wrote in a 1998 autobiographical essay. "To me, the opera and the Sunday concerts in the Brooklyn Museum Sculpture Court and the outdoor concerts in the summer were rebellions, breakthroughs, secret gardens. Since the age of seven, of course, I was writing."
Maxine Greene has written seven books and too many prefaces, articles, and essays to count. She has been an editor of myriad volumes on the philosophy of education, as well as curriculum, arts education, social justice, literature, multiculturalism, and -- well, the list goes on long enough to convince anyone that Greene had to start at the age of seven to get all of this done. One would have to have almost been born literate to accomplish what Greene has, and there are many who would say she was.
Others call her one of our most important educational philosophers. But she doesn't take her self too seriously: At the beginning of a phone interview she quips, "I hope I can be civil and sane." And, indeed, she manages to be both, with generous helpings of elegance, thoughtfulness, and erudition thrown in for good measure.
Now ninety, Greene, president of the Maxine Greene Foundation, is still a professor of philosophy and education at Columbia University, where she has taught for more than forty years. She also presides over regular literary salons that are videotaped and can be viewed on her foundation's Web site. Some of the numerous books Greene and her group have discussed include Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, Don DeLillo's White Noise, Toni Morrison's Jazz, George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Greene also is philosopher-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute, as she has been for some three decades, and she continues to lecture there and host literature-as-art workshops. Indeed, she seems to have lived and breathed teaching and education for much of her life. Obviously a deeply reflective person who has spent long hours thinking about ideas, she seems compelled to share her knowledge.
How, in our accelerated society, Greene is asked, do we convey to students the importance of personal reflection?
"I'm very influenced by existentialism and the thought that you can be submerged in the crowd, and if you're submerged in the crowd and have no opportunity to think for yourself, to look through your own eyes, life is dull and flat and boring," she says. "The only way to really awaken to life, awaken to the possibilities, is to be self-aware.
"I use the term wide-awakeness," Greene adds. "Without the ability to think about yourself, to reflect on your life, there's really no awareness, no consciousness. Consciousness doesn't come automatically; it comes through being alive, awake, curious, and often furious."
Her passion for literature, art, and education is a constant theme in her conversation. "I'm absolutely opposed to strict standards, and I'm terribly interested in kids having confidence in their own vision," she says. "There is no right way to make art."
How do you use technology in your work?
I was sick for quite a while, and when I got better, I couldn't write. I had kind of a tremor, and I had a feeling that writing went from my head down my arm. And then I learned the computer, and somehow or other the computer came as a kind of attachment, as a possibility for me, and since then I've been able to write. I've been able to say it's not an attachment; it's again a possibility.
I think teaching should involve a kind of presentness between students and teachers. There should be a personal engagement. People who depend too much on technology begin to give it a magical power it doesn't have, but it can be a useful tool as long as both teachers and students are aware of the limitations and the reach of technology. A teacher has to be self-aware, and in love with whatever she's teaching.
Which resources have most inspired you and informed your work?
Literature. I'm always reading novels, even today. Painting is very important to me, and dance and theater. But literature remains the most important. When I'm reading, I move into another domain and find things I never knew before. I always knew the wonders of film, but lately I found the personal significance of film. I've been using films like that, like The Lives of Others or Brokeback Mountain, in addition to literature, and I must say they've become resources for me as they never were before.
Who are your role models?
Toni Morrison, and different writers who have real projects and have the guts to realize them, to go through the disappointments, the rejections and come back. Those are role models.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
All I can say is, you have to be in love with what you're doing, so in love with it that you couldn't live without it. I don't think I could live if I didn't write and I didn't read. And you have to be an enthusiast. The worst thing is to say, "Oh, I don't care." But you can't force people to do that. You have to make it contagious.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work over the years?
Maybe that I believe in nothing. I don't believe in anything supporting me. I did a documentary, and at the end of it I'm walking past my front door, and I'm saying, "I am what I am not yet." There's always a book I didn't finish, a paper I didn't correct, a painting I didn't work on. Those are the things that keep me going. I'm not finished yet.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
It would be the same: I am what I am not yet. All the horrors in your personal life, the losses, and you say, "Why me?" I have an example. My daughter died, and it was a year after she died, and I thought, "What the hell am I going to do with myself? You know? Go to bed, or what?"
So I thought, "Go to the movies," if you can imagine. And so I saw a movie. It was about Argentina and how they would kidnap the babies. It was called The Official Story. In this story, it showed the mothers parading with the pictures of their children, of their lost children. And I looked at that, and I thought, "It's not me alone. It's the human condition.
"You know," I thought, "that's what it is to be human -- to lose, to gain, to march, to hope -- that's what it is. But it was that film and those women walking around with the pictures of their lost children that made me feel that you can't complain; you just have to live and look for something beautiful and something possible and something you can love."
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