The Power Of One

By Amy Oringel — April 01, 2002 10 min read
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How has Maxine Greene influenced thousands of teachers? By focusing on the individual.

Along Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue near the Guggenheim Museum, one can find lots of older women living in large apartments. Many wear mink to the post office, carry small, sweater-clad dogs, and use “lunch” as a verb. But among these uptown denizens lives a grand dame of an entirely different sort: Dr. Maxine Greene, professor of philosophy and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a vocal proponent of the student-centered teaching that’s a hallmark of progressive education.

At 85, Greene is among teaching’s most revered thinkers—and hardest- working teachers. This spring is the first semester in 66 years that she’s not lecturing full time at Teachers College. There, she’s taught courses in aesthetic education—the process of building students’ cognitive abilities by exposing them to the arts—and education philosophy to thousands of students, including Angela’s Ashes author and former teacher Frank McCourt. Now, it seems Greene’s busier than ever. She’s taking her lectures to other education schools and symposiums across the country while she continues to deliver the occasional seminar and advise students at Teachers College. She also serves as the philosopher-in-residence for the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, a New York City organization that develops K-12 arts-based curricula. Last year, she published Variations on a Blue Guitar, a collection of the lectures on aesthetic education that she’s delivered at the Institute’s summer sessions. It’s her seventh book in a body of work that includes countless essays and chapters for other publications.

Greene carries herself with the utmost authority despite her small stature. Yet meeting her for the first time is like re-connecting with an old friend. She’s warm without being gooey, razor-sharp without being condescending. A chat with the active octogenarian, who’s interested in a multitude of topics, is an exercise in free association of the latest in world affairs and the arts, from spelling bee words (she remembers the word with which she won her Hebrew school competition 75 years ago) to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, one of the most talked-about novels of the year. Seemingly disparate ideas, Greene claims, can guide practitioners of her favorite art—that of teaching.

“Teaching is about loving questions and moving kids to search for answers in science, literature, and other subjects,” she says. “A great teacher gets excited about these unanswered questions and becomes an example of quest and curiosity. I admire teachers, but if they act like clerks, the kids won’t get anywhere.”

‘I admire teachers, but if they act like clerks, the kids won’t get anywhere.’

Maxine Greene

Greene often references Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher who authored works such as Being and Nothingness and No Exit. Sartre argued that guiding forces such as God or destiny don’t exist, and thus individuals bear full responsibility for shaping their lives. Today, over a lunch of roast chicken and salad that she’s prepared in her serene, book-filled apartment overlooking Central Park, Greene gives an example of how his theories can inspire educators. She notes: “Sartre says everybody experiences a need, that is, a distance between where you are and what you want. In a fair society, we have to enable every child to work through that need in pursuit of his or her own possibility. If you can enable children to choose projects that are meaningful, the product in the final analysis will be superior.”

With unanswered questions comes ambiguity, a concept not always favored in today’s schools. But Greene believes it’s this very uncertainty that plants the seeds for real learning. And she’s spent the past half-century at Teachers College persuading future educators to agree with her.

Greene didn’t always want to become an educator. Born in 1917 to a financially comfortable Jewish family in Brooklyn—her father owned an artificial-pearl business—Greene was disdainful of her privileged upbringing, disliking how it consumed her social-climbing mother. Her father, however, encouraged his eldest daughter, a top student, to break free from what she calls “an airless life.”

After graduating from New York City’s Barnard College, Greene married and became a social activist, editing a newspaper for the American Labor Party. After a divorce and a second marriage, Greene decided she wanted to go back to school. She signed up for a graduate course on philosophy of education at New York University simply because it met between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekdays, which allowed her to drive her daughter Linda to school each day. But she quickly became hooked on the subject, which uses philosophical reflection to generate sound educational practice.

She started rocking the academic boat in that very first course, she recalls. “I wrote a paper called ‘Philosopher as Man,’ which stated that teachers should behave like people—that is, inject themselves into the teaching process,” says Greene. “But my teacher wouldn’t even accept it, he wanted us to be objective and neutral.”

Despite her disagreements with her professor, this course inspired her to enroll in a full doctorate program, and soon Greene was lecturing to large classrooms as a teaching assistant. She says: “At first, I was so afraid of teaching. The first class I taught was on the history of education, and it wasn’t my exact field. But I got a good response, I think, because I got excited about the topic, and that was clear to the students.” In 1955, she earned her doctorate in the philosophy of education, one of only two women in the program to do so, and launched a new career—teaching educators to think philosophically about their work.

‘To help kids shape their identity, we’ve got to awaken them to their own questions and encourage them to create their own projects.’

