Education & Philosophy

The Nature and Potential of Creative Education


In this essay from 2010, Mitch Bogen explores how certain aspects of the humanistic, creative vision of education shared by Daisaku Ikeda, John Dewey and others can be applied in schools and society, and considers why this vision remains a vital one, especially in the context of the twin goals of democratic participation and global citizenship.


The most generative learning experience of my high school years was one in which it could be said that I failed. The school’s jazz band, of which I was a member, was working on a piece that called for an improvised solo from the second chair trumpet player, namely me. When my chorus came around I jumped in and unleashed an incoherent jumble of random notes largely unrelated to the chord progression. Despite the fact that every measure I played made little sense, when the song was done I was exhilarated and ready to try again. Indeed, that mistake-filled performance — which I wasn’t graded on — launched me on a lifelong quest to understand and improve at the art of improvisation, a quest that has provided immeasurable meaning and focus in my life while leading me into other fields such as religious studies and education.

Students today surely continue to have such generative learning experiences. But for many public school students, many of them quite young, their most intense or immediate experience with education relates to the taking of high-stakes, standardized tests that often generate more fear than inspiration. Certainly, public discussion of education reform focuses almost exclusively on test scores, which are portrayed in these discussions as synonymous with “achievement.” This, in spite of the well known problems associated with the standardized testing movement: teaching to the test; overemphasizing competition and other extrinsic motivators; taking valuable time away from art, music, and other non-tested subjects; and so on. These shortcomings are real, and require our attention.

The culture of testing implies that mistakes are something to avoid rather than to learn from.But, less discussed — and possibly even more important — are the subtle messages that the culture of standardized education sends to students about the nature and process of learning and knowledge itself. Specifically, I am concerned about the way that it implies that mistakes are something to avoid rather than to learn from, and that knowledge itself is a “thing” that is fixed and bounded and final, reducible to a year-end numerical score.

This is not to say that the testing culture has been without certain benefits for schools. Many dedicated educators are proud of the way their schools have worked hard to improve on the tests, which, in their view, can provide a good measurement of such skills as logic and comprehension. The point is that the culture of high stakes testing — aside from any particular content or positive contributions the tests have made — instills in students dispositions toward learning and problem solving that are fundamentally uncreative and, as such, inadequate to the needs of both democratic participation and the peaceful evolution of humanity.

So what dispositions should we be developing in students? There are many positive learning dispositions of course, but here I would like to focus on three in particular. To truly equip students for future success as individuals and world citizens, teachers should introduce — and model in every aspect of classroom life — biases toward 1) continuity of understanding, 2) continual growth, and 3) an ever-increasing capacity for both imagination and uncertainty.

These dispositions, which overlap considerably, have much to do with what Center-founder Daisaku Ikeda calls “the poetic heart of education,” and fit well within the pedagogies espoused by John Dewey and those working in the progressive and constructivist educational traditions. After a look at how these dispositions play out in classroom settings, I’ll explore some of the social consequences of these competing visions of education.

Part I. In the Classroom  

Continuity of Understanding

Picture a multiple-choice question, whether on paper or online. The student’s task is to select the right circle to fill in or box to check. One circle or box is correct; the others are incorrect, end of story. The relationship between right and wrong is discontinuous. There are literally boundary lines around the options. But the best teachers will tell you that the key to promoting true student learning is to look closely at wrong answers together with the student with an eye toward discovering the ways the student might have thought or reasoned correctly even as they erred in some fundamental way. The key is to discover the continuity between the wrong and right answers. Here’s Lucy Calkins from A Teacher’s Guide to Standardized Reading Tests:

“Overall, the most important piece of advice on how to research kids well is to always have the attitude that the child chose the answer he did, that the child is working the way he is working, for a reason; it might be a wrong reason, but it exists. He has a rationale for his behavior, and if you can discover this rationale, and if you can teach into it and away from it, that will be the key to improving the child’s ability to work well.” (1)

Or how about this, from Kay Merseth, director of teacher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, from an interview discussing the difficulty of teaching fractions to young children:

It’s a really important point to remember that kids are always making up ideas, conjectures, thought processes — this must be how this works, this must be how that works - just as we adults are. And I think that frequently in a math classroom, teachers forget that, and they think that the wrong answer is random, that the answer was just off the wall. But you know; the kid probably had a very good reason [for that answer]. (2)

