Education and Human Possibilities

By Mitch Bogen

The Ikeda Center’s first public event for 2012, held on Saturday, April 28, featured J. Keith Motley, 8th chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston), discussing the topic, “Education and Human Possibility.” The Center has been building a relationship with Dr. Motley since November 2010, when he headed a delegation from UMass Boston to Tokyo to sign an academic exchange agreement with Soka University of Japan and present Center founder Daisaku Ikeda with an honorary doctorate, his 300th honorary academic award.

As prelude to Dr. Motley’s lecture, Alex Aldarondo, a recent graduate of UMass Boston’s Graduate School of Education, discussed his personal journey from struggling student to professional educator with dreams of building and founding his own school in his native Puerto Rico.

Prefacing his lecture, Chancellor Motley said, “Needless to say, this is a daunting topic—it speaks to the very idea of being human, and the powers and capacities associated with that status.” Then he posed an open-ended question to the educators, students, and community members gathered for the afternoon event: “So,” he asked, “what does it mean to be human?” Answers emerging during the two presentations touched on the wisdom of developing self-trust, embracing continual change and growth, and nurturing an ever-expanding sense of identity and obligation, one which includes the well being of humanity as well as the natural world that sustains us.

Learning from the Inside Out

Alex Aldarondo knows what it feels like when education isn’t working for a child. He recalled how, as a young student diagnosed with ADD, the experience of “being told for twelve years” to sit quietly inside a classroom reading or writing “was torturous. To me it felt as if I was serving time. My crime: Being a child. My sentence: become educated, which meant learning to suppress my instincts, my innate curiosity for the world, and my uncontrollable desire to run, to explore, and to learn. Intuitively.”

His first exposure to a different way of learning and being came when an 11th grade teacher told Alex’s class during her year-ending lecture to “trust our own intuition,…the inner voice that tries to convince us to go in a particular direction at times.” She taught the class a simple equation, he said: Follow your heart equals Accomplish your dreams.

“I had to unlearn everything I had learned previously about what education was.”With this message as motivation, Aldarondo went on to Soka University of America, where humanistic student-focused education is the norm. The catch, he found, was that learning to trust oneself and explore one’s interests is actually a skill that takes practice and discipline and time. “I was expected to know myself, take a stance and defend it,” Aldarondo said. To learn to do this “I had to unlearn everything I had learned previously about what education was.”

Inspired by this vision of education, Aldarondo, who is now a second grade Spanish teacher at the Dever-McCormack K-8 School in Boston, enrolled in the graduate education program at UMass Boston. It was there that he encountered the book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing, by A.S. Neill, a classic of anti-authoritarian, child-centered pedagogy, first published in 1960. Feeling that the ideals presented there and in Soka schools are not welcome in public education as it exists today, Aldarondo developed the idea to found a school of his own built on the conviction that children are innately curious and that, given the right guidance from adults, respond well to more freedom in their learning.

The school will be built in Puerto Rico on land he and his father have already purchased. The school, Aldarondo said, will be built on five pedagogical pillars: 1) free, democratic education; 2) nonviolence and conflict resolution; 3) ecological awareness through sustainable living; 4) social responsibility through service learning; and 5) global citizenship through peace and intercultural understanding. Aldarondo said that his students will learn from the inside out, not the outside in.

Bridges Toward Inclusion

Chancellor Motley began by expressing his respect and admiration for Aldarondo’s heartfelt reflections and spirited commitment. Referring to Aldarondo’s training at Soka University and UMass Boston, Motley said that the budding educator represents “a fantastic example” of the values, talent, vision, and love that characterize both institutions at their best. “Isn’t it unbelievable what can happen!” he said. (View a video of Chancellor Motley's prepared remarks.)

Next, he framed his lecture by talking about his commute to the Center earlier that day, and how the drive from Boston to Cambridge—home of elite institutions Harvard and M.I.T.—traverses a bridge across the Charles River. But “you know,” he added, “it’s kind of difficult for some folks to come across the bridge: whether that bridge is cultural differences, whether that bridge is leadership, or whether that bridge is knowledge.” In the talk that followed, he explained how good, ambitious education focused on human possibility must always be building bridges toward inclusion.

Launching his prepared remarks, Chancellor Motley was unambiguous about the topic at hand. “Please observe,” he said, “that the topic is not American, Japanese, or Mexican possibilities; neither is it possibilities for males or females, or rich, poor, or middle class people, or untouchables; nor does it name Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, or Hindus. The topic is education and human possibilities.”

"To be human means to be ‘in transit’—constantly in transition between being and becoming.”Further, as human beings we are not separate from what he called the “physiochemical ‘objective reality’” of the cosmos, commonly referred to as nature. “We are part of and related to nature itself,” he said, “thus, like nature “you and I are not static either. We are dynamic, evolving entities who cannot be fully defined. To be human means to be ‘in transit’—constantly in transition between being and becoming.” Unlike the rest of nature, though, we possess “unique powers of consciousness, curiosity, and creativity.”

