A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Gonzalo Obelleiro is Instructional Assistant Professor of Education at DePaul University, where he teaches courses in curriculum, creativity, and critical thinking. A 2005 graduate of Soka University of America, where he received the very first Founders Award, Obelleiro was a featured speaker at the Center’s 2009 Ikeda Forum, “John Dewey, Daisaku Ikeda, and the Quest for a New Humanism.” This June 2010 interview with the Center’s Mitch Bogen, which was conducted while Obelleiro was a doctoral student at Columbia University, explores the moral, social, and aesthetic dimensions of soka, or value creating, education, especially as developed by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871 – 1944).
You are a doctoral student in the philosophy and education department at Teachers College, yet your earlier training and work experience was in the visual arts. What inspired you to make this shift in direction?
I’ve always had an interest in social change and social justice, and initially my interest in the visual arts was related to the transformative impact that art and the world of art had for me as a young person. Art inspired me and provided a vision of what I might become. But my continuing experiences with education — particularly at Soka University of America (SUA) — taught me that education, including many forms of informal education, can be even more powerful than the visual arts and the media for transforming individual lives and, by consequence, impacting social change in general.
What was it about your educational experience in particular that convinced you that this was the case?
I had the great fortune of being part of an amazing community at SUA where we had the permission, as it were, to explore questions about the meaning of life and the challenges we face as a global community. It was wonderful to be able to explain myself and share my experience with classmates who were undergoing a similar process. And it was especially important for me to spend time absorbing what others had thought and written about the matters that concerned me most, especially issues of poverty and injustice in South America. At SUA I was able to learn about the history of the continent and the many efforts people have made to try to change things for the better. In general, I was able to broaden my perspective and articulate the questions that were meaningful to me, but which had been inarticulate before.
Paulo Freire is an important figure from South America whom we associate with education for social justice. How does his vision compare with that of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, whose pedagogy serves as a foundation for SUA and other Soka schools?
I haven’t done much work comparing the two, but my instinct is to locate the difference in the fact that for Freire such education is a process of becoming aware of the political dimensions of one’s experience, and as a result of that awareness being able to become an agent who can take effective political action for social justice. For Freire, the political question is one of liberation from oppression. I think for Makiguchi — and of course he wrote in a very different historical, socio-political context — the question of political consciousness is much less emphasized. His educational philosophy didn’t emphasize liberation from oppression, per se, but rather the transformation, both personal and social, that can result from the creative, determined actions of individuals and groups of individuals. So it’s a different emphasis or accent. But for both, social change is central. Of course, Makiguchi was writing about reform within the educational system of the nation of Japan, with the question in mind at all times of the direction in which it might go. So for him, the objective was political, but in a different sense.
Makiguchi’s central concept is value creation, which, as I understand it, provides a link between the levels of personal and community well being. What is your understanding of value creation?
There are many ways of thinking about it. But a way that has proven productive for me is to consider the idea that in any circumstance the interaction between the individual and the environment can be understood in terms of value. Specifically, Makiguchi spoke of the beauty, good, and benefit that derive from how an individual relates to his or her environment. I think this vision is rooted in the hope that it is always possible for individuals to create such value, even in difficult circumstances.
Of course, the background piece is that most of the time we fail to see this. We find ourselves hopeless and lost in situations where there is actually great potential for value to be created. I have heard Daisaku Ikeda say, in reference to Makiguchi’s teachings, that what we call moral character is actually our capacity to create value in a given situation. And Makiguchi believed this to be an important purpose of education: we should educate for individuals to be able to perceive in the situations in which they find themselves the opportunity for value creation.
Can you say more about the forms and purposes of value creation?
One of the beauties of the theory is that for Makiguchi there is a continuity between micro and macro level situations. For example, consider the value of beauty we can create when we clean a room, making a nice environment for living or working. We can identify a continuity between small acts of value creation such as this and the larger picture of social justice, harmony, peace, and so on. A really powerful aspect of his philosophy is the accent he places on that connection. And it’s empowering precisely because often times ideas such as world peace and social justice are overwhelming to the individual, and therefore, disempowering. But when we emphasize the continuity between small acts of value creation and large-scale instances of value creation it is helpful, because as individuals we understand that we do have control over our immediate environment, at least to some extent. And we can see that all of our small actions together comprise the big picture of social change, and that our choices, both individually and collectively, have the potential to create better circumstances for all.