I’ve noticed that my understanding of a particular topic or problem is much more robust when I first misunderstood somehow and then came to see exactly why. It’s not hard to imagine that a student with strong test taking skills might select the correct multiple-choice answer without a strong comprehension of why that answer was correct. Just as some people choose the right life partner right out of the gate, most of us learn about the qualities we desire in a significant other based on the hard experience of relationships that were not so good, even painful

Another way to think of it is to consider the artistic process. Present in the completed painting are the innumerable versions discarded in the process of achieving the desired, sometimes even celebrated, end result. As my wife’s painting teacher, himself an accomplished artist, told me when I mentioned to him her frustration with a particular landscape she was attempting: “Tell her I’ve scraped off more paint than you could even imagine.” Each rejected version is a necessary step in the journey toward the harmonious, balanced, and effective work of art. Think of all the selves we have set aside or integrated in our processes of maturation.

Speaking at the Center in 2009, scholar of the American Renaissance Joel Myerson observed that his own students become much less intimidated about writing assignments when shown versions of famous manuscripts that included extensive revisions, revealing what Myerson called the “false starts and wrong ways” that we all experience in all our endeavors. (3)

Think about it: School systems place intense pressure on students to perform well in isolation with a clock ticking away. Yet, how often does that even happen in the everyday life of professionals? There are deadlines, yes. But most work is performed and revised through collaborative processes — and you can always stay late or take work home. And guess what, that’s not called cheating. Strategies such as the one employed by Professor Myerson help students develop a healthier disposition toward knowledge, one that favors continuity and connection over discontinuity and fragmentation, and one that is actually more practical both for the workplace and life itself.

Continual Growth

When I was young I entertained what I have come to call “the plateau vision of life.” I really believed that once certain milestones were reached — a degree obtained, a move to a new city completed — one could just rest and relax in that place of achievement. You could say that I bought into the notion of happily-ever-after. And why not? Movies end with weddings and heaven is a place of unchanging bliss. However, I soon found that while satisfaction came with the achievement of goals, contentment did not. So I came to see the logic of healthy discontentment, an inner drive to understand more, express more, and even to be more, in terms of my capacity to embrace all of life.

Perhaps it is here that we understand the profound implications of the scientific method. I’ve studied little science, and barely know the periodic table from a water table, yet, as I reflect on education and society, I realize how essential for growth it is for us to consider all of our knowledge as partial and provisional, as scientists do. Only a few students will go on to become scientists, but all students would benefit from developing the disposition toward knowledge exemplified in the sciences. Not to become a materialist, necessarily, but to welcome the occurrence of being proved wrong — by experience, by research, by the superior insights of others.

With this disposition, it’s no crime to say, “I don’t know.” In my own teaching, one of the things I was proudest of was being able to say those three words to my students. Whatever authority I had in that comparative religions classroom was not simply granted to me by virtue of my master’s degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School. It was derived, I believe, more from my love for the subject, my belief in its vital importance, and my awareness of the central themes in that discipline.

My task was not to transmit the facts I had gleaned through my studies but rather to introduce students to core concepts and then ask them to rework and apply those concepts in various contexts — usually having to do with their personal experiences — so that they might develop a legitimate working knowledge of the subject. I certainly was not invested in appearing to know everything. And every time I said, “I don’t know,” I came face to face with an opportunity for growth.

Even when we understand something well, or truly know something, there is always deeper and wider understanding to be gained. Those of us who have ever delved into and loved a subject matter know this to be true: that anything worth understanding proves itself inexhaustible over time. It’s been 35 years now that I have been an ardent student and fan of jazz, but I’m not even close to knowing and appreciating all there is to know and appreciate about this art form. In fact, each time I advance my knowledge in a particular area, I love the music even more, and I build a stronger foundation for further study. Absorbing the aesthetics of the Modern Jazz Quartet, for example, I can better pursue tangents such as the classical-jazz fusion movement of the 50s known as Third Stream or the legacy of the vibraphone in jazz, especially as exemplified by the MJQ’s Milt Jackson.

