Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.3, 223-233
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes ( DOI:10.4236/ce.2013.43033
Releasing the Social Imagination: Art, the Aesthetic Experience,
and Citizenship in Education*
Seungho Moon#, Shawn Rose, Alison Black, James Black, Yeorim Hwang,
Lisa Lynn, Jason Memoli
School of Teaching and Curriculum Leadership, College of Education, Oklahoma State University,
Stillwater, USA
Received December 26th, 2012; revised January 25th, 2013; accepted February 10th, 2013
This paper is about releasing the social imagination through art in education. This research examines pos-
sibilities to use the aesthetic experience as a means to awaken students’ consciousness for advancing de-
mocratic values, including multiple perspectives, freedom, and responsibility. Drawing from Maxine
Greene’s (1995, 2001) philosophy of social imagination and aesthetic education, this inquiry aims to en-
rich discourse in the field of curriculum studies, creativity, and citizenship education. Six educators initi-
ated a social imagination project separately. They designed, implemented, and assessed a semester-long
project founded in Greene’s philosophy of social imagination. The participants challenged habitual ways
of thinking about self/other, culture, and community through active engagement between art and the sub-
ject. The aesthetic encounters with art (a) fostered the participants’ wide-awakeness about the society and
(b) engaged participants to imagining “things as if they could be otherwise” (Greene, 1995: p. 16). An
emphasis on the aesthetic experience through art contributes to advancing democratic values in a pluralis-
tic society.
Keywords: Maxine Greene; the Aesthetic Experience; Social Imagination; Arts; Citizenship
This paper intends to enrich conversations in the field of cur-
riculum studies, creativity, and citizenship education by re-
thinking the values of art and the aesthetic experience. A major
educational discourse in art is about how to increase students’
creativity in developing new ideas, implementing the ideas, and
advancing innovative practices in schools and society. A man-
dated curriculum, followed by higher testing scores, controls
the current experience of students and teachers (Pinar, 2012;
Taubman, 2009). Art is utilized as a tool to increase students’
academic achievement (Hirsh, 2010; Tishman & Palmer, 2006)
or to represent their disciplinary knowledge (e.g., van der Veen,
2012). Multiple approaches to advance students’ intellectual
capacity are important and art has contributed to engage stu-
dents in learning. By rethinking the roles of art in society, we
join this conversation of highlighting the values of art in educa-
tion and creativity. This paper examines the value of art from
its capacity of releasing the imagination, not from functiona-
lism for outcome-based educational practices.
This paper is grounded in Maxine Greene’s (1995, 2001)
philosophy of art and aesthetic education. Greene’s philosophy
provides a perspective to consider art not as a private space but
as a public domain for social transformation. Greene ’ s p h i l o s o p h y
about aesthetic education originates from this idea of “how to
awaken” subjects’ consciousness through their aesthetic experi-
ence. According to Greene, an active engagement between wor-
ks of art and the subject increases his or her critical consciousness
through reflective encounters with art (Miller, 2010). Imagina-
tion plays a critical role to awaken the subject’s consciousness
towards social injustice and to “look at things as if they could
be otherwise” (Greene, 1995: p. 16). Drawing from Greene’s
philosophy of social imagination, this paper explores possibili-
ties to rethink art and the aesthetic experience as a means of
awakening students’ consciousness towards democratic values,
including multiple perspectives, freedom, responsibility, and
diversity. According to Greene (1995), social imagination is the
capacity “to invent visions of what should be and what might
be in our deficit society, on the streets where we live, in our
schools” (p. 5). This inquiry explicates the ways in which edu-
cators advance student’s democratic values by enacting a par-
ticipatory, active engagement with art. By analyzing six social
imagination projects, this paper examines the roles of art and
imagination in education.
Greene (1995) states that the aesthetic experience garners
various means of dialogues “where nothing stays the same” (p.
16). This inquiry provides opportunities to explore the roles of
the aesthetic experience in education for developing democratic
values. This paper has two major overarching questions: 1) In
what ways do educators create dialogues about the roles of art
in education drawing from the participants’ aesthetic experi-
ence? 2) In what ways does an extraordinary experience with
art enable educators and the participants to examine multiple,
shifting meanings of culture and communities? These questions,
at the end, provide an opportunity to imagine alternative possi-
*With minor revisions, three sections in this article (2, 5, & 6) appear
in a conference proceeding: Moon, S. (2012, May). Releasing the
multicultural imagination: Aesthetic experience, imagination, and di-
versity in curriculum studies. Paper presented at the 2012 Korean
Association for Multicultural Education (KAME) International Con-
ference. Seoul, Korea.
#Main author.
Corresponding author.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 223
bilities for discourse and practice regarding art, creativity, and
social transformation.
The Aesthetic Experience and Wide-Awakeness
Among many philosophical concepts that Greene uses, this
paper mainly focuses on her notion of wide-awakeness. Greene
gives credit for this notion of “wide-awakeness” to Alfred
Schutz and Paulo Freire. According to Schutz, wide-awakeness
is a heightened plane of consciousness—consciousness repre-
senting “the ways in which he or she thrusts into the world”
(Greene, 1995: pp. 25-26). Wide-awakeness is also connected
with Freire’s (1970) notion of conscientization or critical con-
sciousness. Conscientization is working on an in-depth under-
standing of self/others and the world through praxisthat is
reflection and action. It is conscientization that allows the sub-
ject for the exposure to perceived social and political contra-
The aesthetic experience indeed begins from the encounter
with works of art, which might nourish our wide-awakeness
(Green, 1995). The aesthetic encounter with poetry, music,
dance, performance, painting, or literature not just widens the
world but also makes people live in the moment. That is, edu-
cators might nourish students’ wide-awakeness by asking them
about what contribution dialogues among community members
could generate.
What does this “dialogue” mean to educators? How is it
connected with imagination? An extraordinary experience, by
Dewey’s (1980) term, explicates what Greene introduces re-
garding the aesthetic experience. She challenges the common
ways that people usually look at works of art from a habit-
driven life. This is what Dewey mentioned as an ordinary life.
In contrast, an extraordinary experience awakens people by
breaking habitual ways of thinking and behaving as well as
makes them see things differently (Dewey, 1980). Furthermore,
Greene (2001) refers to Dewey’s distinction between the aes-
thetic and anesthetic experience. Like a person is lying down on
the surgical bed after an anesthesia process, an “anesthetic ex-
perience” shuts off the senses to occur around him or her.
