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date: 15 April 2021

Literature and the Arts as a Basis for Curriculum in the Work of Maxine Greenelocked

  • Janet L. MillerJanet L. MillerTeachers College, Columbia University

Summary

Maxine Greene, internationally renowned educator, never regarded her work as situated within the field of curriculum studies per se. Rather, she consistently spoke of herself as an existential phenomenological philosopher of education working across multidisciplinary perspectives. Simultaneously, however, Greene persistently and passionately argued for all conceptions and enactments of curriculum as necessarily engaging with literature and the arts. She regarded these as vital in addressing the complexities of “curriculum” conceptualized as lived experience. Specifically, Greene regarded the arts and imaginative literature as able to enliven curriculum as lived experience, as aspects of persons’ expansive and inclusive learnings. Such learnings, for Greene, included the taking of necessary actions toward the creating of just and humane living and learning contexts for all. In particular, Greene supported her contentions via her theorizing of “social imagination” and its accompanying requisite, “wide-awakeness.”

Specifically, Greene refused curriculum conceived as totally “external” to persons who daily attempt to make sense of their life worlds. In rejecting any notion of curriculum as predetermined, decontextualized subject-matter content that could be simply and easily delivered by teachers and ingested by students, she consistently threaded examples from imaginative literature as well as from all manner of the visual and performing arts throughout her voluminous scholarship. She did so in support of her pleas for versions of curriculum that involve conscious acts of choosing to work in order not only to grasp “what is,” but also to envision persons, situations, and contexts as if they could be otherwise. Greene thus unfailingly contended that literature and the arts offer multiplicities of perspectives and contexts that could invite and even move individuals to engage in these active interpretations and constructions of meanings. Greene firmly believed that these interpretations and constructions not only involve persons’ lived experiences, but also can serve to prompt questions and the taking of actions to rectify contexts, circumstances, and conditions of those whose lived lives are constrained, muted, debased, or refused.

In support of such contentions, Greene pointed out that persons’ necessarily dynamic engagements with interpreting works of art involved constant questionings. Such interrogations, she argued, could enable breaking with habitual assumptions and biases that dull willingness to imagine differently, to look at the world and its deleterious circumstances as able to be enacted otherwise. Greene’s ultimate rationale for such commitments hinged on her conviction that literature and the arts can serve to not only represent what “is” but also what “might be.” As such, then, literature and the arts as lived experiences of curriculum, writ large, too can impel desires to take action to repair myriad insufficiencies and injustices that saturate too many persons’ daily lives. To augment those chosen positionings, Greene drew extensively from both her personal and academic background and interests in philosophy, history, the arts, literature, and literary criticism.

Indeed, Greene’s overarching challenge to educators, throughout her prolonged and eminent career, was to think of curriculum as requiring that persons “do philosophy,” to think philosophically about what they are doing. Greene’s challenges to “do philosophy” in ways that acknowledge contingencies, complexities, and differences—especially as these multiplicities are proliferated via sustained participation with myriad versions of literature and the arts—have influenced generations of educators, students, teaching artists, curriculum theorists, teacher educators, and artists around the world.

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