For John Dewey, however, it’s not simply one’s knowledge that is being increased or enriched through our educational pursuits but one’s very self. Writing in Ethical Visions of Education, David T. Hansen explains that, for Dewey, “through the course of any meaningful event ” — and surely we can include school-based experiences here — “the self can become more knowledgeable, sensitive, and aware.” (4) Hansen adds that, having been thus transformed

the self can now better direct subsequent experience because it now brings to bear a deeper, broader capacity, once more captured in the phrase more knowledgeable, sensitive, and aware. For Dewey, this process constitutes the spiral of growth, whose end is never terminal or fixed, but always in constant transformation. (5)

Applying Dewey’s criteria to the culture and practice of high-stakes, standardized testing we see that the experience is meaningful for many students primarily in a negative way. It’s true that students can take pride in the discipline, knowledge, and comprehension needed to do well on these tests; however we must remain sensitive to the possibility that some students will learn to see education as something painful, a process to be feared, endured, and forgotten, especially if they are taking the test on a day when personal issues are weighing on them.

Certainly the tests don’t make students more knowledgeable in a working sense, more sensitive, or more aware. Nor do they help students develop a bias toward continued growth, an orientation best developed in the classroom through the teacher’s ongoing support, guidance, and example. In particular, the teacher is the person best suited to nurturing the student’s love of learning or strong interest in a particular subject. Indeed, love and interest are the most transformative educational principles.

Imagination and Uncertainty

Speaking at the same Ikeda Center event as Joel Myerson, Professor Ronald A. Bosco (a frequent collaborator with Myerson in American Renaissance research) drew two lessons for teachers based on his understanding of the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau: first, teachers should strive “to inspire a poetic reverence for the world we live in and the culture we have inherited”; and second, “young people far and wide” should be given the opportunity to seek, as Emerson suggested in the opening passage of Nature, “their own relationship to the universe.” (6) Looking back on Professor Bosco’s remarks I was struck, first of all, by the beautiful power of these imperatives. Next, however, I was struck by the fact that in some ways they seem to contradict each other — and that this contradiction could be the source of a wonderfully creative tension.

How rich it would be to create a writing assignment for students exploring the relationship between the two imperatives, asking how the call to respect tradition and the call to nurture a sort of radical individualism might both be true at the same time. Alternately, the instructor might simply ask students what “poetic reverence” for received culture means to them. Such questions are generative of creative thinking, not least because the student needn’t be frightened of saying the “wrong” thing. Perhaps this is what Professor Myerson meant when he said, that same afternoon, that literature is best taught by giving students “questions for which there are not any answers.” (7)

With our hypothetical assignment, what we want from the students are their speculations, their imaginings, their arguments, their insights, their self-expression. Unlike the assigning of a math problem, when an instructor gives this type of assignment he or she should have no limited expectation of what will constitute a correct answer. Now, in addition to consciously creating generative assignments of the types mentioned here, instructors do have a responsibility to make assignments rigorous; for example, by requiring students to use citations from specific course readings and class lectures as they make their case. To this extent instructors exercise control. As for the outcomes of the assignment, however, they relinquish strict control, relishing the state of irresolution and surprise as vital to original thinking.

Another way to engage the student’s imagination is to have them argue for — even inhabit — a position that is counter to the one they might reflexively claim as their own. This strategy is often associated in education circles with the work of Peter Elbow, who promoted not only “methodological doubting,” which is a familiar component of critical thinking strategies, but also “methodological belief,” in which the instructor carefully designs lessons to help students see the value in unlikely (for them) ideas and philosophies. (8) Writing about Elbow’s methodological doubting and believing for the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, educator and curriculum developer Alan Shapiro says “these two processes offer us an opportunity to think rigorously without polarization and to embrace contradictions that normally divide us.” (9) This is a lesson that is a poor fit for standardized tests but a great fit for dynamic classrooms led by open-minded teachers.

