Learning's Most Powerful Foundation

Thoughts on Conviction 2:
"Humanistic Education Is Vital to Human Progress"

By Sarah Ann Wider

“All are needed by each one; / Nothing is fair or good alone.”
From “Each and All,” Ralph Waldo Emerson

A new semester begins opening possibilities we have only begun to imagine. It’s the first full day of class. Here are twenty-seven people who have never before been in conversation. The room looks pristine, almost sterile. We have not yet lived our thoughts and debates and delights and frustrations into it. The chairs are in tidy rows. That simply won’t do. First of all, who can explore thoughts freely when they are talking to the back of another person’s head? And then, why should comments for all of us be directed solely to a single figure at the front of a class? We circle our chairs. Already the powerful structure of a spider web has entered the conversation as one metaphor for class discussion. In the shape of our chairs, students see the outer rim, and begin looking for the interconnecting threads that weave from one idea to another, from one person to another. What will this semester bring?

I am one of the lucky ones. I have always loved learning and have always (or almost) lived in close connection with those who share that love. But increasingly, I see a different attitude from those in my classrooms. Expedience takes precedence over expansiveness. Pressure for the right answer silences curiosity about multiple approaches. Grade anxiety suppresses poetic imagination. When the young adults in my classes associate imagination with childhood and believe it is inevitably forfeited to schooling, then I know we are losing our learners, our visionaries, our creative and yes, critical thinkers. With love of learning lost, how will we nurture listening, cooperation, collaboration? Who will be able wholly to attend to the profound complexity within which we are all deeply connected?

Years ago, just as those questions were asking themselves in my daily life, I learned about Soka education thanks to my attendance at events at the Ikeda Center. I was reminded that learning’s most powerful foundation rises from encouragement and appreciation. Here was what had always been fundamentally part of my educational experience, and yet was increasingly absent from the loudest words about American education.

Encouragement: how deeply we need the courage to take risks in thought, to examine something freely and fully, regardless of what may happen to our own long-held beliefs or assumed truths. We daily need courage to see things differently, to see from other and others’ perspectives, to step from what we know into the unknown and take the time, sometimes painfully long, truly to learn. In the United States, how we like to think about this as an individual achievement, the person solitary and self-sufficient. And yet we know it is not so. Courage is neither abstract nor created in a vacuum. Encouragement is that process by which a person gains creative and innovative strength. 

And yet how do we discern the difference between strength that is creative and strength that is destructive? Sadly, in our times of increasing militarism and “zero-sum gain,” courage has been equated with the power to kill or the power to eliminate. We have set aside the courage of peace making, the courage of inclusion, the courage of creating value (soka). What makes the difference? As I learned from my visits to Soka schools: appreciation. How we look askance at the word in academia, associating it with a “lesser” mental activity. We do not stop to see the range of thought it involves and the extent of evaluation that it demands. I am reminded of Emerson’s comment about “Self-Reliance”: “If anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.” Appreciation is neither superficial nor slight. It comprises multi-dimensions of history, cultural understanding, psychological and sociological breadth, as well as the always-ongoing hard work of empathy. 

I return to the twenty-seven of us meeting twice a week in our spider web spinning. What courage will we need, collectively and individually as we embark on the unknown? How will appreciation enter to help us think more fully about the fragmented lives and lands that cry the truth of our contemporary world?  The unknown beckons. Entering it as compassionate thinkers following the slender strands in this web of relation, we journey together, creating value as we go, knowing “All are needed by each one; / Nothing is fair or good alone.”

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Sarah Ann Wider is professor of English and Women's Studies at Colgate University, where she focuses on the American Renaissance, late 19th- and early 20th-century American women writers, and Native American literature. Her books include The Critical Reception of Emerson: Unsettling All Things (Camden House, 2000).

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