Releasing the imagination by Maxine Greene

Foreword to the Spanish edition | Setembre 2004

Whilst travelling through New York I decided to stop by at Teachers College to visit Maxine Greene. I found her preparing papers for the class she was to give that same afternoon. In just over a quarter of an hour, she piled up books and loose articles on her desk until she had built a veritable barrier between us. It’s useful to have certain poems to hand, she said, sometimes I forget the odd line. Sartre’s books, obviously; the students are reading Les mains sales. Perhaps A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and some works by Virginia Woolf will come in handy. And Metaphor and Memory by Cynthia Ozick will almost certainly be relevant, I heard her murmur at the last minute. We left her office with two large bags of books, a notebook with several photocopied pages sticking out of it, and a bottle of water. We took the long walk to the classroom, corridors, stairs and even a trip in the lift, in total silence. She seemed to give rhythm to her ideas – contained somehow amongst the pages of those books – with the walking stick she leaned on in such a way that I wondered whether it might be a baton in disguise. Once in the classroom, the first question she put to her students was: What is the difference between hell and a bad hotel?

How many texts by poets, philosophers and literati would be needed to understand the question? And how many to try and answer it? In a moment the mobile library that we had just transferred revealed itself to be clearly sparse.

Releasing the imagination is a book on how the arts contain the majority of the treasures that one generation can and should pass on to the next. Imagining is daring to think that things can be another way. That is the starting point of not only the intricate world of freedom but also that of knowledge and that of commitment, the three concepts that Maxine Greene weaves into her works until they converge harmoniously at the very centre of her idea of education.

What is the difference between hell and a bad hotel? was the question Maxine Greene asked her young teaching students that day. The lesson concluded with the forceful, though somewhat cryptic commentary made by one of them: “Really, references to literature are necessary to be able to capture abstract thinking”. “Don’t forget that when you are facing a class of kids in a marginal neighbourhood of some city”, she answered.

Releasing the imagination, the first book by Maxine Greene translated into Spanish, is an exceptional example of that idea formulated by her pupil in New York. The stories contained in works of art – whether these be novels, poems, films, music scores or plays – constitute human cultural heritage and are the true breeding grounds of intellectual life, because they allow us to tour the world in which we live and at the same time imagine how it could be transformed. And it is also the backdrop to the answer from the teacher for whom the most disadvantaged students are an obligatory group of reference.

Releasing the imagination contributes a subtle entry key to an artistic framework capable of making it visible to the educational community that education has numerous registers and extends far beyond the school walls.

For Greene, the world is a mystery and discovering it slowly is an incomparable pleasure. The vitality of her classes, like the reading of her books, leave no place for indifference, an attitude which John Berger describes as “exclusively human”, and one which constantly threatens our world, so saturated with data but very much lacking in understanding and commitment.

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