In a very real sense, methodological belief invokes a version of what Daisaku Ikeda calls imaginative empathy, which is a form of compassion “that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.” (10) It is an act of both imagination and intention to transcend the tribalistic messages that all of us receive as part of our cultural conditioning and to care for the well being of those not like ourselves. Dewey also placed a strong emphasis on imagination. Speaking at the Center in 1998, when he received the Fourth Annual Global Citizen Award, Vito Perrone of the Harvard Graduate School of Education said that, “In Dewey’s terms, we need to see education as a critical path to imagination — that distinctly human capacity to envision a world of greater potential.” (11)

And it was in regards to the poetic imagination that Keats formulated his famous theory on the qualities of great “men” in general and great poets in particular. Speaking specifically of Shakespeare, Keats wrote in a letter from 1817 that the Bard “possessed so enormously” the quality of “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact.” (12) In his book Art as Experience, Dewey himself referred to Keats’ ideas on intuition, imagination, and uncertainty found in this and other of Keats’ letters as containing “more of the psychology of productive thought than many treatises.” (13) Unfortunately this frame of mind is rare. How often have we heard, for example, that it is unreasonable to pursue solar energy technologies, since it will take too long, be too expensive, or not be efficient enough?

How often do we discourage students’ imagination with “facts” such as these? And how often do we reject uncertainty as impractical or ill suited to the task of test preparation? If we want students to be able to imagine effectively, we should ask them to imagine, not just read and answer questions about those who did — the Einsteins and Newtons of the world. If we want them to learn to reside in uncertainty and embrace contradiction, they must do more than read and answer test questions about Shakespeare. They must experience learning environments that nurture and facilitate this challenging yet vital state of mind. (14)

Part II: Social Consequences

Continuity of Understanding

To see knowledge as fixed, bounded, and discrete is to see it as a thing or object that one can own and, if one chooses, transmit or transfer to others. Such a vision of knowledge is associated with social structures that are authoritarian in nature, since there is a high degree of interest among those holding this view in determining not only who possesses the most truth or knowledge but who, as a result of that status, decides which ideas and actions are correct or acceptable for society.

For example, millions of people in the United States, i.e., those with a “fundamentalist” Christian orientation, believe that the Christian Bible, as written, possesses all the truth that is needed for humankind and furthermore that a literal reading of it should guide all aspects of civic life, including the Federal government. In other words, the truth is contained within that book, and can be handed down without question from generation to generation.

This approach to knowledge and civic life is not necessarily without value, said Gonzalo Obelleiro of Teachers College, Columbia University, in a June 2010 interview with the Ikeda Center focusing on Soka, or value-creating, education and philosophy. In fact, he said, “The transfer of knowledge can be effective with social structures that do, in a sense, work well. The problem is that a population educated that way would fail to respond creatively when social structures face a crisis.” (15)

So it is that Christianity has functioned as a strong source of social cohesion in the U.S. as well as a guide for ethical behavior in a capitalist economy such as ours. However, because it was created some two thousand years ago, and also because of the way it has evolved over the centuries, in the view of many Christianity is not simply able, in and of itself, to provide readymade solutions for problems and challenges that are unique to the modern era, such as dealing creatively with religious and cultural pluralism or averting environmental catastrophe.

In such cases, said Obelleiro, Soka philosophy recommends not “the rejection of tradition, but critical engagement with it, to determine optimal solutions.” (16) Continuing with the example of Christianity and the environment, contemporary Christians advocating an ecological consciousness have chosen to emphasize those parts of the Bible that support “stewardship of” the planet, and to downplay those urging “dominion over” it. (17) Such a strategy of conscious selection and analysis seems consistent with the Soka as well as the Deweyian vision of social growth. David Hansen, again:

Dewey proposes an indirect rather than direct assault on the conditions that undermine human possibility. He is not a revolutionary. Rather, he is what we might call, for heuristic purposes, a reconstructionist. He urges people to build on what is efficacious in a system even while moving it in a new direction. (18)

Both Soka and Deweyian philosophy propose a middle path between reactionary traditionalism and revolutionary progressivism.