Makiguchi believes the curriculum should be structured to help the student grow and expand from selfish concerns to more altruistic concerns based on a developing social consciousness. This expansion can be facilitated in many ways. For example, lessons can encourage students to seek connections among different aspects of experience, to develop empathy for others, and to become directly involved with the community. By focusing on the continuity between acts of value creation in the immediate local environment of the family and the classroom and one’s engagement with society as a whole, the educator can create a path that can guide the student through the curriculum.
It’s a compelling notion that in every situation, from the smallest to the largest, there is the opportunity to have a positive impact.
Yes, it is. Of course, there are situations where it is very difficult to see that opportunity, and one almost wants to justify the feelings of disempowerment. And, certainly, there are clear cases of oppression where it is very difficult to see how value really can be created. I don’t think that Makiguchi is naïve about that. Perhaps the strength of his hopeful philosophy lies in the fact that he himself faced very difficult circumstances when he wrote and developed his philosophy, even facing persecution by the military police for many years. He was the embodiment of an individual who persisted when most of us would find no hope. It’s very powerful that he affirmed that we as human beings do have the potential to create value in difficult circumstances.
Makiguchi was ultimately imprisoned for speaking out against Japan’s militaristic culture and government. But he also faced institutional resistance, I believe, for his vision of education itself, which was quite anti-authoritarian in tone and substance. For example, he stood firmly against teaching based on what he called “the transfer of knowledge.” Why did he oppose that and what did he advocate instead?
Of course, a system that emphasizes the creative response of the individual, as Makiguchi’s does, is in direct contradiction to an education that is based on the transfer of knowledge. The assumption behind a system based on the transfer of knowledge is that there are fixed and final answers to all the practical challenges we face — moral, political, social, and so on. The point of education, then, is to preserve and communicate these found, proven solutions, and to pass them down to the younger generation.
Not only did Makiguchi contradict this system by placing the emphasis on creativity; he also favored the idea of teachers and students as co-learners in the educational process, and was committed to the dialogical mode of learning. He wanted students to experience, in the process of education, the act of value creation, and he emphasized the engagement of students in the actual activities of the community. He wanted the student, from a very young age, to engage with the challenges of problem solving and finding alternative, creative responses to the problems we find in everyday life. He believed, like Dewey and others, in experience as the basis for effective education.
What are the respective social consequences of these competing systems?
First, it’s important to highlight the fact that when we look at individual cases, the variations are enormous. All kinds of people come out of a particular system. Some might receive a transfer of knowledge education all their lives and be able to retain and express individuality, creativity, and even radical ways of thinking about things.
That’s very true. So many factors beyond the school go into the formation of character, and many people transcend stifling circumstances.
But having said that, one can speculate about more typical cases. The transfer system places great emphasis on authority, and its implicit values point at recognizing, preserving, and protecting that which is considered authoritative. For Makiguchi such authoritarianism was manifested in the culture of reverence toward the emperor and the cosmology that described the emperor as being of divine origin. In the U.S., many people interpret the Bible literally and see it as the only guide for all social and political questions.
Of course, the transfer of knowledge system can be effective with social structures that do, in a sense, work well. The problem is that a population educated in that way would fail to respond creatively when social structures face a crisis. And, as we know, Makiguchi wrote from within a society that was facing a deep moral crisis in which the government, supported by the norms and values of society, was devoting its resources to war and imperial conquest. Makiguchi knew that society was in crisis and drew connections to the educational system.
The flip side is that an education for value creation would equip the population with the capacity to create new values when necessary. These values might even contradict the traditional norms and values of a particular society if that society faces a crisis requiring citizens to organize, respond and act collectively in a different way. This is, I think, for the whole of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first a very, very relevant insight.
Many of today’s problems — such as overpopulation, the degradation of the environment, learning to interact with different cultures — present challenges that we haven’t faced before, at least not in the same way, which adds to the intensity and poignancy of our situation. We can see how from one generation to the next, sometimes even in the space of five or ten years, we find ourselves needing, literally, to create new values. Consider our technological advances, which raise, on a steady basis, ethical dilemmas that are new and unique.
