Interview with Professor Larry Hickman, Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Cabondale, USA
Interview with Professor Larry Hickman
[The following is taken from a July 12, 2010, interview with Dr. Larry A. Hickman, director of the Center for Dewey Studies and professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, USA, conducted by Masao Yokota, current advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue.]
Masao Yokota: November 18, 1930, is the founding date of Soka Gakkai. It is also the publication date of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi's Soka Education pedagogy. There is a significance in this. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda today pursues the development of both Buddhist humanism as well as a humanistic education that empowers people to bring out the best from within. Both religion and education are prone to pull in the opposite direction. What are your thoughts on this?
Larry Hickman: It is quite remarkable that Makiguchi had the insight and the foresight that has led to such wonderful results in those intervening 80 years. It is remarkable also because that time, 80 years ago, was not a very good time for democracy or education in Japan, or for that matter, in much of the rest of the world either.
As I think about that particular confluence of events, I think of Dewey's reaction to Japanese culture when he visited Japan in 1919. He noted that between the family and the emperor there was a startling absence of the type of institutions that support and stabilize civil society, such as civic groups, parent-teacher organizations, and business and professional associations. There was little more than the military. At the same time, however, he reported how much he delighted in meeting the everyday Japanese person. It seems clear that Makiguchi was trying to find a way of creating such institutional structures through the educational process. That is very inspiring because we all need to be finding ways of doing this.
In many countries, including the U.S., there is a danger that we will fail to realize the importance of education as a stabilizing and renewing factor in our environment. As [Daisaku] Ikeda has said on numerous occasions, humanistic religion and education are mutually supportive. They are two sides of the same coin. I have been present when Mr. Ikeda has said that religion is important but education is equally important. I take that as a very, very significant statement.
Yokota: Religion can easily become repressive when people are not encouraged to think for themselves.
Hickman: Yes. One of the difficulties that Americans have in understanding Buddhism in general and the Soka Gakkai in particular is because of what the term religion tends to mean in American society.
Some Western religions are hierarchical systems in which rules and dogmas are issued from the top down. In addition, most Western religions have a strong commitment to belief in a supernatural deity, which in my view tends to distort public discourse. In such cases religious institutions tend to stress dogma at the same time they neglect the role of individuals in determining how they can best develop their own needs, talents and interests in a religious context. That is a part of the difficulty that Americans have in understanding the broader concept of humanist religious expression that one finds in Asia, for example. On the positive side however, I think this situation is beginning to improve. The world is getting to be a much smaller and more intimate place. Information about alternative belief systems is increasingly available.
Yokota: Makiguchi introduced a vision and concept of education for children's happiness. This was in response to the nationalistic education system of his day. Happiness can mean different things. What did Dewey understand happiness to mean?
Hickman: Dewey takes his notion of happiness from Aristotle and then builds on it. Aristotle said something like this: You can't really aim for happiness; happiness is a by-product that happens when you do things properly, that is, when you cultivate certain virtues, when you create certain values in your life.
For Dewey, happiness comes when we are connected, when we are balanced, when we find ourselves fitting into a larger whole in terms of the opportunities we have for growth and the opportunities we have to help others grow. Happiness doesn't mean that you don't have any problems. It means that you develop the resources for dealing with those problems in positive ways.
Yokota: Dewey's view of the connection between growth and
happiness resonates strongly with the philosophy of SGI. Fulfillment cannot be granted, it comes from
growth and the development of one's talents and capacities. This is why Makiguchi was concerned that people develop the ability
to create value themselves.
Hickman: Right. My study of Dewey, as well as my study of the Lotus Sutra and the writings of Mr. Ikeda, have led me to conclude that the concepts are very closely linked. Growth in Dewey's terms is the creation of value, the creation of new and enriched meanings. What is the meaning of life in his view? The meaning of life is to enlarge and create more meaning. And there is no end to it. You just keep doing it.
Yokota: There is a Buddhist concept called "changing poison into medicine," which means to find meaning and value in the difficulties that confront one.
Hickman: Good. That is the opposite of a defeatist attitude. I often hear some self-described religious person saying, "Well it was just God's will that I suffer this or that, so there is nothing I can do about it." But that type of attitude can sometimes be counter-productive because it tends to involve passive submission before an authority. I believe it is much more productive to say, "There are growth opportunities in adversity." This takes the responsibility away from some higher power and puts it squarely on you and me to determine how growth opportunities will manifest themselves and how we can avail ourselves of them.
