Great Women Scholars: Yetta Goodman, Maxine Greene, Louise Rosenblatt, And Margaret Meek Spencer. Part Two of a Four Part Series, Maxine Greene.
Great Women Scholars: Maxine Greene
“I will be fleet of foot in a few minutes,” she said, as she struggled to get up and walk to the podium. She was an indomitable spirit, bent and physically frail, but she rose up with a voice that was Jessie Norman strong on that Friday evening nine days after September 11, and she took our breath away when she spoke.
“I have been doing philosophy all these years and I have more questions than when I started,” Maxine said. And then she told the participants that she was rethinking her life’s work to include the existential consideration of the dark side of imagination.
Maxine began by paying tribute to Louise Rosenblatt.
“There was an enormous attraction for me in Louise Rosenblatt being with the panel,” Maxine said, “because not only was Louise a Professor at Barnard when I went there,” she turned and looked at Louise and paused for a moment.
“I have to say that the only course in English I took at Barnard was your pre-Elizabethan dramatics,” she said, before looking back at everyone. “It was the day of New Criticism and I thought they’d spoil literature for me so I was exempted from taking courses. It seems so funny now. I majored in American history and minored in philosophy and stayed away except for that one course.” She turned again to Louise, “and I had such admiration for you.”
“Some of you know enough about me to know that I feel that I’m never finished,” Maxine said. “I can’t finish if things are always incomplete. I had an experience yesterday, which made me feel that way over and over again. I met with teaching artists at Lincoln Center and they asked me to speak because of what happened,” Maxine paused, “and the responsibility one has when asked to speak on a day like this. Some of it has to do with something that you know of, the uses of the arts in a dark time like this.”
“And these were artists wanting to know what use art would be,” she said, “and without being optimistic or using perfect prose or sentimentality I had to find something that connected us.”
“And I tried to say,” she continued, “that through a variety of languages, not only verbal language but dance to music, it’s worthwhile to empower teachers and, in turn their children, to speak in a way that they feel names their worlds, that allows them to use their imagination, to move beyond, to move toward the possible, and today, as yet, I still feel the incompleteness involved.”
“I have to think it through as I always do,” Maxine said. “I’ve never asked the questions I’ve been asking the last few days with quite the feeling that I am asking them now.”
“What use are they?”
“What use is this?”
“How do I create myself as someone who can somehow be of help?”
Maxine looked around the room.
“I think we’re all thinking about that.”
“Then yesterday I was reading Wallace Stevens,” she said, as if back on solid ground. “I think the thing that sort of hit me hard was he talks about the destructive imagination as well as the imagination that opens to the possibilities. And he talks about how much work it is for teachers not to deny the facts of evil, not to bury understanding, not to bury it even under beauty.”
Maxine spoke with an intensity that electrified the room and then she broke the tension, speaking quietly, “I wish I wrote my Releasing the Imagination in pencil so I could have explored that more,” she said. “But it’s again one of the incomplete journeys I still have to take.”
“The point of being incomplete,” Maxine continued, “feeling like I am no nearer an answer, is that I do philosophy. And philosophy doesn’t have to do with answers, it has to do with questions, and most of the questions are unanswerable empirically, logically. It means more questions, like: ‘What is beauty?’ ‘What is justice?’ ‘What is freedom?’ There are no empirical answers to any of those. But we live with these questions. We live with the unanswerable and somehow or another we have to change ourselves to make some kind of a difference.”
“I’m trying to figure out how I want to talk about myself,” Maxine said, shifting focus. “In The Dialectic of Freedom I said the book arises out of a life of preoccupation with a quest, a pursuit.”
“On the one hand the quest has been deeply personal, that of a woman trying to affirm the feminine, the wife and mother and friend, while reaching, always reaching beyond the limits imposed by the obligation to a woman’s life.”
“I think it is struggling to connect this quest with the undertaking of education with which I have been so long involved and with which I’ve tried to make or remake a kind of public space, to make a difference, and act in the name of a social vision of a better world.”
“I’ve tried all these years and never really succeeded,” Maxine spoke to a hushed audience as we listened intently to her every word. “That’s why I’d like to live a few more years, to see if I come closer to it, to relate politics, art, education. I’ve taught social philosophy. I’ve taught educational philosophy. I’ve taught ethics and I’m teaching aesthetics now because I still have so much to learn about aesthetics, and so it goes on.”
She talked about her childhood and of her few memories of reading, which she did at a very early age. “I thought of reading as subversive,” Maxine laughed. “You know they didn’t really like it if you knew how to read when you came to school. I attached a certain pleasant subversiveness to reading, that’s what appeals to me.”
“My mother would say, ‘go out and play,’ and I had, this sounds crazy now, I would have the New York Philharmonic on the radio and I would close the door so she didn’t hear it.”
Maxine talked about growing up. “It was a different attitude,” she explained. “Get married. Don’t waste your time on silly things. It’s amazing to me. I think I was rebelling against fixity.”
“Some of you know that I got into education almost by accident,” Maxine said, shifting her focus again. “I’m not the only feminist who developed her career by accident.” She laughed. “It’s very funny for somebody who believes in choosing to say it just happened. I don’t know how it happened. I had been remarried and my little daughter was very upset about the divorce and the move to Queens from Brooklyn and her teacher said if she were mine I would take her back to her old school. So my career began.”
“I decided I had to drive Linda back to her old school in Brooklyn. And I didn’t have to work so I wrote to every university around New York asking if I could be a special student and I had one requirement the class had to between ten and two. And you can guess why, so I could pick up Linda. Fortunately it wasn’t calculus. It was history and philosophy of education”
“So then I thought I could get a Ph.D. without charging my husband,” Maxine continued, “if they just let me teach. As some of you know. I had a hell of a time getting into my own field, partly because I was a woman, largely because I was a woman. Philosophy of Education did not have many women.
“In addition to that at the time of analytic philosophy I was an existentialist,” she gave a deep chuckle. “God forgive me. You know that meant I was soft somehow. I was ‘too literary’ they would say. And uh so all those things I think came together and went with other things. As it says in my documentary Jews had a terrible time being admitted to graduate schools at Columbia. For example, Lionel Trilling, who you’ve heard of. I don’t think he ever got tenure.”
“The principal of my high school said, ‘It’s such a shame you’re Jewish, I could have gotten you into Mount Holyoke.” Maxine looked out across the room making eye contact with many of us. “And I remember I apologized.”
“So I went to Barnard because they had the biggest quota. That’s how it was. And when I came back, of course, I couldn’t get a job in philosophy. I thought I should get another doctorate at Columbia. And they wrote, ‘You’re better off just writing.’ So I wrote three novels and I got very familiar with room three-fifteen at the New York Public Library and they were kept for a while and then rejected. I didn’t know you could send to a lot of publishers. So I would cry and I would put them away and never look at them again. But maybe it was just as well.”
“Anyway, one last thing,” Maxine says reaching the end of her talk. I was at Teachers College for several years before the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences opened its heart and allowed a woman to join. I think my life has been about finding a space and trying at the same time to keep my own love of the arts, my own love of children, and my own feeling of incompleteness, which will stay.” Again the deep laugh. “Well I hope I’m never complete. Thank you.”
The gift of Maxine is the gift to dream. To imagine ourselves struggling to achieve the impossibilities of our lives while at the same time recognizing, even cherishing, the incompleteness that we feel.