Education & Philosophy

2009 Ikeda Forum: Dewey, Ikeda, and a New Humanism

| Mitch Bogen
Panelist speaking at IF2009

Panelist Gonzalo Obelleiro in dialogue with the audience

Undeterred by heavy winds and rains from the perimeter of Hurricane Ida, a capacity crowd gathered at the Ikeda Center on Saturday, November 14, for the Sixth Annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue. Their effort was rewarded with a day that featured original insights into ways that ideas and principles in American pragmatism, as articulated by John Dewey, and Mahayana Buddhism, as articulated by Daisaku Ikeda, can point us toward humanistic solutions for the problems of the twenty-first century.

Called “John Dewey, Daisaku Ikeda, and the Quest for a New Humanism,” the Forum’s topic was chosen for three reasons. First, 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of John Dewey, the American philosopher of pragmatism, democracy, and education. Second, John Dewey figures significantly in Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s 1993 Harvard University lecture, which continues to serve as a guiding inspiration for the Center. Additionally, the Forum provided a unique opportunity for top Dewey scholars to explore cross-cultural resonances between Dewey’s naturalistic humanism and Ikeda’s Buddhist humanism. Both point to what Dewey called “a common faith” capable of inspiring us to surmount our differences as we move forward as global citizens.

Rejecting Dogmatism

2009 Ikeda Forum Steven Rockefeller
Steven Rockefeller of Middlebury College

The day began with an introductory lecture from Steven Rockefeller, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Middlebury College. In his remarks, he set forth some of the core connections between Dewey and Ikeda, including these observations on their shared humanistic aspirations:

As religious humanists who chart a middle way between theism and a materialistic secularism, Dewey and Ikeda agree that what is of vital importance is realizing the ideal possibilities of human existence, not religion, as an end in itself. They reject all forms of religious authoritarianism, dogmatism, and exclusivism without lapsing into a self-centered individualism and a subjective moral relativism. They are concerned to break down the dualism of the sacred and the secular, the religious life and everyday life. They both endeavor to awaken people to the inherent meaning and value and the opportunities for spiritual growth to be found in the normal flow of life itself.

Despite such similarities, Rockefeller also acknowledged that questions remain regarding the closeness of their vision, especially since Ikeda, unlike Dewey, writes from the perspective of a religious practitioner who “affirms his faith in the eternity of life.” Specifically, Rockefeller posed the following three questions as being especially ripe for further inquiry:

  • How closely related is Dewey’s understanding of the democratic self and Ikeda’s concept of a greater, cosmic self?
  • Does the sense of cosmic trust and ultimate meaning that pervade Dewey’s thought point to the presence of an eternal dimension of reality along the lines of Ikeda’s Buddhist view?
  • Do the philosophies of the religious life developed by Dewey and Ikeda reflect the emergence of a promising new religious consciousness that can provide urgently needed spiritual and ethical guidance in the 21st century?

The Actual Conditions of Every Moment

2009 Ikeda Forum: Seigfried Obelleiro Hickman
Charlene Haddock Seigfried of Purdue University; Gonzalo Obellerio of Columbia University; and Larry Hickman of Southern Illinois University

Rockefeller’s presentation was followed by the morning session, called “Inner Potential and Self-Transformation,” featuring Larry Hickman, Director of the Center for Dewey Studies and Professor of Philosophy, Southern Illinois University; Gonzalo Obelleiro, Soka University graduate and doctoral student, Program of Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University; and Charlene Haddock Seigfried, Professor of Philosophy, Purdue University.

One theme of this session, introduced by Professor Hickman, was the importance of establishing a state of balance between ideological or ontological extremes; for Ikeda this approach is known as the Third Path and for Dewey it is called adjustment. Such extremes are numerous, but Hickman identified four as particularly relevant to the topic of humanism:

  • Individualism versus authoritarianism
  • Religious fundamentalism versus scientism
  • Bottom-up spiritual experience versus top-down religious tradition
  • Materialism versus supernaturalism

Both philosophers, continued Hickman, point to paths of transformation that might be described as “guidelines, not blueprints.” Building on this theme, Obelleiro noted that personal and social growth needs to be built not on the “illusion of final, fixed solutions,” but instead must be worked out in the actual conditions “of every moment.” To this moment-by-moment task, he said, those in Ikeda’s tradition of Nichiren Buddhism always seek to apply the qualities of wisdom, courage, and compassion in order to realize the greatest potential in that moment. (For more of Ikeda’s thoughts on these qualities, see his 1996 Teachers College lecture.)

