Aesthetic Inquiry: Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene

This is an article that appeared in The High School Journal. I was invited for their 100th anniversary issue to write an article in response to one written by Maxine Greene in 1980, called Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts: Toward Transformation, in which she argues for the importance of robust experiences in the arts as a means of developing critical thinking.


Aesthetic Inquiry: Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
Amanda Nicole Gulla
In Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts: Towards Transformations, Maxine
Greene speaks to the reader with passion and immediacy about the transformative
possibilities of aesthetic encounters with works of art. For Greene, works of art are not
to be passively experienced. They are to be “achieved” (Greene, 1980, p. 316). A
“certain stance” (p. 316) is required of us “if the sounds and the light are to become
available to consciousness” (p. 316). To take that stance of questioning and alertness, a
willingness to take the time to look more deeply and to see what is to be seen is to
understand what it is to “awaken to the ways in which the arts are grasped by human
consciousness (p. 317).” This awakening is the means through which art becomes a
force for transformation, opening the channels through which individuals are changed
by an encounter with a painting or a poem.
Fully grasping a work of art often requires curiosity, patience, and a willingness to
challenge oneself to extend one’s perceptions beyond the comfortable and familiar. In
many of her lectures and writing, Greene described the work involved in embracing
and fully apprehending a painting or a symphony as “lending a work of art your life.”
This notion suggests a reciprocal relationship between work of art and audience as
Greene writes:
In some fashion, as one attends, one lends the work one’s life. Or one brings it into the
world through a sometimes mysterious interpretive act in a space between oneself and
the stage or the wall or the text (2001, p. 128).
The work of art is not inert, and the person interacting with the art cannot be passive.
We learn to listen, to open ourselves to what the artist is telling us—this human being
transmitting a message across space and time—we apprehend a version of the subject
of the work that is mediated by the artist’s perception and voice. By taking the time to
look and look again and use language and gestures to describe what we observe, we
open ourselves further to grasp the work’s meaning.
This is what Greene describes as a “distinctive mode of literacy, an achieved capacity
to break with ordinary ways of seeing and hearing” (p. 319). Where teachers are engaged
in the pedagogy of aesthetic education, we see 21st Century classrooms come
alive through these kinds of interactions. In my own experience as a teacher and as a
staff developer, I have introduced students and teachers to the possibilities of aesthetic
education across the curriculum. In a seventh grade social studies class we used
Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs to put a human face on this distant historical
period. We asked the students to study the photographs and work in small groups to
annotate the images with observations and questions. After this activity the students
seemed to be deeply moved by the images and curious about the lives of the people in
them. We invited them to write poems based on the pictures. Instead of the usual
textbook approach to the Social Studies curriculum, these students were curious and
ã 2018 The University of North Carolina Press
eager to dive into their studies of American history. One soft-spoken girl named Sarah
gave voice to the battlefield itself in her poem:
I am the grass soaked in blood
The sky looking down on the field
Suddenly quiet
As the only thing moving is the
Smoke rising in the air.
In another example, a Bronx English Language Arts classroom in a high school for
newcomers, teenagers who were recent immigrants intensely studied Jacob Lawrence’s
Migration Series and wrote their own stories in response. In the midst of this unit of
study a boy named Andy jumped out of his chair and ran across the room with a book
of Lawrence’s paintings, eager to show his teacher an image of a young boy picking
cotton in a field stooping from the weight of his heavy basket. “This is me!” This
moment of lending his life to Lawrence’s paintings led Andy to write this poem about
his life in the Dominican Republic, picking crops in the hot sun while he longed to go
to school with his peers:
Working since I was a child in my uncle’s fields.
getting up when the sun rose and coming back when the sun was going down.
My heart throbbed with sadness because I could not get an education like my
I could not have
the same opportunity as them.
Tired of
planting the field
weeding the field
carrying bananas in a bag bigger than me.
bending hundreds of times every day to get potatoes
feeling that my back is going to break
walking in shoes covered in mud
because we did not have a vehicle.
I went to school without books, both the school and I didn’t have any
and only one pencil
and a piece of paper,
walking into my class
with everybody looking at my broken shoes.
