Releasing the Imagination by Maxine Greene (Book Review)

Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change

September 15, 2015

“We can't separate imagination from the ethical, the political, the is our opening to what is not yet, what might be, new possibilities..." — Maxine Greene

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 upon 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 we 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 it 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 of Greene’s equation might be: Art engenders participation. Participation creates 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 John 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 to 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 change it.

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 way to heed the warnings and engage.

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