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In this final chapter of The Dialectic of Freedom Maxine Greene develops the implications for classroom teaching of the previous chapters of philosophical discussion. What ought teachers do if they are to pursue an education ‘in and for freedom’ (p.133)?

First, educators need a goal other than the pursuit of autonomy, the pursuit of ‘free rational will, capable of making relational sense of an extended objective world… independence, self-sufficiency, and authenticity… not…susceptible to outside manipulations and compulsions’ (p.118). Pursuing this goal forces education to focus on ‘logical thinking, the resolution of moral dilemmas, [and] the mastery of interpersonal rules’ (p.119). Greene regarded this highly cognitive focus to be insufficient for enabling free action in the world. Greene referred to ‘many reports’ (albeit without citation) on classroom discussions of moral issues relevant to students that demonstrate ‘little evidence that the participants take such issues personally; there has been little sign of any transfer to situations in the “real world”’ (p.119). In short, an education that pursues autonomous cognitive ability does not promote personal and societal transformation.

An alternative approach to education is grounded in the contextual thinking Greene identified in existential and phenomenologist philosophy, particularly in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Hannah Arendt, and John Dewey. ‘It is because of people’s embeddedness in memory and history,’ Greene argued, ‘because of their incipient sense of community, that freedom in education cannot be conceived as an autonomous achievement’ (p.121). Instead, it is the ideas of ‘relatedness, communication, and disclosure, which provide the context in which freedom must be pursued’ (p.121). Education in and for freedom must alert young people to recognise the context of their lives, to empower them to interpret those situations, and liberate them to conceive of how things could be otherwise. In Greene’s words,

’It is because of the apparent normality, the givenness of young people’s everyday lives, that intentional actions ought to be undertaken to bring things within the scope of students’ attention, to make situations more palpable and visible. Only when they are visible and “at hand” are they likely to cry out for interpretation. And only when individuals are empowered to interpret the situations they live together do they become able to mediate between the object-world and their own consciousness, to locate themselves so that freedom can appear’ (p.122)

The sort of teaching Greene envisaged has two key themes of noticing and searching. Noticing involves paying attention to what is taken for granted, ’seeing what [is] ordinarily obscured by the familiar, so much part of the accustomed and the everyday that it escape[s] notice entirely’ (p.122). Young peoples’ experiences often leave them feeling ‘conditioned, determined, even fated by the prevailing circumstances’, and this as much so for ‘advantaged children’ who feel locked in by a ‘sense of entitlement and privilege’ as for members of minority groups or the poor. Even though ‘young people may not chafe under the inequities’ they experience at school, ‘they are likely to treat them as wholly “normal,” as predictable as natural laws’ (p.125). Education must seek to ‘uncover what masquerades as neutral’ (p.134) and can do so by ‘problematising’ the world—pointing out the tensions that need resolving, the boundaries beckoning to be traversed. Part of the task of uncovering what has been ‘obscured by the familiar’ is to ‘defamiliarise things, to make them strange’ (p.122).[1] Then, ‘seeing more, feeling more, one reaches out for more to do’ (p.123).

Education as search leads young people to ‘take an initiative, to refuse stasis and the flatness of ordinary life’ (p.123). Greene suggested that ‘there may be an integral relationship between reaching out to learn to learn and the “search” that involves a pursuit of freedom’ (p.124). The absence of such a search explains why young people appear to have so little motivation or interest in school since, ‘without being “onto something,” young people feel little pressure, little challenge. There are no mountains they particularly want to climb, so there are few obstacles with which they feel they need to engage’ (p.124). Teachers are urged to explore a wide range of possibilities, to be attentive to the many possible ‘modes of being’ open to young people, to ‘love the questions’ (p.134).

