Education & Philosophy

Victor Kazanjian on Education and the Middle Way

At the time of this April 2012 interview the Rev. Victor Kazanjian was the dean of Intercultural Education & Religious and Spiritual Life and was co-director of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College. From 2013 to 2021, he was director of the interfaith peace organization, the United Religions Initiative. One of his main pursuits at Wellesley was the Education As Transformation project. This interview was conducted by Masao Yokota and Clarissa Douglass on the Wellesley campus in Wellesley, Massachusetts. In this discussion they talk about education and the Middle Way, with many thoughts on the role of process in learning and peace building — and music, too. 

Masao Yokota: I recall an earlier conversation of ours where you said the Middle Way applies to education just as it applies to religion, that we should avoid the extremes of making absolute truth claims on the one side or just rejecting value statements entirely on the other. Would you please discuss education and the Middle Way?

Victor Kazanjian: In thinking about a Middle Way, there are two things that come to mind. One of them is the Middle Way necessarily involves living in the tensions of so many things in our lives, which is not always comfortable for people. Because people always seem to want to flee from the tensions of the many influences on our lives, the paradoxes of human existence, into some over simplified place, which tends to be a kind of absolutist, narrow claim on reality, on truth. One aspect of good education is that it invites people to live in the tensions, the uncertainties and the questions.

For me the Middle Way is about living in the questions. Not about coming to absolute answers. Rather to find a way to explore, to engage with others, to grow in one’s understanding of self and other and world. But always as, which is the second piece, a process. The Middle Way is process. It’s not a way to an end. It’s a process we live through our lives, living in the various questions that emerge, seeking deeper understanding in the holistic sense. How do we grow as whole human beings, in our mental faculties, our intellectual lives, our relational lives, our spiritual lives? These are all part of how we grow, how we develop. So on a college or university campus, for students who often come seeking and wanting an answer to a question, our job is to help make that more complex and to equip them with the skills necessary to live in the tension and to not run away to extreme, easy answers before they have explored the complexity and really deepened their understanding.

I’m seeing this a lot with our students, as well as with students across the country. There is this tendency to see tension as bad, something they have to flee from. To me, that is where the creative, interesting discoveries take place, when you explore those realms of uncertainty and the complex questions that human beings have struggled with for centuries and will continue to. Someone said it was living in the questions, the ways in which we live our lives out in the midst of these fundamental, beautiful complex questions.

MY: The purpose of education is not just to provide knowledge but also to help develop wisdom. To develop wisdom we have to live in tension or in the Middle Way, always thinking, questioning.

Yes, I completely agree. I think it was T.S. Eliot who talked about a movement from information to knowledge to wisdom. The quote is something to the effect of, where is the knowledge lost to information and where is the wisdom lost to knowledge? Too often our students feel as if they acquire information that will give them the answers to succeed in whatever ways they need to. The next step is for them to understand knowledge as being more than just information.

Clarissa Douglass: Do you think some of that fleeing from the tension is a fear of failure?

I think it is a fear of failure. But I think there is a deeper existential angst that we all struggle with as human beings — here we are in these fragile bodies and this world that seems complex and unpredictable. We often struggle for the things that keep us grounded in the midst of the realities of human existence. Fear of failure certainly is a derivative of that. I’ve talked with Masao about this before. There is also a lot of grief that never gets dealt with in most of human society — the small griefs, the little losses, the paths not taken. Then there are the larger griefs, the losses of loved ones and traumas in our lives. That grief sits in us as a kind of pool. When it’s never attended to, fear and anger often emerge out of that.

I spend a lot of time thinking about ways in which a more natural process of grief is essential to walk this Middle Path. Otherwise it builds in us and we can become hardened and we get judgmental. There is a process I’ve been studying for awhile — when grief becomes grievance. As people don’t attend to that sadness, that grief, they often look for others to blame. There are big, international examples of this, of people who have been deeply victimized and then victimizing others. We see that on an international level, we see that on a personal level with folks who have had trauma. There is kind of a sociological level of that too, which we, particularly in American society, are quick to want to blame somebody else.

CD: I’m thinking of those four inherent sufferings the Buddha identified: birth, aging, sickness, and death. If you don’t acknowledge them, if you don’t attend to them, they will cause suffering.