Within this context, Greene proposes that aesthetic education
should strive to develop an experience of wide-awakeness, as
opposed to numbness to social issues. Engaging fully with
works of art provides educators with a vehicle for getting par-
ticipants to a point of heightened consciousness and reflective-
Greene (2001) differentiates aesthetic education from art ap-
preciation or art education. A major difference between art
appreciation and aesthetic experience is the connection of how
educators “awaken” students who are sleeping or indifferent to
what is happening in the world. By definition, aesthetic educa-
tion is “an intentional undertaking designed to nurture appre-
ciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagements with the
arts by enabling learners to notice what is there to be noticed,
and to lend works of art their lives in such a way that they can
achieve them as variously meaningful” (Greene, 2001: p. 6).
This emphasis on reflective and participatory engagement with
works of art in aesthetic education is different from traditional
art education in that the latter mainly focuses on the examina-
tion of different media and art creation. Rather, aesthetic educa-
tion promotes a general enjoyment of the art as well as “culti-
vate(s) the disposition to choose to engage with diverse art
forms, to attend and explore and take risks” (Greene, 2001: p.
23). Aesthetic education, overall, begins from posing open-
ended questions about one’s own aesthetic experience through
art (Greene, 2001).
Greene’s elaboration of the importance of wide-awakening
students’ consciousness is predominately centered on her phi-
losophy. When students are indifferent about what is happening
in the world, Greene’s explication about wide-awakeness en-
gages educators to question what they can do to awaken stu-
dents’ consciousness through art. In the following sections, I
examine the ways in which works of art contribute to becoming
wide-awake regarding a new shape of world and communities.
Before moving to actual analysis of the social imagination projects,
I briefly address modes of inquiry and major data for this paper.
Aesthetic inquiry serves as the mode of inquiry. Aesthetic in-
quiry explores the meanings of aesthetic experience—that is,
the interaction between a human consciousness and works of
art (Greene, 2007a). A graduate research course of “Advanced
Curriculum Studies” in a Southwest, land-grant mission univer-
sity provides the context for this inquiry. This coursework aims
to “complicate conversation” in curriculum studies by examin-
ing diverse approaches to knowledge, culture, and education
(Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995). The course re-
quired six enrolled educators to design, implement, and assess a
semester-long project founded in Greene’s philosophy of social
imagination. Educators utilized artworks (e.g., poetry, literature,
painting, dance, film, etc.) with their own community members.
These educators discussed the power of art and explored the
ways in which they can examine social deficits “as if they could
be otherwise” (Greene, 1995: p. 16). The six communities in-
cluded: (a) 14 freshmen college student, (b) 5 middle school
participants, (c) 16, 4th - 8th graders in a tribal after school
program, (d) 7 native American women, (e) 22 fourth graders,
and (f) 25 high school students. Table 1 shows descriptions
about the projects and community members.
Class discussions, student reflection papers, final papers, and
project presentations in the Fall 2012 semester serve as the data
sources for this paper. Six educators had opportunities to revise
their original social imagination projects with support of the
instructor and other peers. Six educators described and ana-
lyzed their social imagination projects with guiding questions:
(a) background of conducting the project, (b) Greene’s theo-
retical influence on the project, (c) methods, (d) important is-
sues while sharing the aesthetic experience with community
members, (e) the meaning of social imagination, and (f) impli-
cation for curriculum/educational inquiry. The instructor, the
first author of this paper, analyzed the way in which educators
conceptualize the notions of social imagination. Narrative
analysis (Riessman, 2008) comprised a major mode of data
analysis method to create themes for discussing possibilities
and impossibilities of using art for social imagination. Among
multiple data sources, class discussion and the accumulated 122
pages of the six educators’ final papers were mainly utilized for
data analysis.
In addition, the instructor’s autobiographical subjectivity has
been the foundation of the analysis and interpretation of
Greene’s philosophy and the six educators’ conceptualization
of social imagination (Moon, 2012). When the instructor read
and analyzed the data sources, he kept asking himself about the
ways in which Greene’s notions of wide-awakeness and social
imagination influence his autobiographical subject, and thus
engage him into imagining different perspectives about culture,
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 225
Table 1.
Social imaginatio n project description.
Activities and participants
Group name
(Facilitator) Members Art engagement Meetings
Jumping through the g l as s
(Shawn) 14 freshmen colllege students Dali Atomicus by Philippe Halsman Three meetings
90 min/meeting
(Ana) 5 seventh graders Baskets (Korean, Cherokee Nation) Three meetings
90 min/meeting
“O” is for Otoe tribe
(James) 16, 4th - 8th graders Creating own literature: O is for Otoe Eight meetings
90 min/meeting
Indigenous women aspire (Alison) 7 native American women To the Indigenous Women by Ryan Redcorn Three meetings
90 min/meeting
Art and conformity (Lisa) 22 fourth graders Il dolce suono by Gaetano Donizetti Five meetings
30 min/meeting
The art space
(Jason) 25 urban high school students Mural: Excavating Values created by participants Three in-depth interviews
30 min/meeting
diversity, and multiple perspectives. In the definition of the
autobiographical subject, Smith and Watson’s (2000) theoriza-
tion of life narratives is adopted. That is, he necessarily at-
tended to the discursive constructions of subjectivity through
memory, experience, identity, embodiment, and agency. Over-
all, the autobiographical subjectivity has impacted the interpret
tations of the six educators’ projects.
Releasing the Social Imagination
Drawing from Greene’s (1995) philosophy of social imagi-
nation, the six educators utilized art and the aesthetic experi-
ence as vehicles of looking at things differently. Throughout the
project, the educators created environments where participants
took active engagement with art, and shared different perspec-
tives without pressure. Members of the community could
imagine alternative possibilities through empathizing with
other’s situation, sharing perspectives, and representing their
feelings through art. During the social imagination project, the
six educators facilitated participants not only to pay attention to
the artwork but also to spend time elaborating upon what they
experience through sight, sound, or touch. This active engage-
ment with art ultimately opened participants up to urgent social
issues, alternative perspectives, multiple ways of viewing the
world and injustice. This section describes and analyzes the six
social imagination projects separately. A couple of overarching
themes generated in the analysis of each project, including (a)
wide-awakeness through the aesthetic experience, (b) multiple
perspectives through sharing reflexive thoughts, and (c) value
of diversity within Eurocentric, patriarchal educational prac-
tices. Overall, the educators witnessed communities in progress
through the aesthetic experience.
