Maxine Greene. Releasing the Imagination. (Notes)

This is the book that has been chosen for discussion by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network on July 20th, which will also be the first anniversary for the group.

The subtitle of the book is Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change, which means that the book could be dipped into, and the chapters read selectively, but I have read it sequentially, starting at the beginning and working through to the end.

In the reading that I have been doing for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, I have realised that I find it very helpful if I know something about the authors as people, when reading their work. I found this video about the life of Maxine Greene helpful in making the words in her book come alive.

Part 1. Creating Possibilities

The book is written in three parts. The six chapters in the first part, explore how to create possibilities for releasing the imagination. Maxine Greene’s thoughts are addressed to teachers and teacher educators, particularly the latter. In her introduction she writes:

‘…. Imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible. It is what enables us to cross empty spaces between ourselves and those we teachers have called “other” over the years. If those others are willing to give us clues, we can look in some manner through strangers’ eyes and hear through their ears. That is because, of all our cognitive capacities, imagination is the one that permits us to give credence to alternative realities.’ (p.3)

Greene believes that we must ‘move beyond schooling to the wider domains of education, where there are and must be all kinds of openings to possibility.’ She tells us that the current education system in the US (she was writing in 1995, but her ideas have not dated) has a very narrow focus and fails to see the big picture. It is preoccupied with measurement and accountability. To move beyond this to think about alternative possibilities and of things being otherwise, which takes imagination and empathy. We must ‘cultivate multiple ways of seeing and multiple dialogues in a world where nothing stays the same.’ We want young people to become critical, self-reflective, active learners. We want children to be more than raw materials to be shaped to market demand. We want them to have something to say about the way things might be if they were otherwise. Greene believes that the arts are central in this endeavour; stories, poems, dance performances, concerts, paintings, films, plays.  Also critical to this is the breaking of habit. ‘The difficult task for the teacher is to devise situations in which the young will move from the habitual and the ordinary and consciously undertake a search.’And important too is community, democratic community, characterised by interconnectedness and communion, where people are ‘offered the space in which to discover what they recognize together and appreciate in common; they have to find ways to make inter-subjective sense’.

What is striking about Maxine Greene, is the extent to which she draws on literature to illustrate what she means by releasing the imagination. This is very evident in Chapter 4. Discovering a Pedagogy, where she references the literature of Don DeLillo, Umberto Eco, Joseph Conrad, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Virginia Woolf and Albert Camus and the writing of Habermas, Freire, Arendt, Sartre, Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Rorty, Gadamer and Bakhtin. Literature can invoke alternative worlds, experiences and perceptions never noted before, and release the imagination, but not just literature. We must enable our children

‘… to have a number of languages to hand and not verbal or mathematical languages alone. Some children may find articulation through imagery; others, through body movement; still others, through musical sound. Mastery of a range of languages is necessary if communication is to take place beyond small enclosures within the culture; without multiple languages, it is extremely difficult to chart the lived landscape, thematizing experience over time.’ P.57

Students and teachers must be empowered to speak in their own voices and develop their own ways of seeing.

Greene rejects the idea of a static view of reality. No-one’s picture is complete. Neither is anyone free from the shaping influence of contexts. For this reason she believes it important that we learn to be reflective enough to become aware of how we construct our realities and see multiple perspectives. We must learn to think about our own thinking, and become conscious of our own consciousness. We must ‘notice’ and acknowledge the primacy of perception (Merleau-Ponty).

Part 2. Illuminations and Epiphanies

In this part Greene argues for a view of teaching as for finding openings and a view of curriculum as a search for meaning, saying that ‘the arts in particular can bring to curriculum inquiry visions of perspectives and untapped possibilities’. Again she stresses the importance of literature and metaphor for defamiliarizing experience and seeing alternate perspectives and new possibilities. Literature, she says, has the potential ‘to subvert dualism and reductionism, to make abstract generalizations questionable’. It has the potential to release the imagination.

Not only reading, but writing too is important in releasing the imagination. Through writing and the telling of stories, learners can make connections, create patterns and find meaning. Writing enables us to name alternatives, open ourselves to possibilities and overcome silences. ‘Learning to write is a matter of learning to shatter the silences, of making meaning, of learning to learn.’ We must work together, reading, writing and in dialogue, ‘to unconceal what is hidden, to contextualize what happens to us, to mediate the dialectic that keeps us on edge, that may be keeping us alive’… so that we can read our worlds differently.

