Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2009 Issue »

    Coda: The Slow Fuse of Change

    Obama, the Schools, Imagination, and Convergence

    Maxine Greene
    Teachers College, Columbia University

    I began writing this essay the day after waves of euphoria swept over what appeared to be a profoundly altered public space. We had seen the most diverse gathering of people coming freely together to affirm a common purpose no one could quite yet define. No one had instructed them to come out in the cold of that inauguration morning; there was neither prize nor penalty involved. And yet, for their own reasons and moved by their own private hopes, they chose themselves as newcomers to a community-in-the-making, working to find what they had in common and what brought them to that shared space. Was it Barack Obama’s charisma, his way of speaking, his choice of words? Was it the appeal of his family, the propriety of those little girls, the obvious bond he shared with Michelle? Or was it the sense that a time of apathy and felt powerlessness was over? Was there a promise in that iteration of change—a promise of direction, of hopes to be fulfilled at last?

    Obama indeed expresses and embodies a concern for education—and an underlying hope. Such an interest by a federal leader makes it easy to forget that public education was long considered a responsibility of the states and localities. This meant that the inequities perpetuated by some state laws could only be overcome by federal action sparked in part by a growing sense of injustice among the people. In relatively recent history, a growing recognition of our schools’ deficiencies and failures led to federal actions such as the Johnson administration’s passing of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—in large part a response to a new sense of injustice informing the “war on poverty” and the civil rights movement. Similarly, as difficult as it was to begin to overcome years of prejudice and discrimination, the 1954 decision outlawing segregation in public schools led to new hopes and collective activities among African Americans in the South. Little by little, the public became acquainted with images of youthful heroism and instances of breaking down the walls of inequity. It seemed a moment of triumph for people of color and those similarly excluded. But the victories were incomplete. It would take time before those who believed in equality and justice—and still believe—would begin to see these values carry the force of natural law.

    The necessity of natural law can justify a strong hand on the part of the federal government. However, the president can neither make certain promises nor answer all questions—and neither can we. Few of us are skilled enough to muster telling arguments or make sure predictions about how best to prioritize the work that must be done to repair infrastructures, reduce joblessness, expand health care, or strengthen and enrich the education of young people. What is necessary is to remind ourselves that education has much to do with power and with the opening of public spaces—spaces where people come together in their freedom to bring a democratic community into being. There can be, and must be, spaces of   dialogue, spaces of diversity and mutuality and concern. There must be spaces of convergence.

    Though we can make no sure predictions, we can weigh probabilities in a very uncertain time. I am interested in possibility—in what might be, in what should be, if things were otherwise. In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson wrote that, “the possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination” (1960). To commit to imagining is to commit to looking beyond the given, beyond what appears to be unchangeable. It is a way of warding off the apathy and the feelings of futility that are the greatest obstacles to any sort of  learning and, surely, to education for freedom.

    There seemed to be clues in the euphoria, efforts to light that slow fuse of possibility. The presence of veterans of the struggle for civil rights at Obama’s inauguration lit many fuses of memory. Images returned—of fire hoses; of beatings; of the little girls in Birmingham; of the Selma march and the other long, hot marches; of the Mississippi murders; of the killing of Dr. King. Perhaps it requires an act of imagination to make meaningful the suffering, the sacrifices. In classrooms, the question of what can be done now that we have a president who says we and who speaks of our responsibility may become central. How can we make it worthwhile, each of us feeling herself to be a participant in our schools and our colleges, just as we participated in that remarkable campaign? Can we imagine ourselves moving beyond simply being there?

    There was the suggestion that the inauguration may have been a coming true of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream—one of the most potent imaginative constructions in our history. And there was the evocation of Dr. King’s prophecy that he might not be with his people when they attained their goal. Surely, for more than a few, his prophecy suggested that new young women and men would emerge to carry on, that we needed to imagine such a possibility. In our imagining, we might think of Barack Obama after his  success at Harvard and at a turning point in his life, faced with the choice of what next. Able to secure any position of his choosing, he chose remarkably to become a community organizer. We might hope—and we might imagine—that those experiences in Chicago can even now help him note the savage nature of the inequalities he found (Kozol, 1992) and must continue to find as he moves across our land. We might imagine him bringing community members together with teachers and learners to show that it is unendurable for a child to be expected to climb a meritocratic ladder when she lacks sneakers or lunch money—and, most importantly, has no notion of things being otherwise.

    We need imagination.

    We need visions of the possible and of the unexpected. We need to act on the promises of that cold morning, stimulus or no, obstacles or no. To educate, to change, we need to converge.

    Dickinson, E. (1960). The gleam of an heroic act. In Johnson, T. H. (Ed.). The complete poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities. New York: Harper Perennial.

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    Maxine Greene teaches a course in the Arts and Humanities Department at Teachers College. As philosopher-in-residence at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, she conducts workshops on aesthetic education to teachers and teacher educators. She has a central interest in the power and significance of imagination in thought and action.
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    Summer 2009 Issue


    Editors’ Introduction
    Note to Educators
    Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete
    Jeffrey M. R. Duncan-Andrade
    A Dialogue
    Our Selves, Our Students, and Obama
    Jennifer McLaughlin and Kim Kelly
    President Obama and Education
    The Possibility for Dramatic Improvements in Teaching and Learning
    Linda Darling-Hammond
    Promise and Peril
    Charter Schools, Urban School Reform, and the Obama Administration
    Charles Payne and Tim Knowles
    Reclaiming Our Freedom to Teach
    Education Reform in the Obama Era
    Megan Behrent
    Obama’s Dilemma
    Postpartisan Politics and the Crisis of American Education
    Henry A. Giroux
    Second-Class Integration
    A Historical Perspective for a Contemporary Agenda
    Vanessa Siddle Walker
    Equity and Empathy
    Toward Racial and Educational Achievement in the Obama Era
    Prudence L. Carter
    It Wasn’t Easy to Get Here
    Kathleen Mayse
    Obama, Where Art Thou?
    Hoping for Change in U.S. Education Policy
    Wayne Au
    Praise Song for Teachers
    A Call to Action
    Ariane White
    Educating Latino Immigrant Students in the Twenty-First Century
    Principles for the Obama Administration
    Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco
    Education for Everyday People
    Obstacles and Opportunities Facing the Obama Administration
    Gloria Ladson-Billings
    An Insurrectionary Generation
    Young People, Poverty, Education, and Obama
    Jay Gillen
    An Earned Insurgency
    Quality Education as a Constitutional Right
    Robert P. Moses
    Barack Obama and the Fight for Public Education
    William Ayers
    Coda: The Slow Fuse of Change
    Obama, the Schools, Imagination, and Convergence
    Maxine Greene
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