Figure 1.
Dali Atomicus by Phili p pe Halsman.
Halsman depicted Salvador Dali jumping in the air while every-
thing else in the room appeared to be levitating off the ground.
In addition, a bucket of water had been thrown from off camera
along with three cats that were tossed along with the water.
Each participant wrote a story about what they believed was
happening in the photograph. A great sense of empathy
emerged through the sharing of the participants’ ideas and by
asking the participants to describe how they thought Dali was
Fear, surprise, startled, excited, mischievous, and being-
caught in the act were all identified as potential emotions ex-
pressed by Dali. Mike interpreted the reality in the photography
as follows:
Imagining Alternative Realities through Jumping I see a man that doesnt like to be constrained by worldly
limitations. He wants to paint his own reality, to be free. He
wants the power to do this, to be an individual. The symbolism
of the cats, I think present these things (individualism and
power). Also, I think the man could be struggling with some
sort of inner conflict between the love of two women. Maybe he
had a mistress on the side, unknown to his wife, whom he
painted on the canvas to the right. The cats might show this as
well, using the term cat fight”. Fear—no gravity: World is in
free-fall, trying to paint the world back to the way it was. (Mike,
personal communication, October 22, 2012).
Shawn, an instructor for a freshmen orientation course at the
university, designed a project to form connections beyond what
participants simply see in the artwork. Instead, this community
attempted to establish deeper connections between each par-
ticipant’s unique perspective and how the artwork creates a
space regarding alternative possibilities within a democratic
society. Shawn chose art that possess a surrealistic quality in
particular: Dali Atomicus by Philippe Halsman (see Figure 1).
This photograph provided enough ambiguity and a strong vehi-
cle for engaging with the participants’ imagination.
Mike used metaphors of “cat fight” in connection with this
surrealistic image. His emphasis on free or no-limitations was
an outstanding analysis with interesting, active engagement
with the photograph. By having the community members en-
gage in dialogue with the artwork, many participants attempted
to empathize with those who may feel powerless when up
against a force they perceive to be beyond their control. While
sharing the participants’ experience with Dali Atomicus, they
share their impressions with the art.
Mike: He just wishes he was in control, but he’s not.
Shawn (facilitator): So what do you think this force, that’s
obviously pushing against him, what kind of forces do you
think this might represent in society?
Pamela: Government.
Shawn: Government. How so?
Pamela: Like, things that we don’t necessarily want to do or
rules they push on us or even rules that they should push on us
they need to, like pollution restrictions...
Shawn: What other forces can you think of that are pushing
up against us?
Elisa: Time.
Shawn: Time. How does time? So you feel like life is a con-
stant battle against time?
Elisa: Well, “it” doesn’t necessarily have to be a battle. The
old you get the faster it goes.
Shawn: Seems that way.
Mike: Is it not a battle? I think it’s a battle to the end when
you die.
Shawn: So you view it more as a struggle against time?
What are we struggling against though? This is open to any-
Pamela: I like the concept of time, especially in regard to this
picture. Time is eventually going to catch up and those cats are
dry for now but eventually time is going to run out and they’ll
get wet.
Shawn: Any other forces that you feel are playing against us
Rebecca: I think sometimes gender or race. I think that can
hold us back. Maybe limits people’s potentials for advance-
Pamela: The mentality of us versus them.
As the above conversation shows, the participants openly
shared their imagined vision and a foundational theme of
“freedom” generated from the community’s engagement with
art. They also identified several core forces to limit his or her
freedom, which included government, time, gender, and race.
Shawn, the facilitator, was intently interested in how partici-
pants view the world and how they conceptualize their roles as
democratic citizens. For example, Rebecca thinks that gender
and race “can hold us back” and limit the subject’s “potential
for ad vance ment”. Pa mela develo ps thi s noti on of re stric tion by
highlighting people’s habit of mind to divide groups between
“us versus them”.
The ultimate goal of sharing participants’ experience with the
art was to establish discourse regarding the search for alterna-
tive possibilities, empathy, and understanding regarding social
deficit through the artwork. This complicated dialogue provided
participants with an opportunity to think about how this concept
of forces working against them applied in their own lives. Pro-
viding participants with the opportunity to experience true en-
gagement in their education represented a core priority in
Shawn’s teaching, and this project gave Shawn an opportunity
to practice facilitating a more devoted form of engagement.
The participants experienced the photograph in a more active
manner by returning to important themes generated before. The
facilitator asked each participant to partner up with another
participant and tasked him or her with photographing each
other in the act of jumping. While comparing two different
photographs, the participants developed interesting interpreta-
tions of their experiences in the project. For example, Olivia
made a profound observation about the differences between a
normal picture and a jumping picture: “In the pictures where
we’re jumping, we look more natural, I guess you could say.
We don’t look posed or fake. We look more like ourselves.”
(Olivia, personal communication, October 29, 2012). Compar-
ing two images in Figure 2 below apparently shows the diffe-
rences between “normal” picture and a “jumping” picture.
Interestingly, this statement actually captured part of the in-
spiration for Philippe Halsman creating the Dali Atomicus.
Philippe Halsman had noted, “When you ask a person to jump,
his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and
the mask falls so that the real person appears” (Panzer, 1999).
Brandon commented, “Maybe people feel that they shouldn’t
conform and they try so hard to be unique. So it’s like we’re
conforming to not conform. We kind of, like, lose who we are.”
(Brandon, personal communication, October 29, 2012). These
statements echo this same principle of the importance they
bestow upon the freedom of choice and how even though they
consider themselves to be free, they often feel constrained or
restricted in certain ways especially within the context of
Maxine Greene (1988) writes, “We might think of freedom
as an opening of spaces as well as perspectives, with everything
depending on the actions we undertake in the course of our
quest…” (p. 5). The informal nature of this social imagination
project provided participants with a supportive outlet in which
their perspectives and unique worldviews were not only wel-
comed but also encouraged. It is therefore interesting that the
community used in this project converged upon the concept of
freedom. This revelation highlighted the power of social
Weaving Baskets, Empathy, and Multiple
The Penta-Strings group is a community that aims to create a
Figure 2.