Greene reminds us that Virginia Woolf wrote about the shock-receiving capacity that made her a writer, how shocks made her want to explain it. Literature can be a source of these shocks of awareness. For Greene, the shocks, for example, of the inhibiting, demeaning forces, that constricted her freedom, could be explored in writing. But Greene was also very aware of how deeply literacy is involved in relations of power and how ‘many of the alienated or marginalized are made to feel distrustful of their own voices, [and] their own ways of making sense.’ She urges teachers to think of literacy as a social undertaking to be sought in pluralist classrooms.

Art too can be a source of shocks of awareness. ‘…. many forms of art can enable us to see more in our experience, to hear more on normally unheard frequencies, to become conscious of what daily routines have obscured, what habit and convention have suppressed.’ Art is a way of understanding, a way of knowing. As for literature, encounters with art can release the imagination. Indeed, Greene believed that ‘informed encounters with the several arts is the most likely mode of releasing our students’ (or any person’s) imaginative capacity and giving it play.

In the final chapter of Part 2, Greene makes the distinction between art education and aesthetic education saying both are needed. Art education covers the spectrum that includes dance education, music education, the teaching of painting, the other graphic arts and some kinds of writing. By aesthetic education she means ‘the deliberate efforts to foster increasingly informed and involved encounters with art’. Art education and aesthetic education should inform each other. Art should be education for a more informed and imaginative awareness. It should be an education in ‘the kinds of critical transactions that empower students to both resist elitism and objectivism, that allow them to read and to name, to write and to rewrite their own lived world.’

Part 3. Community in the Making

In the final part of her book Greene turns to the question of how teaching can be a social undertaking, how teachers can see and hear all students in all their plurality, multiplicity and diversity, how they can help students to articulate their stories, and how through this teaching for openings, communities attentive to difference and open to the idea of plurality can be developed.  ‘Learning to look through multiple perspectives, young people may be helped to build bridges among themselves; attending to a range of human stories, they may be provoked to heal and to transform’. The arts are central to this. Community development and democratic community is essential for change.

‘The democratic community, always a community in the making, depends not so much on what has been achieved and funded in the past. It is kept alive: it is energized and radiated by an awareness of future possibility.’ p.166  

The world is neither equitable nor fair. Hence the importance of attending to the principles of equity, equality and freedom. Greene asks, ‘How can we reconcile the multiple realities of human lives with shared commitment to communities infused once again with principles?’ She believes that the arts can help students reflect on these principles, question the taken-for-granted, become critical thinkers.

‘Imagination may be our primary means of forming an understanding of what goes on under the heading of “reality”; imagination may be responsible for the very texture of our experience. Once we do away with habitual separations of the subjective from the objective, the inside from the outside, appearances from reality, we might be able to give imagination its proper importance and grasp what it means to place imagination at the core of understanding’. (p.140)


Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination. Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. Jossey-Bass.


I don’t feel as though I’ve done Maxine Greene justice in this post, so here are two more references.

A helpful book review was published in 1997 by N. Carlotta Parr in Philosophy of Music Education Review, Fall, 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 108-110; Indiana University Press –

And Eddie Playfair, who is a member of the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, wrote a short introduction to Maxine Greene on his blog in 2014 –

2 thoughts on “Maxine Greene. Releasing the Imagination. (Notes)

  1. Scott Johnson July 19, 2021 / 7:45 am

    Hi Jenny, thanks for the lead Releasing the Imagination. We’ve moved to what turns out to be a horrible place to live. It won’t change but my perspective and imagination can allow me to survive and contend with it. Not the least bit comfortable or even satisfying but maybe we aren’t designed to be at ease or contented? Will outline our situation sometime.
    Scott Johnson

  2. jennymackness July 19, 2021 / 9:46 am

    Thanks for your comment Scott. Sorry to hear that your move has not worked out. My understanding is that Maxine Greene turned to literature, poetry and the arts to meet some of her challenges. She was so widely read.

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