Sometimes value creation comes in the form of recovering old values, too. Value creation doesn’t just mean to create something out of nothing. For example, we might recover values of traditional cultures in terms of treasuring the environment, as well as other values we might have forgotten over the course of a few generations. The goal is not the rejection of tradition, but critical engagement with it, to determine optimal solutions. As Makiguchi imagined it, there is a kind of flexibility and responsiveness in the society where education for value creation is the norm.
Makiguchi also places a great emphasis on happiness as the goal of soka education. This might seem to some of us in the U.S. as a bit superficial or selfish. What does happiness mean in the context of Soka education and philosophy?
I think the writers in the Soka education tradition — Makiguchi and also Daisaku Ikeda for sure – talk about happiness in a way that is very close to the Aristotelian notion of happiness as eudaimonia, or human flourishing. It certainly includes aspects of well being and the enjoyment of sensual pleasures and basic comforts. Because of these elements of personal enjoyment, it’s not a vision of human flourishing along the lines of self-sacrifice. But it also includes notions of leading a contributive life — of finding a purpose larger than the well being of one person or one family. Today, for example, our sense of mission and social consciousness is often articulated in terms of global citizenship — taking responsibility for the world and developing an imaginative empathy that enables one to build common compassionate understanding across differences.
In the Soka education tradition compassion is constitutive of happiness, so not only is this happiness not frivolous and individualistic, but selfishness is seen as an obstacle to attaining it. To attain the happiness Makiguchi talks about we have to overcome our selfish tendencies.
Your mention of imaginative empathy reminds me of President Ikeda, who often speaks of the poetic mind and spirit as being essential both to good education and global well being. Ikeda, of course, is a poet himself, but the poetry he speaks of in this context always strikes me as something broader, even metaphorical. Your thoughts?
I believe there is an aesthetic dimension to value creation in general. I believe that cultivating imaginative powers is essential to recognizing the value that can be created in any given situation. I think that for Ikeda, the poetic spirit refers to this capacity to perceive in any situation potential value to be created. And there is an aesthetic moment in it, even if it is something as practical and simple as finding a more effective way to prepare breakfast and lunch for your children in the 20 minutes before they leave for school. This is true of any of the nuts and bolts aspects of our daily activities. When individuals successfully navigate these challenges, when they find creative responses to those problems, we can say that there is an aesthetic aspect or moment in that. I think that for Ikeda, that is a kind of poetry — because of the imagination involved, but also because of the elegance and flow we associate with both poetry and effective problem solving in general.
What about other dimensions of the poetic spirit? We know that Ikeda cherishes Whitman, who famously declared in “Song of Myself,” “I contain multitudes.” This comment suggests a largeness of spirit in which every aspect of experience is welcomed and included.
It’s good that you refer to Whitman, because I think that for Ikeda, another aspect of the poetic spirit is a state of gratitude, which is also constitutive of happiness. As with compassion, it is hard to see how one could be happy without being thankful for what you have and for all of the world. I recall Ikeda quoting Whitman’s poem “Miracles,” in which Whitman says, in effect, that everything he encounters is a miracle, and that the most important person in the world is always the person in front of him. “As to me,” Whitman says, “I know nothing else but miracles.”
This is the spirit of reverence, isn’t it?
How does that spirit inform the teaching and learning that happens in our classrooms?
From a value creation point of view, the central question, the main goal, is to inspire young people to love and value that which we ourselves have, from our experience, come to love and value. I think of my middle school literature teacher. Throughout elementary school I had a dry experience with books, reading them just to do reports. Then I encountered a teacher who just loved literature. He definitely had a reverence for these traditions and authors, and he invited us to partake in that sense of reverence. I was truly affected by his reverence. This can happen with any subject matter, say, a math teacher communicating his or her love for mathematics.
How would you describe the spiritual dimensions of education in general?
I would say that the best education is liberating and transformative. That is, education can enable us to find meaning in our experience and our existence. But this occurs only when we — teachers and students alike — engage in the educational process with our whole being. And this attitude itself is spiritual. One of the ways that Ikeda successfully appropriates the language of soka education is to use this idea as a critique of the fragmentary nature of both our educational systems and society in general today. For most of us, our educational experiences are quite fragmentary, focusing on the cultivation of just one aspect of our mental life or the development of one aspect of our social life, and so on. But, I believe that both Makiguchi and Ikeda imagine education for value creation as education that engages the whole person. And that brings us full circle, because that is perhaps the best way to describe the experience at SUA that inspired me to continue my studies in the philosophy of education.