Maxine Greene

As a Jewish woman in academia in the 1950s and ‘60s, Greene was at first treated like an intruder by her colleagues. When she interviewed for a position at Teachers College in 1965, women weren’t allowed in the faculty club, so the meeting had to take place in the ladies’ lounge (which was connected to the women’s toilets). After she was hired as a professor at Columbia—first in the English department, then in philosophy—Greene found herself in the intellectual minority. Most of her peers subscribed to analytic philosophy, which holds that there are universal experiences. They did not take to her existentialism, which maintains that individual existence takes precedence over abstract, conceptual essence. Still, she was undeterred. Early on, she decided, “I may as well do everything my own way.”

In 1973, Greene published Teacher As Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age, possibly her most famous work. It opens with a reference to Easy Rider, the 1969 movie about two bikers who travel through the Southwest in search of the American dream, and encourages teachers to lead their students on similarly free-form explorations in the classroom. Almost 30 years later, Greene summarizes the book’s message: “To help kids shape their identity, we’ve got to awaken them to their own questions and encourage them to create their own projects. They don’t really learn unless they ask.” In the book, Greene encourages educators to foster what she calls “wide-awakeness” in classrooms.

“I’m most afraid of objectiveness and people frozen in numbness,” she says. “What I enjoyed about the ‘60s was the number of people who felt responsible for challenging what was wrong. At least we weren’t sitting like zombies. I hope it happens again.”

Today, with her graduate scholars, many of whom are heading to classroom and administrative positions at K-12 schools, Greene models what she believes is the ideal teacher-student relationship. She says students should be comfortable enough to speak their minds and motivated to find their own answers. She explains: “I don’t try to push things at them; instead I invite them in. I want them to be free to be who they want. The best work will ask, ‘What is really going on?’ ”

Greene’s students say this teaching style works well for 21st-century educators- to-be.

Henry Chapin, director of cultural arts for New York community school district 3, took several classes with Greene en route to earning his master’s in arts administration from Teachers College in 2000. He says, “She’d plop this marvelous old beat-up manila folder on the lectern and start talking about an item in the paper or a movie, then launch into its universal meaning.” In Greene’s classes, he adds, “no one sits with the small of his back against the chair. She makes the room come alive.” And Greene’s teachings have profoundly influenced his approach to education. "[Her] point about unheard voices really resonated with me,” he says. “I have dedicated myself to working to enrich the lives of students that are easily lost in the structure and standardization that holds public schools hostage.”

Greene’s classroom manner is on full display in Exclusions and Awakenings, a documentary about her life released in February 2001 that’s making the rounds at colleges and film festivals. In one scene, Greene describes what interests her about aesthetics to a room of relaxed students, who alternately scribble in notebooks, gaze at her with hands on their chins, and laugh in response to her witticisms. Ignoring the formal podium and blackboard in the front of the room, Greene takes a conversational approach to what would be intimidating material in the hands of a less agile teacher. She says: “I’m interested in aesthetic education because I’m interested in what happens between you or me and the wall where the Monet hangs. I don’t look for secrets of what happens inside the work. Instead, I believe that one wants to pay attention to the encounter. A work of art only becomes a work of art when you experience it in a certain way.” Always encouraging free thought, she tells her students, “Some of you won’t agree with this.”

‘I’m most afraid of objectiveness and people frozen in numbness. What I enjoyed about the ‘60s was the number of people who felt responsible for challenging what was wrong.’

Maxine Greene

The film was directed by Markie Hancock, an educator turned independent filmmaker, who first encountered Greene at a conference in Chicago 12 years ago. “I wanted to profile Maxine not just because [I thought] her work and writings [would] translate well to film,” says Hancock, “but also because she’s an amazing icon in a field that is hungry for them. She possesses real honesty and integrity. There was no difference in her once the cameras started rolling.”

Hancock recalls that last spring, when the New School University in New York City hosted the Manhattan premiere of Exclusions and Awakenings, Greene stood in line with everyone else. But when the professor walked into the theater to take her seat, the 600 guests, many of them former students, spontaneously scrambled to their feet and cheered. If Greene hadn’t known it before, she knew it then: The girl from Brooklyn was an outsider no more.

Linda Levine, the associate dean for academic affairs at Bank Street College of Education in New York City, who’s worked closely with Greene, explains the professor’s appeal: “Maxine has said that when geese fly overhead, the ducks below stand on tiptoe. That is, if we dare to do something off the ground, others will be encouraged to do the same. Those of us in progressive education are inspired by Maxine and therefore work with a greater sense of urgency and hope.”

These days, Greene continues to pursue her education agenda. With salons, speeches, and maybe even another book crowding her schedule, Greene confesses that she can’t bear to turn down an intellectual challenge. “For someone who says ‘yes’ all the time, I get credit for having a lot of chutzpah,” she notes. “I really just don’t want to fall out of the loop.”


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