Normal and jumping pictur es.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
space of possibility and to promote multiple perspectives
(Greene, 1995). The community members in the project learned
more about each other and how each views the world as the
result of their dialogues. This community mainly worked with
baskets for sharing multiple perspectives about social phenom-
ena. Ana, the facilitator of this group, had a passion for basket
weaving and her interest motivated the participants to have
reflective thoughts about their aesthetic encounters with the
basket (see Figure 3).
The community members shared their first impressions of
the basket, including smooth, braid, cross-formation, and deco-
rative. The basket provided them an opportunity to imagine
other objects like a wheel, doorknob, boat on the wavy ocean, a
balloon in the sky, egg carrier, stretching, ballet, and yoga.
During the meeting the participants added different narratives
to the new idea whenever they discovered something different
and new. When Ana asked the participants to draw any memo-
ries related to the basket, several participants shared their sto-
ries. The basket reminded Chen of her grandmother in China
who used to work at farms. Susie imagined her mother’s pa-
tience to take care of her family. Mike imagined the artist’s
hands while weaving rough materials and emphasized pains to
weave the basket .
The Penta-Strings community explored another basket by
visiting a local museum. They observed a Cheroke e basket and
talked about their experience with the art. Although the com-
munity observed the same basket, each member reported a dif-
ferent observation and shared his or her unique narratives. Chen
discovered that weaving patterns and colors were exactly oppo-
site between the inside and outside. If a cross pattern appeared
in brown on the outside, the image inside of the basket ap-
peared in red. Clark responded to Chen’s observation by saying,
“I did not notice the specific pattern of a vertical line for the
first time, but now I see it.” The participants discovered that the
horizontal and vertical patterns had a numeric rule of
1-3-5-7-9-7-5-3-1. Every community member shared his or her
new discovery while sharing thoughts and feelings about the
basket. Figure 4 exemplifies the multiple perspectives from
community me mbers when viewing t h e ba sket.
Each drawing was different with the observer’s position.
Some drew the basket sitting on the floor and some drew it in a
standing position. When the community members showed their
Figure 3.
Korean basket.
Figure 4.
Multiple perspectives about the Cherokee basket.
drawings to each other at the same time, the different ways of
representing the basket evoked a big exclamation. Most of the
members drew the whole basket with the p att ern s, bu t on e fo cu-
sed just on the digitized pattern of the cross. Even though the
most of participants ignored the bottom part of the basket due
to its location, one member showed the pattern on the basket’s
bottom. One member even drew the basket casting a shadow.
The community members shared a variety of perceptions, sto-
ries, and insights through close observation of the art.
Releasing the imagination is related to releasing “the power
of empathy, to become more present to those around, perhaps to
care” (Greene, 2007b: p. 4). Empathy serves as a powerful tool
for releasing the imagination for possible social transformation
and actions. The ability to experience empathy does not just
happen by itself but rather requires a person to focus on the
importance of the effort involved when caring about others. The
Penta-Strings community revisited the value of empathy in
releasing their imagination about their lived experience as well
as the meaning of community.
The sharing of thoughts and feelings created a sense of
community based upon respect and an appreciation for the
value of different opinions. Members listened carefully to other
member’s thoughts and respected other’s points of views. They
noticed that some dialogues differed from their daily talks when
they shared their thoughts about art. Ana used the metaphor of
onions when she analyzed her project with the Penta-Strings
group. The community members’ thoughts became more pro-
found as they were exposed to the same works of art, much like
peeling an onion’s layers. Imagination and empathic experience
have multiple roles, including creating multiple perspectives.
The Penta-Strings community shared their aesthetic experience
with art which possibly enriches the democratic values of mul-
tiple perspectives as well as showing respects to other citizens’
“A” Is for All: Imagining an Inclusive Society
Children’s literature represents an important, powerful re-
source for advancing children’s imagination about self/other,
society, and the world. James designed a social imagination
project with the use of children’s literature. During an after-
school program at a tribal nation, James facilitated 4th to 8th
graders to review an alphabet book, P is for Pilgrim (Crane &
Urban, 2003). He problematized a children’s book that con-
veyed inaccurate and stereotypical images of native Americans.
This Eurocentric, hegemonic practice through this children’s
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 227
book shaped the way in which native participants looked at
themselves as well as the way in which non-natives partici-
pants viewed native Americans. Mendoza and Reese (2001)
indicate, “books, the text and illustrations together present a set
of images of native Americans, and thus a particular way of
thinking about them, that is inaccurate and potentially mislead-
ing” (p. 7). James recognized this mis-recognition and/or
non-recognition of native American communities represented in
a children’s book like P is for Pilgrim. James argued that this
mis-recognition of native Americans does not help either native
children or non-native children in that the Eurocentric paradigm
of what native Americans were and still are not properly por-
Using Greene’s definition of social imagination, James cre-
ated a children’s alphabet book to depict “what is” the defini-
tion of native American in society. Children in this project en-
gaged with P is for Pilgrim on multiple levels of read-
ing-aloud, contemplating the meaning of the book, and dis-
cussing the book as small groups. After this active engagement
with children’s book, Otoe tribal nation children exchanged the
story of their culture with the use of their narrative imagination.
Children had the opportunity to voice what they see as other-
wise when it comes to the way Otoe tribe as well as other tribes
are folded into the representations of native American culture.
In the creation of the alphabet book for this specific tribe, all
16 children worked together. Each group had four members and
worked with a couple of letters. The facilitator asked each
group to come up with a word that described what being Otoe
tribe member meant to them. Each student came up with his or
her own word corresponding to the letter. Once each student
had come up with their word, the facilitator asked participants
to discuss their words and explain why they chose those words.
A poetic imagination was embedded during this project. Draw-
ing from the Otoe tribe’s creation story, an eight grader initi-
ated the idea of creating a phrase out of the letter “A”: that is,
All things are connectedanimals, plants, humans. The actual
creation story i s a s follo w s :
Nothing existed at the beginning, except an abundance of
water. It flowed everywhere, eventually pushing all life out of it.