This kind of exploration calls on the imagination to be able to see ‘what lies beyond the accustomed boundaries and… to what is not yet’ (p.126). Greene drew on Dewey’s concept of ‘anaesthetic experience’ as ‘what numbs people and prevents them from reaching out, from launching inquiries’ and argued that ‘experience becomes fully conscious only when meanings derived from earlier experiences enter in through the exercise of the imaginative capacity’ (p.125). The imagination is the gateway, wrote Dewey, through which those meanings are able to interact with present experience. Hence, for Greene, imagination is not disconnected from cognition or meaning. Rather she drew on the concept of ‘critico-creative thinking’ from philosopher John Passmore that ‘conjoins imagination and criticism in a single from of thinking…[in which] the free flow of the imagination is controlled by criticism and criticisms are transformed into a new way of looking at things.’ Imagination, Passmore argued, suggests new ideas, while criticism shows the need for them.

This search for meaning, prompted by noticing and problematising what is taken for granted, and enabled by the exercise of the imagination, is always conducted from a particular vantage point. This is fundamental to Greene’s phenomenologist philosophy. Greene is opposed to any idea of a disembodied consciousness or neutral standpoint stripped of individual perspective. Instead, Greene is committed to a sense of human consciousness that ‘is always situated; and the situated person, inevitably engaged with others, reaches out and grasps the phenomena surrounding him/her from a particular vantage point and against a particular background consciousness’ (p.21). This perspective leads to Greene’s affirming of the need to recognise multiple viewpoints and to pay attention to multiple voices.

Educators must grant ‘audibility to numerous voices seldom heard before and, at once, an involvement with all sorts of young people being provoked to make their own the multilinguality needed for structuring of contemporary experience and thematizing lived worlds’ (p.127). The multiple languages needed for learning do not exclude traditional academic disciplines (again, imagination is not opposed to cognition), ‘but none of them must ever be thought of as complete or all-encompassing’ (p.127). Rather than giving “the answer”, each perspective is valuable as a lens on our shared world. Regarded in this way, ‘they cannot but continue resonating and reforming in the light of new undercurrents, new questions, new uncertainties’ (p.127).

It is in this context that Greene discussed the significance of art objects—literary texts, music, painting, dance. Not only does a work of art bring another perspective on existence, different perspectival readings achieve new meanings from a text, and multiple readings provide opportunity for multiple voices to intersect and interact: ‘They have the capacity, when authentically attended to, to enable persons to hear and to see what they would not ordinarily hear and see, to offer visions of consonance and dissonance that are unfamiliar and indeed abnormal, to disclose the incomplete profiles of the world. As importantly, in this context, they have the capacity to defamiliarize experience: to begin with the overly familiar and transfigure it into something different enough to make those who are awakened hear and see’ (p.129).

Art has ’emancipatory potential’ but holds no guarantees. ‘The arts cannot be counted on to liberate, to ensure an education for freedom…art forms must be conceived of as ever-present possibility’ (p.131). Interaction with works of art ought therefore hold a central place in the school curriculum, providing opportunity to ‘find normal views of experience disrupted and transformed’, to ‘find our own world somehow defamiliarised’, to ‘disclose aspects of experience ordinarily never seen’ (p.131). Art does not displace cognition, but is a necessary complement to enlarge knowledge. ’Poetry,’ Greene noted, ‘does not offer us empirical or documentary truth, but it enables us to “know” in unique ways’ (p.131).

There is much in Greene’s proposal to affirm. First, the limitations of a merely cognitive understanding to effect personal transformation is evident in Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in John 5:39: merely searching the scriptures is not sufficient for life if the study does not recognise how those scriptures bear witness to Jesus, and if that recognition does not lead to coming to Christ to find life. While there has been much concern about declining Bible engagement and biblical literacy in the Western world, particularly among young people, restoring biblical literacy is no guarantee of restoring Christian formation. The challenge for Christian youth ministry is not simply for young people to read and understand the Bible, but to curate environments that enable them to come to Jesus and find life in him.

Second, the need to notice what is obscured by the familiar and the value of problematising experience echoes the educational strategy in Israel evident in the testimonial answers given by Israelite parents to their childrens’ questions. In the liturgical acts of passover (Exod 12:21-26), sacrifice of first born (Exod 13:12-14), keeping the Lord’s commandments (Deut 6:12-20), and placing stones by the Jordan (Josh 4:5-6, 21), Israelite parents make cracks in the ordinary in order to prompt questions, to prompt a search, from their children. Brueggemann noted that in each case, ‘the adult community is engaged in a liturgical act, the meaning of which is hidden and, judged by a neutral observer, irrational. Indeed, the content of the act in each case is to penetrate behind obvious rationality, for the warrant for this community is grounded in memories which precede any conventional rationality’ (Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism, 1993, p.100). Parents make the world strange for their children in order to prompt a search that will call on the children’s imaginations so that they might become participants in the story.