During her remarks, Professor Seigfried, echoing a theme that ran through all the previous speakers’ talks, emphasized that the ideals, desires, and goals that guide us in this process of growth, though they “point to a not yet realized future,” are nevertheless not unreal or incompatible with empirical knowledge. Specifically, she proposed that both Ikeda and Dewey speak of what she called small “t” – not large “T” – transcendence, since it is situated here in “the phenomenal world” and achieved through social engagement.

Referring to Professor Hickman’s presentation, she added that human ideals are “transcendent in the modest sense.” While it is possible that they may never be fully realized, “they function as a horizon toward which individuals and communities can direct their energies.” Does this orientation deny the sacred dimension of life? Not so, according to Hickman. Earlier he had noted that, in Dewey’s words, the goal is to abolish not the sacred, but the secular, raising all experience to a level worthy of reverence and respect.

Soil, Sun, and Water

2009 Ikeda Forum Musicians
Emi Inaba, Kameron Christopher, and Malcolm Parson perform “Echo” and “Traveler”

The afternoon session kicked off with a performance of original music by pianist and composer Emi Inaba, accompanied by Kameron Christopher on alto sax and Malcolm Parson on cello. Their two pieces, “Echo” and “Traveler,” embodied the searching character that animated all of the day’s presentations and interactions, and earned a standing ovation.

2009 Ikeda Forum Garrison
Jim Garrison of Virginia Tech

The first speaker of the afternoon was Jim Garrison, Professor of Philosophy of Education, Department of Teaching and Learning, Virginia Tech. Called “Social Self-Actualization,” the afternoon session was intended to explicitly expand the notions of potential and transformation explored earlier into the larger social context. Thus, Garrison began by explaining that, for Dewey, we simply cannot develop and realize our potential as individuals without a community in which we conduct our interactions (or as Dewey would phrase it, our transactions). This is what is meant by social self-actualization.

Professor Garrison also clarified that the realization of individual potential is not akin to pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Rather, like seeds, all of us need the proper social conditions – the right “soil, sun, and water” – to manifest, to develop, to grow.

2009 Ikeda Forum Benson
Virginia Benson of the Ikeda Center

Speaking next was Virginia Benson, former Executive Director of the Center and now its Senior Research Fellow. During her remarks, Benson explored “how people who focus on growth of greater selves or value creation lay the foundation for a better world.” Interweaving quotations from Ikeda’s writings into the moving final passage of Dewey’s A Common Faith, Benson made explicit many of their shared humanistic concerns. Here is one particularly striking parallel:

  • Dewey: Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.
  • Ikeda: Education is not simply the transmission of knowledge. It is not simply the development of talent. Education is the great enterprise of steadily and surely passing on the fullness of humanity from the past to the future.

Benson concluded her comments with a call for a commitment to open-minded, open-hearted dialogue as the method best suited to bring forth our full, shared humanity.

2009 Ikeda Forum Noddings
Nel Noddings of Stanford University

The final speaker of the afternoon session was Nel Noddings, Lee L. Jacks Professor Emerita of Education, Stanford University. By way of preface she remarked that she would be balancing the day’s loftier meditations – which she said she fully appreciated – with a dose of socio-political reality. “We have never been further from Dewey in our public schools,” she said. Due to the preponderance of standardized testing and a general lack of funding, there is little time and not enough money to teach in a way that addresses the unique needs and draws out the individual strengths of students. How far we are, she exclaimed, from Dewey’s insight that “to find out what one is fitted to do and secure the opportunity to do it is the key to happiness.” Our failure “to give kids a chance to find out,” said Noddings, is quite simply a moral failure.