In these cases and many more, disadvantaged children are eager to lend works of art
their lives and respond with their own creative expressions. These are the kinds of
interactions that can lead students to read with more depth and write with more
confidence, yet they are still not taken nearly seriously enough in the culture of
schools—at least not in the schools that most American children attend. In 1980,
Maxine Greene proclaimed that “learning is forced down narrower and narrower
channels,” and that young people are “alienated from the appearances of the world,
distanced from their feelings, caught between sensory indulgence and a bored passivity”
(p. 318). Breaking through this passivity is not always easy. Even when some
teachers do attempt to bring some creativity and agency into the curriculum, students
themselves who have been acculturated into passivity can be difficult to engage. A girl
in a middle school classroom, when asked to write a response to an article about air
pollution commented that it didn’t matter to her, because she never went outside. Her
The High School Journal – Winter 2018
response, so deeply mired in the mundane, suggests a life that is fearfully closed off
from the imaginative world and stands in stark contrast to students in classrooms
where aesthetic encounters with works of art are encouraged.
Encounters with the arts have the power to “create occasions for new beginnings,”
leading to results that can be “unpredictable” (p. 316). Schools, like most bureaucracies,
prefer the measurable and the predictable. Since the 1980s the American education
system has devoted increasing resources to measuring competencies through
standardized testing and accountability measures (Ravitch, 2010, p. xxii.) Education
has been commodified, as Greene would say, as a single corporation owns the standardized
tests used to assess students and the text books used to prepare students for
those tests, as well as the exams used to certify teachers in many states. The value of
education in a democracy has been oversimplified to what the Common Core Standards
calls “college and career readiness” ( Nowhere
in these standards is there any indication that the qualities of curiosity, creativity, or
collaboration are valued. The beliefs reflected in these standards are a continuation of
what Greene called “the preoccupation with ‘competencies’ and behavioral objectives”
(p. 318). Because school administrators tend to be so preoccupied with the
quantifiable, learning experiences full of “adventurousness linked to aesthetic encounters”
may be considered “subversive of the ends of schooling” (p. 318).
Greene continued throughout her life to advocate for meaningful and adventurous
encounters with the arts as a centerpiece of public education. In 2013, just a few
months before her death at the age of 96, she met with a class of English Education
graduate students from Lehman College, the Bronx campus of the City University of
New York, in her Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park on a rainy October
evening. “The most important aspect of learning is the child’s experience,” she said.
“A child is a person, a valuable person and each one offers their own horizons” (informal
communication). This belief in valuing the lived experiences of children
hearkens back to her urging that we “enable students to release responsive energies in
the face of actual works of art” (p. 320). To teach according to the principles of aesthetic
education is to recognize the potential for meaningful encounters with works of art to
release students’ imaginations and to help them find their voices.
What does it mean to integrate Maxine Greene’s philosophy of aesthetic education into
the workaday classroom? The practice of aesthetic education in contemporary schools
requires almost as much skill in justification and compromise as it does in drawing
insight and imagination out of students. Teachers are expected to explain how the
study of a dance or a painting aligns with the Common Core Standards. Those who
come to teaching from an artists’ perspective must learn how to interweave aesthetic
encounters with codified learning goals in academic subject areas. Classroom teachers
who take time to study a work of art that is not text-based may encounter resistance
from administrators who dismiss such work as lacking “rigor.” This view, according to
Greene, falsifies “the nature of the arts and their role in the human career” (p. 318). In
fact, teachers who incorporate engagement with works of art via guided discussion and
questioning as well as hands-on art-making experiences understand that the effort
required for students to achieve these works of art (p. 316) can ultimately serve to
develop students’ capacities to read, write, reason, and communicate. Greene references
Dewey, who writes of the necessity for apprenticeship in seeing through a microscope
as a biologist would or viewing landscapes as a geologist does (p. 321).
Similarly, learning to truly see what there is to be seen in a work of art or understand
universal themes in literature requires a kind of apprenticeship in observation.
Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
Teachers working in the mode of aesthetic education understand that particularly for
students who struggle with reading, images often provide opportunities for critical and
complex thought and language that help develop their literacy skills. By engaging in
prolonged inquiry around works of art and then having the opportunity to make their
own creative works, aesthetic inquiry leads students to find and channel their voices.
The ability to express themselves lends these young people a powerful sense of agency.
They begin to believe in themselves in ways they might not have thought possible
before. We have seen students transformed in tangible ways. They become better and
more confident writers. They read more deeply and make more complex connections
in their thinking. Fabilisa, a young woman at the newcomers’ high school, graduated
and went to the local community college and reported with pride being able to explain
the symbolism in a book to her classmates because she had learned to read beneath the
surface by first doing so with a painting.