Third, Greene’s call for ‘granting audibility to numerous voices seldom heard before’ ought to alert us to pay attention to the often overlooked voices in the church. Even with a theological authority structure that gives primacy to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures (WCF 1.10; 2 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:1-2; 2 Pet 1:21), and a priority to the recognised teaching office in the church (1 Thess 5:12-13), every member of the community has a contribution to make (1 Cor 12:7). This is especially true for the less prominent parts of the body (1 Cor 12:15-16); even infants are given by God to bring him praise (Psalm 8:2). There is a place in the church for a theology from youth ministry that seeks to articulate a theological vision from young people and from the perspective of youth ministry and to bring that vision to bear on the life of the church. A particular task for adult mentors of young people is to lead the church in listening to young people’s reading of and reflection on Scripture, and to advocate for their voice in the life of the church.

On one final point I am in partial agreement. Greene’s commitment to recognising multiple viewpoints and listening to multiple voices carries with it an assumption of a never ending, open-ended journey of discovery. The search that is human knowledge, of which education is a part, is never complete: ‘To recognize the role of perspective and vantage point, to recognize at the same time that there are always multiple perspectives and multiple vantage points, is to recognize that no accounting, disciplinary or otherwise, can ever be finished or complete. There is always more. There is always possibility. And this is where the space opens for the pursuit of freedom’ (p.128). I often recall the jaded reply from a teenager in response to starting a new Bible study series on Romans: “I’ve already done Romans”! Even if you have ‘done’ it once, there is always more, there is always possibility. There is more to hear from the letter to the Romans, and there is more to consider of how the message of the letter to the Romans engages the ever-changing circumstances of life.

I recall the line from Mary Warnock that Greene cited frequently in other books, ‘it is the main purpose of education to give people the opportunity of not ever being…bored; [in the sense] of not ever succumbing to a feeling of futility, or to the belief that they have come to an end of what is worth having’ (1976, p.203). Warnock wrote of a ‘feeling of infinity’, ‘the belief that there is more in our experience of the world than can possibly meet the unreflecting eye, that our experience is significant for us, and worth the attempts to understand it (p.202). But for Warnock, as for Greene, this feeling is grounded only in the experience of human limitation, not as ‘an item in a creed’ (Warnock, p.202). Because human experience has always been about discovery and possibility (overall, notwithstanding vast numbers of people numbed by boredom) there has indeed always been more. However, in a Christian imagination human limitation is not simply an expression of our experience but is chiefly understood in contrast to God’s eternity. So the sense of infinity is both an experience and an item in the creed.

Paradoxically, infinity has a beginning and and an end—‘the fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom’ (Prov 1:7); ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom 10:4); Jesus is ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Rev 21:13). Naming God as beginning and end of all things does not mean we are able to grasp either, and the experience of knowing God will indeed be unending (‘this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’). But naming God as beginning and end does provide a starting point and a goal for the human quest. There is freedom in the search, but it is a search that begins and ends in God and what God has chosen to reveal of himself to his creation. In the Christian imagination therefore it is fitting for Scripture to operate as canon, as norming norm, as final authority. The authority of Scripture expresses the authority of God. The Bible is not just another book in the ‘Western literary canon’ alongside Madam Bovary, The Plague and Moby Dick; we pay attention to its voice not just because many people have found it worthwhile to listen to but because we receive it as the voice of God, our beginning and end.


[1] Greene’s question, ‘How would a Martian view what was there?’ is echoed in James K. A. Smith’s analysis of church practices in Desiring the Kingdom, ‘imagine we are Martian anthropologists who have come to this strange world of twenty-first-century North America in order to gather data on the rituals and religious habits of its inhabitants’ (2013, p.19).

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