Generative Ideas

Saturday’s attendees, one hundred twenty five in all, were invited into the conversation throughout the day in two ways. During each session, audience members paired up to engage in the dialogue format that Center friend Peggy McIntosh of Wellesley College calls “serial testimony.” These structured conversations enabled attendees to generate ideas and articulate responses based on core ideas they had encountered while listening to the speakers. Each session also featured traditional Q & A periods, which were characterized by questions and comments that were both challenging and focused, and that encouraged speakers to further develop themes introduced during their talks. Topics included:

  • Adjustment and the Third Path: Professor Hickman explained that, for Dewey, the way to overcome the polarizing aspects of life’s dualities is to engage in a sort of back-and-forth rhythm, negotiating between extremes, which is a unique and individualized process. An example is that of the tension between ends and means. Attention to both, of course, is vital; but excessive or thoughtless commitment to one at the expense of the other has negative personal and social consequences. Obelleiro added that he believes that Ikeda would agree with the concept of adjustment. Specifically, from the Buddhist perspective, said Obelleiro, we all have “personal tendencies,” owing to karma, “that we tend to fall back on when facing challenges in life.” Ikeda’s concept of human revolution, explained Obelleiro, maintains that we need to be constantly checking ourselves – adjusting, if you will – to make sure we are not reverting to our extreme tendencies. The method for achieving this is through compassionate action for the benefit of others.
  • Democracy: Throughout the event, and especially during Q & A, speakers emphasized that for Dewey democracy is not a “thing” that can be exported, as Professor Garrison put it, “at the end of a bayonet.” Rather, Noddings explained, democracy is “a mode of living” that depends on practices such as dialogue to grow. So many of our problems, said Garrison, stem from our attachment to the idea of the “atomized self,” which is one reason we often fail to create the conditions in which democracy can flourish.
  • Happiness: Early in the day, Professor Rockefeller was asked whether Dewey would agree with Ikeda that happiness is something that can actively be sought. Rockefeller responded that Dewey rarely spoke of happiness as a goal, but rather as a benefit of an outward orientation in life. “When you are pre-occupied with your own feelings,” said Rockefeller, “you end up being a squirrel in a cage.” Speaking from his own experience as a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Rockefeller said that one seeks enlightenment not for oneself alone, but so you can be a better person in relation with others. A bit later, Obelleiro observed that for Ikeda, happiness is indeed a goal, but that it is realized only through the development of one’s greater self, which feels the sufferings of all beings as its own.
  • Jane Addams: A sub-theme throughout the day concerned the relevance to the discussion of the writings and work of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago in 1889 and a great friend and colleague of John Dewey. Speaking of Hull House, which was a “settlement house” for immigrants in the inner city of Chicago, Benson noted the tremendous “creative energy and social intelligence” that resulted from Addams’ commitment to cross-group collaboration, especially in bringing Chicago’s educated women into direct discourse and problem-solving with the “neighbors” (Addams’ term) who lived in the poor sections of Chicago. Professor Seigfried, an Addams scholar, shared some relevant ideas from Addams’ memoir Twenty Years at Hull House, including this: If you want to know if you love humanity, it’s not discovered in abstract humanity, but when you recognize humanity in the most despised among us.

Education As Growth

2009 Ikeda Forum Hansen and panel
David Hansen of Columbia University and panelists

The day’s concluding session, which featured a whole group discussion with the scholars, opened with reflections from David Hansen, Professor and Director, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. Hansen began with a vivid memory from his youth, when he was a six-year-old playing in a shallow pool of seawater warmed by the sun. Even today, he remembers “the play of light” on his hand and on the surface of the water.

Citing this as an example of the intrinsic value of children’s knowledge and experience, Hansen went on to read excerpts from the “Education as Growth” chapter of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, including one passage in which Dewey observed that adults might learn much from the child’s “sympathetic curiosity, unbiased responsiveness, and openness of mind.” 

As he moved toward his conclusion, Hansen observed that the world of children is rich soil indeed, in which “future acts of justice are going to grow, future acts of peace are going to grow, and future acts of mutual human relationship are going to grow.” However, we adults will do well to remember, he added, that the “work of gardening is slow, and you can’t force the garden to grow.”

The day ended with remarks from Richard Yoshimachi, President and Executive Director of the Center, who cited lines from an Ikeda poem that encapsulates the theme of individual potentiality discussed during the day. “Traveler,” wrote Ikeda, “From whence do you come? / And where do you go?” Yoshimachi suggested that the real meaning of education, for both Dewey and Ikeda, is found in continually reflecting on our own purpose in life and helping others to do the same.


Photos by Marilyn Humphries