In time, the water receded and land surfaced. Vegetation
sprouted. Forests reached towering heights. In the recesses of
these forests, animals and birds dwelt. All life spoke the same
Greene (1995) states, “far too seldom are such young people
looked upon as being capable of imagining, of choosing, and
acting from their own vantage points on perceived possibilities”
(p. 41). If social imagination is indeed the ability to create vi-
sions of what can and should be in society, then this alphabet
book project provided Otoe tribal nation participants with the
opportunity to give their vision of what being native American
and, more specifically, being a member of Otoe tribe means. By
providing a different perspective to introduce Otoe tribe culture,
the participants effectively showed others what they see from
their own perspectives. By releasing their poetic, narrative
imagination, participants enriched others’ understanding of not
only Otoe tribe culture but also of native American culture. By
doing so they also provided an alternate view of what is a so-
cially acceptable representation of native Americans with what
could and should be.
Drawing from Greene’s (1995) theory, James conceptualized
social imagination as a community coming together to imagine
what could be instead of what is. Otoe tribe participants prac-
ticed their social imagination by coming together to share mul-
tiple ideas about who they are as Otoe tribal members.
Wide-Awakeness thro ugh Poetry: “I Am… Not Yet”
Alison, a native American woman, organized a group of na-
tive American women for her project, as shown in Figure 5.
Alison complicated the participants’ identities while reading
and discussing Ryan Redcorn’s poem, To Indigenous Woman.
Below are some stanzas of this poetry.
I’m sorry we have not fought harder for you... I am the dys-
functional man... I know a womans place better than I know
my own... Ask her and she will tell you... I stole her tongue,
replaced it with guilt... Saddled it with blame... Rode off on it
like a horse... So choose your words like chess pieces... Burn
your hopes like cedar... Pull that smoke over you like a blanket.
Reading, listening to, and discussing the poetry, the comm-
nity had opportunities to share thoughts about what it means by
an “Indigenous Woman”. The poetry operated as a platform to
discuss racism and sexism that the participants have encoun-
tered in their daily lives. The facilitator chose the Ryan Red-
corn poem because the poet gathered experiences of native
women who have suffered violence at alarming rates. The
community focused upon the line I know a womans place bet-
ter than my own to begin the conversation.
Alison: How do you identify yourself when you wake up in
the morning?
Sally: I remember when I was working at... The girls I was
working with would say, “Oh I don’t know. I’ll just get a job at
the casino after I graduate.” How do you help to instill there is
so much more you can do that’s out there? All the stereotypes
“are” out there, even in your child’s homework (laughs). I don’t
think we do a very good “job” instilling what is good about
being a young native woman. What can you learn about from
the assumptions people are making about you? And turn it
around to be more positive. How can we help you to find your
own voice what you wake up saying, “I’m proud to be this, I’m
proud that I’m going to do a speech in class about native
American women and represent... ”
Alison: Identity is NOT an easy thing to figure out. I’m still
studying what it is as a group or individual, I’m still learning
Willa: Well I kind of feel like you, you know how you say
like, native first or something, that’s how I feel, I go out and I
don’t want people to think I’m a typical native woman that
Figure 5.
Indigenous Women Inspire community.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
drinks, sleeps around like that kind of negative things that peo-
ple say about native women. It makes me want to do better and
prove to them that’s not what I am. That’s what I think about
every day, almost.
Alison: And it just started from that same place. Showing
them I wasn’t all those typical stereotypical image(s) of what an
Indian girl is.
I am what I am not yet… This is a phrase from Maxine
Greene who seeks out her subjectivity neither from the past nor
present. Rather she always leaves her identity open with possi-
bilities. This Indigenous Women’s group challenged stereo-
typical images about them through education and media. To the
Indigenous Woman, which is written by a male, brought up
more open-ended questions of what it means to live not only
labeled as native American but also as women of color. This
notion of “I am… not yet,” which Pinar (1998) used as a subti-
tle for an edited book about Maxine Greene, provided a lens to
ponder about the meanings of life—life that is living in a
strange place of lost, solitude, and in-the-making.
Drawing from this social imagination project, Alison empha-
sized the power of lived experiences and narratives. Those nar-
ratives enabled the group to find their voices to step into a gar-
gantuan field of possibilities. Greene (1995) says, “We have to
be articulate enough and able to exert ourselves to name what
we see around us—the hunger, the passivity, the homelessness,
the ‘silences’” (p. 111, emphasis in original). Throughout the
project, Alison imagined the field in which Greene is talking
about. The field is foggy yet vast and endless with mountains in
the distance and she feels coldness. In this field she felt com-
pletely alone, but she knew that in this field existed the ele-
ments of silence, racism, marginalization, recognition, identity,
culture, youth, like the cold dead bodies of those who fell in the
Washita Massacre. Involved with the community, Alison envi-
sioned herself tackling the field of possibilities even though it
was frightening to unlock the gate and walk into it with just
feelings of anger and hostility. According to Greene (1995), the
power of imagination is “to be conscious of them, to find our
own lived worlds lacking because of them” (p. 111). Greene’s
view on social imagination allowed Alison to gently and dis-
creetly open the gate. Discussing their identities reminded the
community of the importance of imagination to carry on.
Moreover, this helped community members to become aware of
the field of possibilities that lies beyond simply speaking of it.
Conformity Yet Differences in Imagining Realities
How can the aesthetic experience make children feel con-
nected to each other and responsible for the part they will play
in the world? Lisa chose Il dolce suono for her 4th graders with
the hope that the dynamics of the opera would capture the chil-
dren’s attention and allow for enhanced dialogue. Lisa created
her social imagination project while reading about Greene’s
idea of wide-awakeness—the idea that “teaching can be a
summons on the part of one incomplete persons to other in-
complete persons to reach for wholeness” (1995, p. 26). Lisa
assumed that the experience of listening to a moving piece of
music would create that true attentiveness Greene described.
Lisa encouraged children to take time to reflect on the music
themselves and with others. She hoped that this reflection
would lead to the discussion of social issues and would create a
meaningful space where her class could learn from each other
and question more things about the world around them. The
children experienced the music with as little visual stimulus as
possible. They listened to the music before visualizing it with
multiple artistic representations. They kept journals while list-
ing words that came to their mind. Allowing the children to free
write in their journals helped solidify their own opinion. The
children used metaphor to represent what they heard, with the
use of poetic imagination.