As such, we are spiritual, value-producing beings, with the capacity to bring into existence that which previously didn’t exist. In the chancellor’s view, humans are also unique in their capacity, individually and collectively, to reflect on the effect of their interactions with others. This reflection is the basis of ethics and implies a responsibility to seek the best course of action for all.

This is where education comes in. Education, Motley said, is the means by which we understand our place in the cosmos and in society; it enables us to “creatively grapple” not only with what exists but also with what will come into being. Because this ability “to help to shape the cosmos knows no pre-ceiling,” said the chancellor, “one may say with the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles that there is nothing beyond the powers of the educated person.”

He continued by positioning education for human possibility in the context of the Buddhist imperative to nurture “the greater self.” The greater self thrives within the dynamic nature of existence; it also is able to imaginatively enter into the concerns of others. Education, he said, is the “pre-eminent tool” for escaping “the stranglehold” of the lesser self and its narrow loyalties, thus making possible "a group or cultural self beyond the nation-state and its narrow loyalties—loyalties which permit condemning murder across the street but indulging and even celebrating it across the mountain or the ocean. The greater self can tolerate no such indulgence…. Recognizing our human and cosmic identity means that nothing human is alien to us."

Another way of framing this educational ideal, said Motley, is to say that we must continually advance toward “universal inclusion—a concept so admirably represented by the human rights movement which came out of the disasters of World War II.” The chancellor emphasized that the well being of “non-human communities” must be part of our advances toward inclusion.

Motley concluded his prepared remarks with a discussion of education’s vital role in creating new knowledge and insight. Certainly, said Motley, education is the best way to achieve what Daisaku Ikeda has described as “the great enterprise of steadily and surely passing on the fullness of humanity from the past to the future.” However, he added, “the production of new knowledge means that our future does not have to be an indefinite extension of our frightening and destructive present,” with it’s too-easy accommodation of the “old exclusions” and their legacy of “illiteracy, wars, poverty, enslavement, environmental degradation,” as well as all the other “assaults on human dignity.” It is this possibility of newness, Motley said, that makes him eager to go to work each day at UMass Boston, which he later described (during Q & A) as a “research institution with the soul of a teacher.” Each day, he said, represents “a new threshold.”

As his prepared remarks drew to a close Chancellor Motley said, “You must by now have noted that I have not touched on education for jobs, or for sharpening actual or supposed talents.” This function of university education is essential, he clarified, but it nevertheless should be understood as “subsidiary” to the ultimate goal of teaching and learning: “the progressive disclosing of our full humanity and the unfolding of our individual and collective human personality.”


Dr. Motley’s journey from his beginning as a young student in Pittsburgh’s Upward Bound Program to his present status as the first African-American chancellor of UMass Boston, offering as it does a wonderful illustration of human possibility, provided a subtext and reference point for the concluding Q & A, whole group dialogue session. Questions focused generally on matters of power and agency, especially as one seeks to make a difference working within our educational systems.

A key theme running through Motley’s responses was that we all function as learners, as teachers, as leaders, regardless of the degrees we have earned or the titles we are known by. He was especially passionate about a few points in particular.

  • There is no greater gift we can give to others than to encourage or inspire them. No bureaucratic pressure can take this important power from us. What’s more, we often inspire people without knowing or being told about it. Therefore, we should maintain faith that we are making a positive difference, not only as teachers and leaders, but also as humans.
  • We can keep our positive motivations alive, no matter how daunting the responsibilities of our position, by never forgetting “the consummation of skills and values that brought you there.” Some of us make the mistake of “turning into something you’ve read about instead of something you are.” The chancellor said he keeps his spirit strong and gains valuable perspective by interacting with kids at the university’s Early Childhood Learning Center.
  • Finding a mentor can help us believe in our mission and potential to make a difference. To illustrate, the chancellor talked about two of his own mentors, both of whom were in attendance. He told how UMass Provost Winston Langley inspires with his work ethic, his knowledge base, and his deep love for their institution. And he expressed his gratitude to his thesis advisor, Robert J. Starrat, professor of educational leadership and higher education at Boston College.

Near the end of the Q & A dialogue session Chancellor Motley was asked to share a favorite student success story. He responded by telling of a student from Africa who would regularly come to his office to talk. The chancellor was glad the student felt comfortable availing himself of this opportunity, since inclusion at UMass Boston is intended as more than a platitude. Motley said that he wants students to know that “no matter what is going on with you in your life, you fit in: that your normal is our normal.” Only later, at commencement time, did he discover that the student was a double amputee, having lost both legs in a landmine explosion in his home country. Such resilience epitomizes human possibility.

Print Friendly and PDF