The dynamic at play here is aptly captured in the slogan “Transcend and include,” often invoked by proponents of Integral Theory, most notably Ken Wilber, to describe the process by which consciousness, both individual and cultural, can authentically evolve to higher, more inclusive levels. (19) While Wilber pitches his analysis at a level that is cosmic in proportion, the truth is that the principle of transcend and include is present in the smallest act of formative learning, as in our earlier example of a teacher helping a child to understand fractions, bringing forward what was actually right in the student’s wrong answer, building a sturdier comprehension. To cite a homelier maxim, we should resist, whenever possible, the temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Our attitudes toward learning and knowledge, then, are inseparable from our attitudes toward mistakes and errors. And what better tool for learning to despise mistakes than high-stakes testing? Students live to avoid the wrongly checked box or poorly worded response, since it could lead to a failing score and even the withholding of a diploma. Administrators fear the student’s wrong choices because they might lead to harsh sanctions such as a state takeover of the school.

That’s a lot of avoidance and fear, and it’s hard to believe there would be no social consequences as a result. Kathryn Schulz has written a book on just this topic, called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (2010). Writing in the Boston Globe she provides a litany of what can happen when we stigmatize and deny our errors:

Misunderstanding our mistakes in this way — seeing them as evidence of flaws and an indictment of our overall worth — exacts a steep toll on us, in private and public life alike. Doing so encourages us to deny our own errors and despise ourselves for making them. It permits us to treat those we regard as wrong with condescension or cruelty. It encourages us to make business and political leaders of those who refuse to entertain the possibility that they are mistaken. And it impedes our efforts to prevent errors in domains, such as medicine and aviation, where we truly cannot afford to get things wrong. (20)

The only way we learn something is to attempt to do what we don’t yet know how to do. Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to recognize the stifling effects of this stigmatization on both personal and social experimentation and progress.

Continual Growth

In the context of both education and personal and social development the word ‘growth’ certainly signifies upward or vertical movement. Our mandated tests, for their part, resolutely rank students in terms of higher and lower scores, with progress on these tests measured over time. But the nuances of growth are usually captured with a range of other, related adjectives. We speak of a deeper, more compassionate sense of justice, or a broader, more complex understanding of a discipline. In David Hansen’s aforementioned comments on Dewey’s “spiral of growth,” the self engaged in that process always “brings to bear a deeper, broader capacity” upon subsequent experience.

Of all the descriptors here, capacity, in my view, is the most crucial of them all. Indeed, Dewey scholar Larry Hickman reminds us that in Dewey’s own words, the aim of education is “nothing other than the creation of human beings in the fullness of their capacities.” (21) For me, increased capacity suggests not only creative problem-solving abilities equal to the demands of one’s time and circumstance but also the ability to include more and more of experience in all its complexity, the good and bad, the high and low, the familiar and the strange.

Thus, the “more perfect union” of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution is seen from a growth perspective not as an established fact but as a never-ending imperative to include all Americans in the process and the promise of American democracy. In other words: more people participating in more ways, with more say, in the nation’s future. To the extent that this has been true in America, our nation’s history proves unequivocally the value of discontentment. And this is why Martin Luther King, Jr. was not satisfied or content with the glory of the “I Have a Dream” speech or the gains represented in the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Vincent Harding tells it:

For King it would have been easier to embalm his dream, to live on the memory of the Great March, the time of White House sandwiches and convivial gatherings with the president, savoring the occasion for adulation by so many millions. But his basic commitment made that impossible. (22)

This commitment, Harding explains, meant, first of all, for King to seek in the Poor People’s Campaign (23) the well being of all persons who suffer, no matter their race — especially “those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity,” for whom “life is one long desolate corridor with no exit sign.” (24) And perhaps most controversially, King extended his concern, notably in his Riverside Church speech of 1967, to the poor children and peasants dying beneath U.S. and Vietnamese bombs in Southeast Asia.

Building on a poem by Carl Wendell Himes, Jr., Dr. Harding calls this King “the inconvenient hero.” (25) This is the King, Harding says, who decided

to shake himself free of the more familiar triumphant settings and to break loose toward the solitary unchartedness of the wilderness, especially if that exploratory movement might help him to respond more faithfully to the cries of the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized women, men, and children of our nation and our world. (26)

This is also the King, adds Harding, who models for us a “capacity for creative exploration in search of a compassionate ‘more perfect union.’” (27) The other King, however, the one “embalmed” in history, is inert and unlikely to inspire significant personal and social change. Analogously, the knowledge embalmed in the standardized test is also inert and unlikely to be generative in any meaningful sense. If the King of the “I Have A Dream Speech” has become the convenient hero symbolizing the achievement of a racial, economic, and social equality that remains in many ways elusive, test scores have become a convenient symbol of learning that encourages us to avoid hard questions about the nature and purposes of education.