That’s exactly right. That’s the place again where if you are acknowledging that you can move towards non-attachment. Otherwise you are attached to those places of suffering or grief that dictate your life. The question is, here we have these institutions of higher education that are focused on scholarly acquisition and production when what we need to be working with our students on is this learning to live in the midst of all these realities. That is values-centered education, right? Upon what do we base our lives? How do we ground them? Not just how do we acquire information or knowledge but that wisdom that comes from this larger, more holistic process.

I’ve been so moved over the years by how to articulate a values-centered education that is not narrow. The values are humanistic. They are broad. Often in this country we think of values-centered education as the imposition of a certain set of moral dictates. But that’s not Makiguchi’s vision. That’s not values-centered education. That’s not Dewey. Those educators had a sense that the educational process itself was a kind of modeling of how we could live in the world, in relationship, to being open to learn about others, being open to new discovery with a kind of humility about our own knowledge. We only know in part, because we are an isolated being. So how do we connect and grow ourselves by learning from others?

MY: Even Makiguchi and Ikeda talk about value creation. It’s not just one big shot. It’s moment by moment through the relation.

That’s exactly right. That’s where this process — you mentioned Elise Boulding. Elise was big on saying peace is a process. Peace is not an ultimate goal; it’s not a static state. It’s a process — a process that needs to be consistently nurtured, revisited, explored. It’s ongoing. In a similar way, we need to look at learning, all education, as process.

MY: Daisaku Ikeda recently engaged in a dialogue with the jazz masters Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. A major focus of the discussion was improvisation.

I love jazz. One of the things that jazz has taught me is this creative process where you can risk moving to the edges outside of a fixed order. Much of music, beautiful music, is very structured and ordered. One of the teachings jazz has brought us is you can move and play outside of those narrow, fixed orders, even to the point where you think things are going to fall apart, come apart completely and spin out into some horrible dissonance. But the jazz musicians’ relationships with each other, it’s a relational process. So it’s a process happening where they play and work with each other in this creation and they are interdependent. So jazz in some sense is a beautiful example of human interdependence.

MY: It’s a dialogue.

CD: Wayne Shorter told us he wants to have the audience see this conflict happening and then see it get resolved. He told us people from the audience would come backstage and tell him how personally they responded to the performance, that they felt they could be doing more with their own lives. They told him, “I have limited myself.”

Absolutely. We went the other night and saw McCoy Tyner, who is one of the originals from the John Coltrane quartet. It was just stunning. And you did feel that way. You not only felt had you witnessed something beautiful but you were taking away teachings that had impacted you in ways that would unfold over time. That’s wonderful to hear. I look forward to reading that. I do think jazz carries with it those fundamental principles we are trying to capture as the Middle Way, as this process education.

CD: When we first met with Herbie Hancock, he said jazz arose out of suffering and jazz was not revenge but rather a nonviolent way to avenge the suffering.

That’s interesting. I was working in the South Bronx in New York City when rap became a street form. Early rap music was exactly the same. It was a way to regain a lost sense of dignity, voice, power that had been drained from economically poor communities, in particular communities of color. The early rap music in the streets of the South Bronx was all about that. It was poetry. It was street poetry. It was a form of artistic expression that was trying to counter oppressive forces. It has gone, as many things do, in all kinds of directions, which are not always so happy. That is very similar to what I think early jazz was and was very similar to what early rock and roll was, particularly in the UK context.

Music has often done that because it gets us beyond the verbal. There is something about moving outside the limitations of just spoken word that draws on different qualities of knowing, of understanding, of exploring. So that touches my heart. And we find that to be the case in our multi-faith work. You hit a wall eventually when you are just trying to talk your way through it. But there are processes that are beyond just the spoken word. Some of those are relational processes. I was writing a piece for some folks who are asking what is it about your work that allows people to move beyond separating identity factors, whether it’s around religion or race. My answer is always ultimately it’s about relationship, it’s about friendship, it’s about the relationships compelling us to move beyond these narrow ways in which we understand our selves. We discover in the course of those relationships something new about ourselves and the world and others. But a relational model is so important.

CD: I can see how music would really facilitate that.

Absolutely, very true.