Striving for “Wide-awakeness”

Dr. Maxine Greene

This summer I’ve been developing the conceptual framework for my pilot study–what I’m currently describing as a multimodal narrative inquiry that will examine the ways in which pre-service art educators in a master’s level “cultural diversity” course construct and make meaning of their social identities through a series of written (e.g., poetry, prose) and visual (e.g., collage, painting, photographs, video) narratives. It has been overwhelming and trying at times [read: quite often] to sort through hundreds of articles returned through online academic journal searches, to parse out just what exactly I’m thinking about and begin to comprehend how the syntax of my research questions matters so much. But there have been a few days, a few moments, a few pieces of writing that I have stumbled upon, others that I have revisited, some familiar, many new, that have given me pause. Caused me to reflect. Reminded me why I am doing this work, why my study matters. Most recently, it has been with the work of Maxine Greene, a philosopher, author, and professor emerita at Teachers College. I was introduced to her writing a few years ago, but truth be told, never went much deeper than the one essay assigned for class. As an educator, a scholar, a writer, an artist, a woman, I’m upset with myself for not delving deeper into Greene’s work sooner. She was a woman so incredibly ahead of her time, arguing for the importance of the arts and humanities, of storytelling, and self-reflections as means for social justice for the last 40 years. She just passed away in early June, at the age of 96.

Reading through her essays, there are entire paragraphs that I’ve copied down into my notebook because it’s oftentimes nearly impossible to paraphrase her brilliance. And this is what prompted this post. I’m moved to share some of the short passages that have so deeply struck me in the last few weeks. While educators are often her focus, her thoughts serve as recommendations for us all as human beings–to be better people, more aware, more engaged. She offers a kind of tangible, realistic hope while still striving for idealist, utopian goals. She makes me want to be a better educator, scholar, and person.

There is one particular essay, “Towards Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education,” originally published in The Teachers College Record (1977) and reprinted the following year in Greene’s own book, Landscapes of Learning (1978), that resurfaces every few months–whether it’s as a reading for class, a citation in someone else’s essay or article, or in conversation with colleagues at Teachers College–standing in the very same hallways that Greene traversed for so many years.

In the essay, Greene essentially makes the argument for the cruciality of the “arts and humanities” to be central to any curriculum constructed today. She builds on philosopher Alfred Schutz’s notion of wide-awakeness, the idea that the creation of an authentic self requires a heightened consciousness and reflectiveness with which we engage in our work, our lives, and with those around us. Greene offers:

“If it is indeed the case, as I believe it is, that involvement with the arts and humanities has the potential for provoking precisely this sort of reflectiveness, we need to devise ways of integrating them into what we teach at all levels of the educational enterprise; we need to do so consciously, with a clear perception of what it means to enable people to pay, from their own distinctive vantage points, ‘full attention to life’.

The following are a few of the excerpts from Greene’s essay, “Towards Wide-Awakeness,” that have greatly influenced and strengthened the ways in which I am framing my study:

“Narratives, we have come to realize, are the means by which we gradually impart meaning to the events of our own lives.”

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People in education are recognizing the importance of “coming in touch with the patterns of their own self-formation if they are to find connection points with other human beings…There are the impacts of class, color, gender, the marriage condition of parents, the setting–urban and high-rising, or rural under a big sky. It is, as many have found, not only the events, the modes of action that must be recaptured [in storytelling]; it is the landscape–perceived and felt and imagined–against which the activities have taken place.

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“…if we are to become attuned to those places, become aware of those places where our selves and the selves of others are to be intertwined, we must be open to our own horizons, to the patterns and, yes, the vacancies in the landscape against which our stories are told.”

*      *      *

Not only ought teachers to be seeking connection points (through art experiences and storytelling) between dimensions of their own personal histories and the personal histories of those they teach; students ought to be offered more and more time for telling their stories, sharing them with all of those around…Not only do teachers and learners together need to tell and choose; they ought to look towards untapped possibilities, explore what [the stories signify] to transform.”

*      *      *

“All we can do is speak with others as passionately and eloquently as we can about justice and caring and love and trust…We want our classrooms to be reflective and just; we want them to pulsate with a plurality of conceptions of what it is to be human and fully alive. We want them to be full of the sounds of articulate young people, with ongoing dialogues involving as many as possible, opening to each other, opening to the world. And we want them to care for one another, as we learn more and more about caring for them. We want them to achieve friendships, as each one stirs to wide-awakeness, to renewed consciousness of possibility.”

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Here’s a video interview with Maxine Greene from the Teachers College Oral History project. I encourage you to watch even for just a few moments to hear her eloquence, her brilliance, her thoughtfulness in her own her words, with her own voice.