In that same high school English Language Arts class of recent immigrants who were so
deeply engaged with Jacob Lawrence’s work, we started out by studying Frida Kahlo’s
painting Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States. We
asked the students to describe what they noticed in the painting, and wrote their
observations down on large chart paper hung around the classroom. Then we had them
discuss their observations in small groups and had each group create their own chart of
questions the painting raised for them. While no formal data was gathered about student
performance before and after these experiences, students reported that this
practice of deep observation and questioning had helped them to see more in the texts
they were reading across subjects. Their writing showed marked improvement, and for
some, even their attendance improved as those who had habitually been late or truant
began coming to school early and staying late to work on their poems inspired by the
works of art they were studying in their English class.
In this class, a student who has had to leave her mother behind in the Dominican
Republic is finally able to express the ache of that loss in a poem because she has seen
something in the way Jacob Lawrence captured similar grief. Her classmates listen and
respond thoughtfully, and it is her first experience of feeling successful in school.
Another student in the same class who is from Bangladesh shares her own poem about
missing her mother and a connection is made between the two young women across
the boundaries of language and culture. Aesthetic encounters can sometimes serve to
make us feel less alone.
To teach under the influence of Maxine Greene is to be committed to helping students
understand how and why to attend deeply to their world. It is to nurture one’s
creativity and imagination in the face of “domesticating forces” and to be “resistant
to socialization and control” (p. 319). While there have been several cycles of educational
reform initiatives since 1980, school remains a primary site of domestication.
Learning is measured and quantified through seemingly endless rounds of
standardized tests, leading to a privileging of subjects with readily measurable
Amid the school reform talk, one rarely hears about the need for young people to
develop the capacities that are nurtured through encounters with the arts. There
may be some recognition that studying music enhances mathematical skills, or
sometimes there is a perfunctory attempt to “enrich” an academic unit of study with
the inclusion of some thematically related poems or images, but almost no attention
is paid to the art of paying attention that can be cultivated through aesthetic
The High School Journal – Winter 2018
education practices. Seldom is the work of art at the center of study in an “academic”
Engagement with the arts can activate students’ imaginations to enable them to conceive
of other possible lives.When opportunities to participate in guided inquiry into works of
art are woven into the culture of schooling, we can begin to see what Greene describes as
aesthetic education, teaching what it means to “be responsive to new vistas and new
forms. . .to move students to fresh insight and awareness” (p. 317). Aesthetic education
as a philosophy is a movement that appears to be gaining more widespread attention,
with practitioners among teaching artists, teacher educators, and classroom teachers.
Teaching and learning through inquiry that consists of questions, discussion, and handson
exploration of the arts helps to cultivate the qualities of thought and attention that can
lead students to develop the habits of mind consistent with motivated lifelong learners.
This engagement with works of art through questioning and dialogue must also be
accompanied by hands-on art making, which is necessary to enable students to
“confront aesthetic objects with a quality of attention different from what they would
have been capable of if they had not themselves experimented and explored” (p. 319).
Giving students the opportunity to create their own works of art is an essential part of
the aesthetic experience. Not only does it create an opportunity for young people to
express themselves, it helps them to understand the power of symbol and metaphor as
the vehicle for that expression. Art making puts young people in touch with “the
artistic-aesthetic and the part it plays in the human experience” (p. 317).
This is a mode of teaching that focuses on the live transaction between the work of art
and a person. We teach students to approach a work of art with an open mind when we
begin the inquiry by asking “What do you notice?” This steers the discussion toward
observation and description and away from premature opinion and interpretation. The
goal is not to become an expert; it is to become awakened to possibilities. When we
bring students into an encounter with a Jackson Pollock painting our purpose is not to
talk about what we know about Abstract Expressionism. In an aesthetic education
context, we take the time to guide them to notice patterns in the movement of the paint.
We encourage them to sweep their arms to follow Pollock’s movements to have the
sensation of this unique and muscular approach to painting, and through this movement
we observe the deliberate choices the artist made, the rhythm, the way he danced
with paint. Through guided questioning and art making experiences, we teach students
to actively encounter the work, trying to empower students to see for themselves.