Dave: I saw lightening and the ABCs all bunched up and
random colors.
Colin: A monster chasing after a ship.
Andy: I thought of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
because the music sounds like something I’ve heard. Where
they’re actually in the Hollows. The scary parts.
Lisa (teacher): Like when Harry almost dies?
Andy: Yes, It made me think of pop rocks, like how loud it
Lisa: Can you explain more?
Andy: Like how loud they are in your head when they eat
Lisa: What does that sound like?
Beth: Like this (snapping) (then the whole class joins in
In addition to this poetic imagination activity, the class had
activities to represent what they heard with the use of images
and movement. Greene (1994) posits that releasing imagination
could come up with “alternative possibilities for living, for
being in the world” (p. 494). Grounded in Greene’s notions of
wide-awakeness and social imagination, Lisa wanted children
to be fully conscious and to allow for that consciousness to
flow through the community.
Lisa was dedicated to the ideas that teaching children to pose
questions and using the community to create answers might
change the world. She hoped to engage children into the aes-
thetic experience by listening to an opera aria and let them
imagine the alternative possibilities—the possibilities that were
created by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the leaders of the civil
rights movement. Lisa analyzed that she could not actually
observe children’s aesthetic experience with the aria. She
thought that multiple factors prohibited children from achieving
active engagement with the art, including limited time, large
class size, difficulty of understanding the aria, and their devel-
opmental stage to imitate other peers’ work without independ-
ent thinking.
Almost at the end of a series of activities, Lisa gave everyone
a popsicle stick. The children wrote one thing that should be
changed about the world after she briefly described social jus-
tice. This definition was simple and at an appropriate level for
4th graders when Lisa used words like “unfair” and things that
should be stopped in the world for all people to live happily.
Afterwards, they took turns and shared what they had written
on their sticks. Four children wrote about a wish for peace and
no more wars, two wrote that there should never be any more
crashes or accidents. Two days earlier a teacher’s daughter was
seriously injured in a drunken driving accident. Three children
said that random violence or assassins should be stopped. One
said that poverty should end, and another said everyone in
Guatemala should have shoes. Several others wished bullying
would stop and that people would respect others differences
and one really wished people would recycle. Lisa asked the
children about the role of art for social change.
Lisa: Can art make a difference with these things?
Susan: An artist could draw a picture about world peace that
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 229
would be so good that people would want to have peace.
Susie: You would do better if you created a disgusting pic-
ture to keep people from doing war.
Lisa stated that it was an amazing moment for her to hear
children’s thoughtful ideas about the art and possible social
transformation. Lisa analyzed how “wide-awake” her children
behaved in that moment although they might not realize it. The
instructor’s analysis of Susan and Susie’s ideas reminded him
of Goya’s painting, The Third of May 1808, followed by
Greene’s interpretation about the painting (See Figure 6).
Greene said:
Goya painted the disasters of war, painted the tortures peo-
ple, and dead people, and he, under each painting, said, How
can this be? Cant we do something?” Imagine each painting
etched a picture of a firing squad, a picture of a tortured face,
or a dead person. Underneath each painting, he says How can
we bear this or how could this happen?” Its very moving to
me... The very idea that kind of contradiction in his painting
makes many people moving”. I would like to think art has the
capacity to awaken people, but we know it doesnt always. Im
not interested in didactic art. But I am interested in the kind of
art that wakes you up. That makes you notice, makes you see
things you wouldnt ordinarily see (Greene, personal commu-
nication, February 1, 2009).
Lisa argues that social imagination for the elementary school
children has to involve exposure to real social concerns and the
creation of a safe space where they can practice identifying
with each other and discovering their own uniqueness that is
often difficult for this age. Goya’s painting might not be appro-
priate for fourth graders due to its message of violence. Yet,
literature like Oliver Twist, as Lisa suggested, provides children
with concrete images and ideas about social inequity (i.e., child
labor). Such literature allows children to imagine and share
thoughts. In her past teaching experience, Lisa noticed her stu-
dents had a more meaningful and multidirectional discussion
when they reviewed an article about child labor in America to
support a children’s book they read in which the main
char-acters worked at the age of 12. The class found pictures of
textile mills in the UK and migrant farm workers in Texas, and
the children talked extensively without Lisa’s help on the na-
ture of societies with child labor. That was freedom for them.
Figure 6.
The Third of May 1808.
Lisa offered the materials, and they collected and directed
their own thoughts. This was definitely a moment where the
students were “… able to envisage things as if they could be
otherwise, or of positing alternatives to mere passivity” (Greene,
1988: p. 16).
Lisa’s suggestion for a successful social imagination project
connects with Greene’s (1998) support for working against
social injustice. She emphasizes that social justice represents a
cliché in education, and educators and students should begin the
conversation from a concrete example around the subject. In
that sense, art, especially literature, and the aesthetic experience
with works of art provide more concrete examples in the so-
ciety rather than discussing social problems with abstract ideas
or utopian ideals.
Unexpectedness, Open-Endedness, and Community
As an art curriculum specialist, Jason had interest in explor-
ing the value of art creation and developing community values.
Jason’s project, titled “Excavating Values”, aimed to create a
space through mural art for participants to interact with per-
ceived personal and social values. In the mural art, several de-
mocratic values were depicted: Integrity, citizenship, honesty,
education, courage, and responsibility. Jason hoped to create a
space that invoked imagination. Jason focused on the ignition
and capacity of the imagination through the space in which the
fine arts afford. His social imagination project was not only
focused on creating mural art in a high school building, but also
attempted to examine the narratives of high school students in
an alternative school as they actively engaged with the creation
of school murals. Most notably, the students depicted commu-
nity values as a format of mural art, and Jason examined their
aesthetic experience with the creation of an “art space”.
Through active engagement with their own art creation, par-
ticipants elaborated upon their experience of interacting with
the art.
Participants in this mural project showed the power of this
collaborative work to challenge their daily routines and habitual
ways of interacting with teachers and friends. In other words,
mural project made it possible for the alternative high school
students to see reality as something other than or more than
their engaged reality, which in turn allowed for further recogni-
tion of alternative possibilities. After completing the mural
project (See Figure 7), Jason had a focused group interview
with participants.