The inconvenient truth of education and democracy is that much is required of us. Daisaku Ikeda reminds us that the “continuous effort to accomplish democracy was identified by Dewey as ‘the greatest experiment of humanity.’” Ikeda continues, observing that the “work of pursuing and carrying out this noble experiment is the daily task of education.” (28) It would follow that classrooms themselves should replicate the conditions of democratic participation to the greatest extent possible. The standardized testing movement falls short in this regard, especially if we agree with Dewey’s vision in his late essay “Creative Democracy — The Task Before Us”:

Democracy is the faith that the process of experience is more important than any special result attained, so that special results achieved are of ultimate value only as they are used to enrich the ongoing process. … All ends and values that are cut off from the ongoing process become arrests, fixations. They strive to fixate what has been gained instead of using it to open the road and point the way to new and better experience. (29)

It’s natural for humans to be oriented toward milestones. Nurturing a sense of achievement provides an opportunity for people to come together and can instill in us the confidence to keep moving forward. It might even be that the disposition toward past tradition is more strongly ingrained in us than the bias toward growth and change central to Dewey’s democratic vision. After all, for the greater part of human history we lived in cultures that changed at a pace that would seem to us absurdly, glacially slow. That’s just one good reason among many why we need to be intentional, especially in educational settings, about developing dispositions that equip us for the never-ending process and task of democracy, the representative philosophy and socio-political system of our rapidly evolving world.

Imagination and Uncertainty

The poetic is that which cannot be quantified. In the age of standardization and data-driven accountability in our schools, most pedagogical trends point exactly in the other direction, toward that which is most easily quantifiable. We would do well, I believe, to listen to Daisaku Ikeda, who insists that it is the poetic spirit that is most needed in our world, especially as we seek to meet the challenge of dialogue and mutual understanding in a world fraught with antagonism and suspicion.

“I contend,” writes Ikeda, “that the key to such an endeavor is the poetic power of the imagination, that which compels the poet to create portals of hope and discover entranceways for exchange in the massive walls that divide our world.” (30) Notice, this poetic quality is the key, not a frivolous or indulgent pastime of bohemians and artsy types. As with our earlier example of science and the scientific method, not all of us will be poets in the conventional sense, but for the good of our world, all of us must learn, in school and out of it, to exhibit the qualities of the poetic.

In addition to the quality of imagination, the poetic exhibits an embrace of ambiguity and uncertainty, as described above in the discussion of Keats’ Negative Capability: “no irritable reaching after fact”! Poems communicate something vital, yet refuse to be nailed down. To truly understand a poem, you have to live with it. In a democracy we have to live with cultures and constituencies that we might not understand fully, but which, ideally, we can come to appreciate for their unique contributions to social relations as a whole.

Peace research pioneer Elise Boulding believed that living creatively with difference is a central characteristic of peace cultures. (31) I would argue, then, that a democratic culture is by definition also a peace culture. Things get contentious for sure, but the truth is that to agree to be a democratic citizen is to agree to remain peaceful when your side or position is on the losing end of an election, legislative vote, or court decision; or when you and those in your community disagree over matters of religion, or politics, or social norms. Most of us do pretty well with this part of the bargain, at least insofar as we refrain from physical violence.

Where we do less well is truly listening and learning from one another, the other core characteristic of peace cultures identified by Dr. Boulding. (32) In “Creative Democracy,” Dewey places particularly strong emphasis on the need for robust exchanges across our “antagonistic sects and factions.” “Merely legal guarantees of the civil liberties of free belief, free expression, free assembly,” he says, “are of little avail if in daily life freedom of communication, the give and take of ideas, facts, experiences, is choked by mutual suspicion, by abuse, by fear and hatred.” For Dewey, suppression of unpopular ideas through “ridicule, abuse, [and] intimidation” is itself a form of violence. Far from seeking to squelch differences, Dewey argues that in a democracy it’s crucial to give “differences a chance to show themselves,” thus enriching the culture for all. (33)

It takes faith and courage and patience to live with differences and encourage their expression. Dewey describes democracy as “a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature,” adding an important qualification, i.e., “if proper conditions are furnished.” (34) Daisaku Ikeda echoes Dewey, speaking of “the poet’s unshakeable faith in the inherent goodness of human beings.” (35) For both thinkers, our best selves are not necessarily manifest or evident in the present, but it is at least possible for us to envision them and work toward their emergence.