Aesthetic education encourages students to see more than can be seen at a cursory
glance. It requires something of learners. Reading literature or appreciating a work of
art is regarded as a transaction in which each fresh encounter holds the potential for
new perceptions and understandings. “The point of such activities,” Greene tells us,
“would be to make people see, to break with compartmentalized viewing, to take new
standpoints on the world” (p. 318). While many educators do recognize the potential
for these new ways of seeing and thinking to inform learning in a variety of positive
ways, those unfortunately do not seem to be values dearly held by any major education
policymakers in recent years. Arts programs in schools very often lack sufficient resources
in the form of time in the school day, space, and materials. Because the arts are
not among the subjects of standardized tests, they are given a low priority. Starving
these programs is an effective way to limit their reach and impact.
Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts was written in 1980, just a few short years
after New York City’s Mayor had balanced the city budget through drastic cuts to
Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
schools, laying off many thousands of teachers and cutting “non-essential” services
like after-school arts programs that had served thousands of young people who lived
at or near the poverty line. Similarly, public schools all over the country—especially
those serving poor children—still suffer from a lack of education in the various arts.
Greene argues that education in the arts, when it exists at all, is viewed by many as
“self-indulgent play” rather than the means by which to develop essential cognitive
skills. This is unfortunately just as true today, although the tide may be turning as more
teachers engage in practices that allow works of art to be “vividly present,” and not
merely “set before the uninformed—to be admired from a distance” (p. 319).
It is encouraging thatMaxine Greene continues to be a powerful voice in teacher education.
Her work remains fresh and necessary, and educators continue to be introduced to her
writings. Those who knew her recall that she was always much more interested in questions
than in answers. She often held gatherings of friends, artists, and teachers at her
home. She sat by the window and in all seasons, would discuss the view of the street and
the park, the walkers, the runners, and the changing trees. Nick Sousanis and Daiyu
Suzuki, two of Greene’s doctoral students at Columbia University’s Teachers College,
created a comic called “To See…What She Saw.” This work, begun in collaboration with
Maxine and completed after her death, attempted to represent her philosophy in visual
form, using as a metaphor a large tree that grew outside her window. She had often
expressed a wish that she could draw that tree, as she discussed its form and its dynamic
and constantly changing nature.
In an interview with Teachers College Record, Sousanis said: “Maxine’s philosophy
isn’t something that would end with her. It’s something she would give to other people
and it would grow in its directions in them” (Sousanis, 2015). By its very nature,
aesthetic education is a practice that “grows in its directions” in the practitioner as we
learn to “teach what it means to pay heed to the appearances of things, to be responsive
to new vistas and new forms” (p. 317).
When we do see aesthetic education in practice it is most often in elementary schools or
among older students in the humanities—particularly in English classes. In these classes
our practice involves helping students “see themselves as encountering the art of imaginative
literature” (p. 318) rather than reading purely for information or analysis. That is
how we begin to lay the “necessary foundation for the development of aesthetic literacy.”
Aesthetic literacy is transformative as we begin to perceive in new ways, make new
connections, and continually ask questions. This new way of being does not end at the
schoolhouse door. Rather, to “be active in the world as a listener and a beholder” (p. 319)
is to challenge the limits of perceived reality and imagine new possibilities. To practice
aesthetic education is to be aware that we are in a constant state of becoming, and to
understand that there is always more to be seen and heard.
To enact the philosophy of aesthetic education is to bring students “in touchwith their own
perceived landscapes or that which might allow them to seek out their own imageries,
symbolisms, or expressive forms” (p. 318). The challenge is to persuade educational policy
makers that imagination and creative expression are important capacities for students to
develop. These capacities are not merely “ornamental or therapeutic.” They are necessary
“if persons are to be more than passive receptors, calculators and technicians” (p. 321).
This is not about turning all students into professional artists. It is about teaching people to
observe more, tomake connections between ideas, to see possibilities they would not have
imagined otherwise. Immersing young people in the aesthetic offers them nothing less than
an alternative to the anesthetic. When young people are educated in the qualities of
The High School Journal – Winter 2018
attention nurtured through aesthetic education they may begin to question the surface
appearance of their world. Aesthetic education places emphasis on the role of the imagination
in education. As Greene says, “imagination permits the seeing of resemblances” (p.
320). At a time when the world seems fixated on differences rather than resemblances, the
imagination can help to foster empathy and forge connections.