The following demonstrates participants’ active engagement
with the art and their reflexive thoughts:
Jason: What does this mural do for your cafeteria?
Figure 7.
Excavating values mural.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Adam: It makes the wall look great first of all, but I think—
when kids are sitting down during lunch the quotes may make
them understand the meaning of the images making them ana-
lyze life.
Jason: What do yo u mean by “ana lyze life”?
Adam: I think that people will read the quotes and think how
to see themselves in reflection to change their life.
Jason: Change one’s life?
Adam: To be responsible and have courage to stand up and
speak up by yourself like how the quotes say.
Jason: What does this mural do for your cafeteria?
Eva: The impact of our mural is already in effect. Partici-
pants are stopping in the hallway and actually thinking about
what they are looking at and what the mural says. The quotes
mixed with the artwork and words of encouragement really get
your mind working. I have personally been thinking how will I
apply these quote to my life.
Jason: How would you apply this to your own life?
Eva: The mural really inspires me to be a more honest, true
person. I want to better myself in more than one way. I’m
moving into my own apartment soon and it really makes me
want to dig deeper into my creative side.
Over the interview, Jason had not brought up, in conversa-
tion, anything about imagining possibilities of something other,
to these participants. This response emerged through this stu-
dent’s own constructs. “To analyze life” was a profound state-
ment in the respect to imagining a life or reality as something
different. Analyzing one’s life requires both the imagination to
reflect and the ability to imagine that reflection as to something
possible, such as one’s current aspirations. The student’s
elaboration went further from the analysis to the changing of a
life. This changing derived from reflection, which was seem-
ingly evoked by the artwork itself. Some key terminology is
complementary to an imaginative state, including “to be more”,
“better myself”, “thinking how to apply”, “thinking”, “to be”,
and “analyze”. Students experienced the art as an imaginative
facilitation. Furthermore, the students demonstrated a partici-
patory engagement with art by imagining what it would mean
“to be more,” not to mention their ability to even recognize that
as a possibility. For instance, students recognized a “better self”
as an accessible construct dependent upon what that means to
each individual. Their abilities to imagine “how” and to simply
“think” of possibilities and to “analyze” their own realities and
constructs demonstrate participants’ active engagement and
aesthetic experience with art.
Greene’s (1995) theories of releasing the imagination culmi-
nated within the students’ experience with the created artwork
as being a component of “wide-awakness”. The interaction with
art or an aesthetic experience provokes imaginative thought as
well as the ability to consider alternative possibilities within
people. Being wide-awake is being imaginative. It is not just
being coherent and with a capacity to react to perceived reali-
ties. It is being aware of perceived reality and being able to
envision something other than as indicated from the end inter-
view with the participants discussed above. Although students
were unable to fully articulate wide-awakeness, the ability to
understand these possibilities exists within those students. As a
result, it would appear that a sub-couscous understanding oc-
curred in relation to the creation of the artwork which indicated
the more in-depth dialogue.
Discussion: Art and Social Imagination
Imagination is the ability to see the world from other per-
spectives (Greene, 2001). Imagination also gives credence to
alternative realities. Dialogues with community members in the
social imagination projects represented opportunities to interact
with the possibility of something other than who they are and
what they live with. Greene (1995) states, “At the very least,
participatory involvement with the many forms of art can en-
able us to see more in our experience, to hear more on nor-
mally unheard frequencies, to become conscious of what daily
routines have obscured, what habit and convention have sup-
pressed” (p. 123, emphasis in original).
It would be a misunderstanding of aesthetic education to as-
sume that mere exposure to works of art automatically in-
creases participants’ sense of urgency or cultural sensitivity
towards the world (Greene, 1995). The art of aesthetic experi-
ence begins from the invitation of complicated dialogues with
self and others, and then imagining an alternative action for a
society. When Greene introduces the notion of social imagina-
tion, the importance of wide-wakeness becomes clearer. Greene
relies on the aesthetic experience and activity in a public space
to serve as the catalyst for social imagination. The engagement
with art thus encourages educators to deal with shifting, multi-
ple meanings of self/other and making the subject more visible
to himself or herself (Miller, 2010).
Imagination has become prevalent in TV commercials (e.g.,
Imaginarium by General Motors) or creative inventions of
products. Whereas this commercialized and output-oriented
business model limit the definition of imagination, Greene
theorizes a different approach to imagination. Grounded in
phenomenological existentialism, Greene (1995, 2001) incites
educators to ask about what things could be otherwise. Namely,
how do educators see social deficits around the corner of the
street? What can I do?
“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit/By the Imagination” (Dick-
ens, 1960 as cited in Greene, 1995: p. 22). Drawing from Emily
Dickens’s metaphor about imagination, Greene (1995) expli-
cates that imagination lights the fuse, a slowly burning fuse of
possibility. Imagination opens not probability nor predictability,
but possibilities. Greene’s definition of imagination connects
with a larger picture of the society—that is, social imagination.
Imagination is often conceptualized as a private process. So-
cial imagination, however, specifically attempts to bring a per-
sonal process into a public space. Viewing art through alterna-
tive perspectives, by way of community sharing and discussion,
aims to achieve ideas for addressing the concerns of society can
be achieved (Greene, 2001). Greene (2001) describes this proc-
ess as imaginative action, which occurs in various phases. Ken
Robinson (2011) suggests that imagination is the source of
creativity, yet imagination and creativity are not the same.
Robinson notes, “We can take a different view of the present by
putting ourselves in the minds of others: we can try to see with
their eyes and feel with their hearts. And in imagination we can
anticipate many possible futures” (p. 141). Similar to Greene,
Ken Robinson (2011) conceptualizes imagination, which liber-
ates people from the current situation and provides the promise
of transforming the present. The typical view of imagination is
a process of internal consciousness, while creativity involves
taking action, actually doing something. In contrast to this
conventional concept of imagination and creativity, Greene
(2001) postulates, “Imagination is not only the power to form
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 231
mental image, although it is partly that. It is also the power to
mold experience into something new, to create fictive situa-
tions” (p. 31).
