By Larry Hickman
Given my association with the Center for Dewey Studies, I have been particularly interested in the Ikeda Center’s core conviction that humanistic education is vital to global progress. Even though the idea is clear enough in an intuitive sense, it is still fair to ask what it means in terms of practice. During one of our meetings, Center founder Daisaku Ikeda provided a particularly interesting insight into the matter when he stated that “religion is important, but education is equally important.” As I recall that moment, he seemed both animated and eager to make sure his statement would not be misunderstood, so he repeated it.
But his statement could hardly have come as a surprise to anyone who had attended Dr. Ikeda's Harvard lecture “Mahayana Buddhism and 21st Century Civilization,” presented in 1993 in connection with the events that inaugurated what is now the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue. During that lecture Dr. Ikeda referred to a little book by John Dewey published in 1934 as A Common Faith.
Dr. Ikeda recalled Dewey's assertion that it is “the religious” rather than any specific religion that is of importance and noted that “the religious” is not a species of dogma, but rather a quality that can permeate experiences of many types, including those that are aesthetic, educative, and even political. It was in this connection that Dr. Ikeda associated the long-term viability of any form of religious expression with the degree to which it is capable of balancing and harmonizing internal and external forces in ways that promote positive social change.
For Dewey, both religion and education involve a balance between accommodation to conditions that cannot be modified and adaptation of conditions that we can change. He thought that this balance, or what he termed “adjustment,” is normally dynamic, fleeting, and in need of continual renewal. It can only be produced by carefully wrought processes of inquiry, which must include appropriate aesthetic and emotional components. Yet there are occasions, he suggested, during which this type of harmony is so profound and far reaching that it involves our being in its entirety, eliciting enduring modifications of the self. He thought it should be a major goal of all institutions — including those that are religious as well as those that are educational — to facilitate this type of adjustment. In doing so, they can open the door to the creation of value across generations and effect lasting social change.
Dr. Ikeda has called for precisely this type of adjustment. He encourages us to believe that it is possible to develop an enduring state of consciousness such that it cannot be defeated or destroyed by even the most debilitating of external conditions. The human revolution that he calls for inverts the traditional notion of karma by raising the stakes for positive human action: even the most difficult and debilitating karma can be overcome by individuals who are willing to do the work — call it religious or call it educative — of reconstructing their habits and behavior in ways that create value. That means that every human being has the potential for the type of transformation that can effect lasting social change by altering external circumstances. This is an idea that links the thought of Ikeda and Dewey, and that also links religion and education within a humanist framework.
Dr. Ikeda surely got Dewey right during his Harvard lecture when he said that “the religious” for Dewey is not a specific external power but rather “that which supports and encourages people in active aspiration toward the good and valuable.” That is precisely what education and religion do when they function at their best. In other words, religion and education are equally important.
Dr. Larry A. Hickman is the Director of the Center for Dewey Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Among his many publications is The Essential Dewey, Volumes I and II, which he edited with Thomas Alexander.