If we in America decided to practice this democratic, poetic faith, maybe more of us would be able to see the participation of Muslims in American civic life as a welcome development as opposed to a threat to our way of life, to cite one example. A little good faith and common sense tells us that celebrating Muslim-American Keith Ellison’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006 is not like endorsing the worldview of Osama bin Laden. Yet, a great many Americans reacted to his election with this kind of hyperbole, suspicion, and fear, effectively seeking to smother differences before they can blossom into rich harmony. (36)

It also takes faith and courage and patience to live with the distance between our ideals — that “world of greater potential” which we can imagine — and the lived reality of the present with all its shortcomings. We should not be passive in the presence of this distance nor should we force circumstances into premature resolution. Writing about the rationale behind his work with methodological doubting and believing, Peter Elbow observes “certainty is rarely if ever possible and that we increase the likelihood of getting things wrong if we succumb to the hunger for it.” (37) If utter certitude is the hallmark of authoritarians and zealots, how then should we act? Vincent Harding:

“We need to struggle with patience. Struggle must take place if we want a better world and it takes patience. My own patience was helped by some magnificent people [who] kept on in the face of struggle. We’re not meant to solve everything at once, but meant to let things simmer. I think this is the way life is. If we solved everything at once, we wouldn’t know what we have solved.” (38)

How a standardized test might impart this somewhat paradoxical wisdom I have no clue. But a good, dedicated teacher could model this quality of humble commitment to a better world each and every day in the classroom. About that I have no doubt.


When we think about indoctrination or propaganda in education, most often we think about the content students are being introduced to, usually in an unbalanced or biased way. Students learn about the virtues of American militarism without mention of tragic consequences; they learn about the evils of market capitalism without mention of its creative benefits; and so on. But as this essay has attempted to show, modes of teaching and indoctrination are embedded in the very form of the lessons and tests that students engage in.

Indeed, the difference between the standardized approach to education and that of the three dispositions promoted here is like the difference between asking students to take a multiple choice test on democracy and actually preparing them for the messy, creative, participatory reality of it. Democracy, said Dewey, “believes wholeheartedly in the process of experience as end and as means.” (39) Thus, if we agree with education theorist Ralph Tyler that the prime work of schools should be “to develop problem-solving students who actively engage in the work of a democratic society,” (40) then even students who have excelled in the standardized testing environment will have been done a disservice, since those educational means are in many ways inadequate to the task of personal growth and antithetical to the process of democracy. Society, too, will have been done a disservice.

Have students also received an education with less poetry, creativity, and imagination coursing through its veins?Have students, including those living in poverty, received a better education during the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (41) than they might have in the years before it? It’s certain that many have, especially considering that many students in the pre-NCLB era were not learning even the basics of a minimally acceptable education. But have students also received an education with less poetry, creativity, and imagination coursing through its veins? Undoubtedly, yes.

As we think about the education that will best serve human and global flourishing in the decades to come we should all be fully conscious of the unspoken trade-offs that are intrinsic to the standardized, data-focused agendas of today’s educational powers-that-be. If we can accept an education stripped of the poetic spirit, we should be honest enough to say so. And if we can accept students who are less prepared than they might be to find creative solutions to unforeseen problems, we should admit that as well. I hope we will choose differently and confirm that in a world where the future is wide open, the dispositions we nurture in young people matter greatly.


