Releasing the Imagination by Maxine Greene (Book Review)
Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change
can't separate imagination from the ethical, the political, the
social...it is our opening to what is not yet, what might be, new
All of us who work in the realm of individual
and organizational learning appreciate the staggering depth and
complexity of the values and relationships which shape our world.
On a daily basis, we witness the clash and tangle of cultures and
the coarseness of a thousand human shortcomings. At the same time,
we are privy now and then to the emergence of bright new ways of
being in the world, compassion beyond all reckoning—a sense
of the future about to be born. Come what may, we strive to be
peacemakers, to be agents of hope, possibility, empathy and understanding.
This, according to philosopher, Maxine Greene, is precisely what
she means by social imagination in action. You see and value what
is “not yet” and work to bring it into being.
Maxine Greene has been a thought leader in the fields of aesthetic
education and philosophy for generations. She has enriched and
inspired the lives of thousands of educators and social activists.
Today, her work is beginning to catch fire in a whole constellation
of related professions: imagination in leadership, social justice,
community renewal and organizational development—everywhere
the arts have begun to emerge as a catalyst for new thinking, connectivity
and mature reflection.
Considered by many to be the seminal text of
her philosophy, Greene’s Releasing the Imagination was first published in 1995. A collection of essays united
by their collective approach to educational theory, arts activism, and social
justice, Releasing the Imagination reflects her primary concerns: contemporary
philosophies of education, aesthetics, literature as art, and multiculturalism.
If one were to skim the table of contents, Releasing the Imagination would
appear to be divided into two separate discussions: education reform and social
justice. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that education and social
structure are indelibly linked in Greene’s philosophy. Rather than cry the
beloved country of most critics of the public education system—plummeting test
scores, overcrowding, inadequate funding, poor administration—Greene takes a
higher road with a much broader view, placing the responsibility of education
(the process of becoming, whether it be in the classroom or beyond) on the
communities and society in which the schools are embedded.
She addresses, for example, the American competitive spirit and its effect
our children’s education. Our valiant desire for ‘world-class’ education
standards may run dangerously close to blind ambition and merciless competition
when it comes to the classroom. For American children, our striving to be the
global Number One when it comes to test scores in major areas (reading, science
and math) comes at the price of losing a global view and a conscious,
comprehensive education. The implication is that this race to be The Best—a
force working upon our educational system, not as a result of it—is a race we
will run, like rats in cages, against no one but ourselves.
Furthermore, Greene argues, imagination cannot be separated out from what is
ethical, political and/or social. All of the constructs and conditions under
which we live are a result of us imagining them into being. And like
imagination, our social values, even our fundamental perceptions of reality,
are not static. They are mutable. They can change. And if our education systems
are going to benefit—nay, survive—then the current values and perceptions
hold so dear must change. Quite simply, we need to imagine something new.
Greene fundamentally believes that art makes social
change more possible, more
powerful, and more tangible. And it’s tough not to agree. (Impossible, for an
artist like myself.) The process of art is, after all, the process of taking
the impossible and the unreal (which Greene would probably prefer I call the
unimagined) and making it possible, making it real. As Virginia Woolf once
said: “There is a token of some real thing behind appearances. And I make
real by putting it into words.”
But the creation of art is only the first step in
a much longer process. How do we get from work of art to global social change?
A simplified version
Greene’s equation might be: Art engenders participation. Participation
community. Communities can elicit change.
The extended version of the equation is best left
to Greene herself. Along the way in Releasing the Imagination, she solicits
the aid of philosophers
Dewey, Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin, and many others. But the myriad of
references to such philosophical and cultural critics is a means to an end, and
serves as a touchstone for Greene’s primary focus. She urges us, ultimately, to
not take our cues from the philosophers and critics at all. She guides us,
instead, to the arts—specifically, to literature.
Within such fictions as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Joseph Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness, new societies—sometimes entirely new realities—are
imagined into being. And it is here, argues Greene, that we will find the impetus
change direction and start anew. It is here that underpriviledged and
undervoiced communities can find voice and priviledge not necessarily accorded
them in our current social structures. It is here that the possibility exists
for perspective, understanding, and compassion.
Perhaps most compelling is Greene’s constant return to Wallace Stevens’ poem
“Man with the Blue Guitar.” She urges us to heed the words of the poem’s
protagonist, who refuses to “play things as they are” and insists instead that
we must “throw away the lights, the definitions,/ And say of what you see in
the dark…” By throwing out old definitions and starting anew, by saying what we
see in the dark, by releasing our imagination thus…we open roads to new
dialogue, new perspective, and new possibility. Name your world, she says, then
Reading Greene’s essays, I found myself constantly arguing back. As she
expounded upon the necessities of imagination, I found myself saying: There’s
nothing about imagination that can be measured objectively! What’s the
practical application? How would we make it work? How would we rate its
success?—I have the sneaking suspicion that Greene would say the very act of
asking those questions is proof positive that I’ve lived far too long in an
objective reality that leaves no room for imagined possibility or a better
world. (I suspect also she’d be delighted that her work, much like the
literature referenced within it, is a catalyst for argument and dialogue.)
Reflecting on Releasing the Imagination ten years
after its publication, as I’m
surrounded by scattered newspapers whose headlines vacillate endlessly between
words like terrorism, lawsuit, and casualty, I can’t help but think that
Greene’s teachings strike deeper and ring clearer than ever. Let us hope
there is a way to bring these beliefs to the surface. Let us hope there is a
heed the warnings and engage.
See related article in this issue: Creative Leaps and
Maxine Greene to keynote world IODA conference