Our current political climate is polarized by fear and resentment, creating an environment
that leaves us subject to authoritarian tendencies. For our students in the newcomers’
high school, the aesthetic education workshops came during a time when
anti-immigrant rhetoric was becoming an increasingly prominent issue. Telling their
stories in response to the work of such artists as Frida Kahlo and Jacob Lawrence and the
poet George Ella Lyon whose poem “Where I’m From” is often used as a model for
students’ autobiographical poems was far more than an academic exercise. It took
courage for them to write about their experiences and share them with their classmates.
The students were so invested in finding their voices that they became willing to share
their work with the wider world. We produced an anthology of their writing, called
Nobody Knows the Stories of Others, titled after a line from one of the students’ poems.
This effort was a beginning, a drop in the ocean of challenges these young people would
face as they went forth into an increasingly hostile world, but the experience helped to
empower them to be more articulate and confident in their ability to take action. Beyond
their own experiences of self-expression, the students attended thoughtfully to each
other’s work and became a true community of learners. This was no mere exercise; these
high school students were truly writing their lives. Brandon’s poem in response to
Lyons’ “Where I’m From,” vividly depicts his experience as a young newcomer:
I am a broken toy
in the factory where I am from
and the last thing a factory needs
is another broken toy.
I am from a golden heart
that is too heavy for my body.
From delicate snowflakes hugging me
during the nights
and falling on the hard ice.
I am from the world of teenagers who can’t sleep at night
because we are afraid of the future.
I am from the dreamers who carry a will
that people left behind
and the ones who keep ghostly promises.
I am from the bright side of the moon
where my house is placed in the street
I am from far far away
where kids get scared in the park at night.
I am an astronaut lost in space with no more oxygen
I am from I don’t want to go to school
I don’t know these people! Or
They don’t know me.
I am from being late to school because
“the bus was late”
Teaching Under the Influence of Maxine Greene
but the reality is that I got lost in my thoughts
with my head in the clouds
and my feet on the ground.
I am from a stolen childhood
where I lost all my faith.
I am from asking “Can you tell me where I am from?”
moving from one place to another without
my own home.
I am from being lost in the storm
From two different timelines
in the past, living in the future.
I am from wishing to create a bright future
from a dark past.
I am from myself
and nowhere else.
Greene begins her article Aesthetics and the Experience of the Arts: Toward Transformations
by quoting W.H. Auden’s poem“In Memory of WB Yeats” in which he says “poetry
makes nothing happen” (p. 316). Poems and works of art themselves cannot change anything,
of course. It is the transactions, the live encounterswith poetry and otherworks of art
that bring about change by changing people. People are transformed when they “wrench
themselves from their submergence in the ordinary and live for a while in the imaginary
world” (p. 316). A truly well rounded education must include such opportunities ifwe are
to be able to see beyond the horizon to imagine better possibilities for our world.


Works Cited
Burgos, A. (2014). Untitled poem. in Nobody knows the stories of others. (Gulla, A., Sherman, M, eds.)
Anthology of student poems and artwork from Kingsbridge International High School, Bronx, N.Y.
Common Core State Standards Date Accessed 9/8/2017.
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. New York, NY: Penguin & Company.
Greene, M. Aesthetics and the experience of the arts: Towards transformations. The High School Journal, Vol.
63, No. 8 (May, 1980). pp. 316–322.
Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education.
New York, NY, Teachers College Press.
Lawrence, J. (1941). Migration Series. Museum of Modern Art website.
exhibitions/2015/onewayticket/ Date Accessed 9/8/2017.
Lyon, G.E. (1999). Where I’m from: Where poems come from. Spring, TX. Absey & Company.
Molina, B. (2014). “Where I’m From” in Nobody knows the stories of others. (Gulla, A., Sherman, M, eds.)
Anthology of student poems and artwork from Kingsbridge International High School, Bronx, N.Y.
Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Rilke, R. M. (2001). The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. (A.S. Kline, trans.) Poetry In Translation www. Date Accessed 12/21/2017.
Sousanis, N., Suzuki, D. (2015). Continuing a conversation with Maxine Greene in comics. Teachers College
Record Volume 117 Number 10, 2015, p. 1–6 ID Number: 18103, Date Accessed:
Sousanis, N., Suzuki, D. (2015). To see what she saw. Date
Accessed: 9/8/2017.
Tavares, S. (2004). Civil war battlefield. Unpublished student poem. Middle School 190. Bronx, NY.
The High School Journal – Winter 2018

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