By engaging with artwork, it provides community members
in this paper with a window in which to view to the world dif-
ferently. Whether looking at artwork on canvas or other medi-
ums, works of art possess the potential to simultaneously serve
as a portal to another view of the world and also a looking glass
that reflects the troubles of our own. Just as when the subject
looks through a window, reflections of the subject can be seen
overlaying the scene on the other side of the glass pane. By
noticing what there is to be noticed, members of a community
can begin to engage with this alternate perspective presented by
the artwork as well as the varied perspectives that make up the
community, which is united for a given purpose. Using the
imagination to envision things differently acts upon a belief that
something can actually be changed (Greene, 1995). Social
imagination is the starting place for creating a different society.
Furthermore, a citizen moves beyond sharing the imagined
visions of how things could be, to enacting the changes the
community can envision. Such inquiry in social transformation
extends to the ways in which educators’ social imagination
takes a stranger’s vantage point to think otherwise of the cur-
rent sociopolitical, economic, and cultural deficit. When Greene
explicates the definition of social imagination, it is apparent
that she begins not from a utopian ideal but from a concrete
idea of what is missing in our community: what deficit do we,
as educators, see in the playground, classroom, and school?
Greene’s (1995) philosophy of social imagination—that is to
connect imagination with the deficit in our society—asks edu-
cators repeatedly what could be otherwise here and now.
Indeed, educators imagine what could be otherwise through
their daily experiences with difference, indifference, and their
ability to identify potential changes. Greene’s (1995) emphasis
on social imagination begins from the subject’s wide-awake-
ness towards society by active engagement with art for the aes-
thetic experience. Similar to Greene’s theory, Robinson (2011)
notes that the art appeals to an aesthetic experience in which the
subject’s senses function at his or her peak. The aesthetic ex-
perience is being in the moment of excitement, sadness, or as-
tonishment. Like Dewey (1980), Robinson compares this to an
“anesthetic experience” when we shut off our senses to what is
going on around us. Sir Ken Robinson (2010) argues, “We’re
getting children through education by anaesthetizing them. And
I think we should be doing the exact opposite. We shouldn’t be
putting them to sleep; we should be waking them up to what
they have inside themselves.” Thus, how does extraordinary
experience awaken students from sleepiness to create new pos-
sibilities? Being wide-awake is being attentive to the social
deficits and possessing the understanding of the multiple “be-
ing.” This concept of wide-awakeness is primarily fueled by the
subject’s capacity to imagine something as otherwise (Greene
1995). Furthermore, imagination cultivates empathy which
allows for meaningful framing.
Implication: Unfinished Conversation
Greene’s explication of aesthetic experience differs from
simply practicing how to create or use art during classes. Nor
does it merely intend to expose multiple works of art to stu-
dents. Aesthetic education, grounded in our aesthetic experi-
ence with art, enables students to understand this world by
opening a new channel for learning, where the exposure to
works of art and the art creation process transfers these various
experiences. Greene’s (1995, 2001) philosophy implies how
students begin a reflective encounter with works of art, and
imagine how things can be otherwise. Sharing the subject’s
experience, interpretation, and meanings of works of art pro-
vides the foundation of building a community. Advancing a
state of wide-awakeness involves moving beyond superficial
discussions regarding the meanings of artwork. Rather, a con-
templative engagement with art is connected with concrete and
practical ideas of how to look at the reality differently (Greene,
With/in students’ and teachers’ lived experiences, norms
dictate perceived realities indicating pre-determined futures.
Imagination is a tool to challenge habitual ways of thinking
about the future, which is neither fixed nor pre-determined.
Greene stresses the imagination as being the catalyst to creative
thinking and through creativity new possibilities are possible.
Greene (1988) postulates, “Imaginative openness can make
people more sensitive to untapped possibilities in their own
lives. Imagination has been conceived as the capacity to look at
things as if they could be otherwise” (p. 1). Drawing from
Greene’s philosophy of imagination, educators envision that
imagination and the aesthetic experience are the very beginning
conversation that illustrates the possibility of differing possi-
bilities. Imagination serves as the vehicle for opening up possi-
bilities and to begin the separation from normative thinking.
Therefore, art and the aesthetic experience are important vehi-
cles for looking at things and imagining reality as if it were
different (Greene, 1995).
Works of art do not provide the right answer but they open
new dialogues among students regarding what can be otherwise
in a society. Most notably, in an educational context, Greene’s
(1995) theory of imagination brings other levels of engagement
to educate students. With the assumption that only “educated”
experts should discuss works of art, many classroom teachers
are not familiar with discussing works of art with students. Yet,
when the encounters with works of art are neither skill-based
nor knowledge-based, educators garner new landscapes of
learning. Greene’s (1995) elaboration provides educators with a
deeper reflection; “we who are teachers would have to accom-
modate ourselves to lives as… functionaries if we did not have
in mind a quest for a better state of things for those we teach
and for the world we all share” (p. 1). Reflexive thought or
sharing becomes an important epistemology of who is known
and who are knowers.
In addition, the encounter with works of art does not intend
to use them merely as a “tool” to increase students’ academic
achievement when educators interweave works of art with math,
ELA, or science. Greene’s philosophy intends to examine what
educators and participants can think of art as it is, not as a
method for increasing tests scores of literacy and numeracy.
Releasing the imagination is not simply to expose participants
to diverse works of art. It is the discussion of an “emergent
curriculum, the moral life, and justice in the public space”
(Greene, 1995: p. 6). A participatory engagement with art is
more important in a sense that educators and students are shar-
ing their reflections with open-ended questions towards the
world. How can things be otherwise? By accentuating the im-
portance of sharing multiple perspectives, educators will be
able to rethink our education by preparing students not only to
face the future but also to face the present (Dewey, 2013; Ro-
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 233
binson, 2011).
With the prevalence of market-oriented discourse in educa-
tion, open-ended questions and dialogues drawing from aes-
thetic education provide powerful resources to discuss the
complicatedness of self, other, and community. Grounded in
Maxine Greene’s philosophy, educators will develop the ability
to pose multiple yet difficult questions drawing from students’
aesthetic experience. Students’ inquiries about social issues
create a new foundation where they construct a dialogic ex-
perience about self/other and community through open-ended
questions as well as constant responses to other’s perspectives
(Gaudelli & Hewitt, 2010). Overall, the highlight on the value
of works of art in education will be a salient inquiry for par-
ticipants, teachers, and researchers in order to release the social
imagination—imagination to connect the social world with a
vision of alternative realities in school, community, and society.
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