1. Lucy Calkins, A Teacher’s Guide to Standardized Reading Tests (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998).
2. “When 1/2 + 1/3 = 2/5”: An Interview with Katherine Merseth” by Mitch Bogen, Harvard Education Letter, Volume 24, Number 4, July/August 2008.
3. “In Dialogue with Nature, Oneself, and Others,” 2009 Ikeda Center website article.
4. David T. Hansen, “John Dewey on Education and the Quality of Life,” in Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice,” ed. David T. Hansen (New York: Teachers College Press, 2007), p. 27.
5. Ibid.
6. “In Dialogue with Nature, Oneself, and Others.”
7. Ibid.
8. This aspect of Elbow’s work is perhaps best known to teachers as the instructional activity called The Believing Game. Elbow is also known for his work on the teaching of writing.
9. Alan Shapiro, “Teaching Critical Thinking: The Believing Game & the Doubting Game,” Teachable Moment: Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility.
10. Daisaku Ikeda, Soka Education (Santa Monica: Middleway Press, 2001) pp. 100-101.
11. Vito Perrone, “Our Continuing Imperative: Education for Peace and Social Justice,” 1998 talk, Ikeda Center website.
12. John Keats Selected Letters, edited by Robert Gittings and Jon Mee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 41-42.
13. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Penguin Perigee, 2005), pp 33-34.
14. Lessons in imagination and uncertainty require close attention to students’ developmental level. For example, with younger children, teachers would emphasize the former rather than the latter.
15. “Value in Every Circumstance: An Interview with Gonzalo Obelleiro,” 2010 Ikeda Center website article.
16. Ibid.
17. A good introduction to this topic can be found in Peter Marshall, Nature’s Web: An Exploration of Ecological Thinking (London: Simon & Schuster, 1992) pp. 119-126.
18. Hansen, p. 23.
19. Ken Wilber’s books, most of which are published by Shambhala Publications, are too voluminous to summarize, but most of his work deals with Integral Theory in some manner. Building on the hierarchical frameworks of thinkers like Lawrence Kohlberg and Jean Gebser, Wilber and others propose up to twelve stages or levels in the evolution of consciousness. In simplified form, the stages can be said to progress from the egocentric, to the ethnocentric, to the worldcentric, to the kosmocentric.
20. Kathryn Schulz, “The Bright Side of Wrong,” Boston Globe, June 13, 2010.
21. Larry Hickman, “Democracy and Global Citizenship: Creating Value by Educating for Social Reform,” 2002 Lecture, Ikeda Center website.
22. Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), p. 100.
23. By 1967, King, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had become convinced that the struggle for equality and justice needed to tackle the issue of poverty confronting millions of Americans of all races.
24. Vincent Harding, “Martin Luther King and the Future of America,” Cross Currents, Fall 1996, Vol. 46, Issue 3.
25. Harding opens his book Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero with this stanza from Himes’ poem “Now That He Is Safely Dead”: “Dead men make/such convenient heroes: They/cannot rise/to challenge the images/we would fashion from their lives.”
26. Harding, Martin Luther King: The Inconvenient Hero, p. ix.
27. Ibid.
28. Daisaku Ikeda, remarks from the May 2005 lecture “The University of the Twenty-first Century - Cradle of World Citizens.”
29. John Dewey, “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us,” in J. Boydston (ed.), John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953, volume 14 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press), pp. 224-230.
30. Daisaku Ikeda, “The Flowering of the Greater Self: Message on the Occasion of the Publication of Creating Waldens.”
31. Elise Boulding, “Peace Culture: Living with Difference,” 1999 Ikeda Center keynote address.
32. Dewey, “Creative Democracy - The Task Before Us.”
34. Ibid.
35. Ikeda, “The Flowering of the Greater Self.”
36. At the time of this writing, similar inflammatory rhetoric was being invoked over the possible construction of an Islamic center near the 9-11 Ground Zero site.
37. Peter Elbow, Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
38. Vincent Harding, from a conversation with Ikeda Center staff, exploring themes for the 2010 Ikeda Forum on the Democratic Spirit.
39. Dewey, “Creative Democracy - The Task Before Us.”
40. “No Limit to the Possibilities: An Interview with Ralph Tyler” by Diana Buell Hiatt, The Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 75, No. 10, June 1994, p. 786.
41. Launched in 2001 during the first term of George W. Bush, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), among other things, requires each state to use standardized tests to measure something called “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). Schools failing to meet AYP can face severe sanctions, such as state takeover of the school. President Obama has continued the core practices of NCLB in his signature program, Race to the Top, which adds financial incentives for states that institute various reforms, such as the creation of more charter schools or the implementation of merit pay for teachers, which the Department of Education believes will lead to better performance on standardized tests.