Going to a workout at the gym is a good example. How do you develop and tone your muscles? You do it by working, by pushing the limit. You do it by testing resistances. If you don't exercise, then your muscles become weak. That is one problem that I have with the Christian notion of heaven, where everything is said to be carefree and perfect. But that would mean that there is no resistance. I don't understand how anyone can be happy without resistance, without difficulties, without anything to push back against. If we were to try to develop our bodies in the gym along those lines, it would not be possible. No resistance means no development, no growth.
Yokota: You have interacted with students of Soka University in Japan and in America. What has been your experience, particularly of the way the concept of value creation is being applied?
Hickman: I continue to be amazed by the energy, the enthusiasm and the idealism that I find on the Soka University campuses. I meet students who are preparing themselves with eyes wide open, cognizant not of only the difficulties but also of the opportunities that await them. It is such a pleasure every time I visit one of the Soka universities.
Also on the K-12 [Soka Schools] campuses the kids are a real delight. They are energetic and they are eager to learn. It is obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the curriculum and into the ways the teachers interact with the students. When I am asked if there is any place in the world where Dewey's ideas are really being used and developed, I always mention Soka schools and the Soka universities. In my view, those are truly “Dewey” schools and universities.
Yokota: Can you say more about what you mean by "eyes wide open?"
Hickman: Yes, that can take several forms. One is the study abroad program, coupled with foreign language instruction. I am encouraged that even in the face of diminished language instruction in high schools and universities in the United States there continues to be a strong emphasis on language acquisition at Soka University of America. That is extremely important because when you learn a language, you learn a culture. Study abroad is an essential learning experience for our future leaders.
Another aspect is the level of scholarship among the undergraduates, and their participation in projects designed to deal with real world problems, as opposed to abstractions or "make work" activities. Those are some of the things that I think of when I say that the students are confronting the world with "eyes wide-open."
A good example of this sort of thing is the environmental studies curriculum that I have witnessed in action at the [Kansai Soka]schools in Japan. In one case this involved studies of fireflies as indicators of a healthy ecosystem. In another case it involved astronomical studies by the students at Kansai that linked up with NASA. These are serious projects that lead the students away from video games and challenge them to connect with what is going on in the real world. I find this very encouraging.
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Yokota: Dewey had very illuminating views on the true meaning of democracy. For many people, democracy means simply a majority vote.
Hickman: It is much deeper. Democracy is not tyranny of the majority. In a Democracy you have to respect the rights of the minority. In the U.S., for example, we have our Bill of Rights, which protects freedom of speech and freedom of religion. No matter how unpopular someone’s view may be, absent certain exceptions such as threats of physical violence, he or she has a right to speak. We have many types of "freedoms from" and many types of "freedoms for" enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Those can't be taken away even if by a majority vote.
I am a big fan of Dewey's characterization of democracy, since it goes beyond voting, and even beyond identification with any particular type of government. It would certainly cover constitutional monarchies, parliamentary systems, executive systems, and many other types of democratic systems. On the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1939, in a wonderful speech called Creative Democracy, the Task before Us, Dewey said, "Belief in democracy is belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness." He has it all there. He has the centrality of human experience and he has the growth in ordered richness, which to me sounds like value creation.
Yokota: You spoke about freedoms from" and "freedoms for." Would you please elaborate?
Hickman: Yes, with freedoms come responsibilities. The Bill of Rights is not just a list that gives you certain liberties. It is also a list of responsibilities that you have towards other people. If we have a positive freedom of speech, it means also that we have a responsibility to respect the rights of others when they speak. In other words, we have freedom from harassment and intimidation. The same goes for religion. If you are free to practice your religion, then you are free from persecution. But you are also obligated to respect the rights of people who practice other religions or no religion at all, as long as they are not breaking the laws. There are both negative and positive liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Yokota: Many people think of responsibility as an obligation.
Hickman: Responsibility is the other side of the rights that we possess. There is a sense in which a responsibility is an obligation but a responsibility does not have to be burdensome just because it is an obligation. Obligations can be taken up cheerfully because they promote opportunities among our fellow citizens to develop their needs, talents and interests. An obligation doesn't need to be something that we shy away from as something harsh or undesirable. I have a responsibility, an obligation, for example to pay my taxes. I do so cheerfully because, as U. S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.
Yokota: So, the foundation of democracy should be a vision or belief in each individual's potential.
Hickman: Yes. And that is why Dewey goes on to say that if you understand this then you can see that democracy is more or less equivalent with education. That is why I think we have so many important tasks before us, because there are so many places in the world where there is very little democracy and very little education.
Larry A. Hickman is the director of the Center for Dewey Studies and professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, USA. He is also a former president of the John Dewey Society. Professor Hickman is the author of books and essays on a variety of topics, including American philosophy, the philosophy of technology, film studies, gay rights, and the history of logic.