Can Education Be Joyful?

Seminar Explores Why Value-Creating Education Is Needed Today

By Mitch Bogen

View a photo gallery of the seminar

The field of Soka education studies took a big step forward this June*. That’s when fourteen education scholars gathered at the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue to discuss directions that will both advance the practice of Soka education and increase awareness of it within the academy. Soka education, which means “value-creating” education, is an educational philosophy and practice that was originated by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi in the early 20th century. Today, Daisaku Ikeda is commited to its development and expansion at all levels of education.

The assembled scholars featured veterans, such as Ikeda dialogue partner and Dewey expert Jim Garrison, of Virginia Tech University, as well as newcomers to the field, including many past and present Ikeda Center Education Fellows. The seminar was moderated by Jason Goulah, Director of the Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education at DePaul University. He led participants in an exploration of first, how Soka education can uniquely address the most pressing issues in contemporary education, and second, the related question of how it intersects with each scholar’s individual research interests.

Ginny at seminar

In her welcoming remarks, Ikeda Center Executive Director Virginia Benson offered a metaphor from Mr. Ikeda to suggest how the daylong discussion might proceed. “We need to further expand the orchestra of Soka dialogue,” said Ikeda. “Though it may seem a humble task, it is the surest way to revive today’s society.” Benson explained that Ikeda’s vision “underlines not only the significance of what we are doing together today but also the personal fulfillment we can each derive from participating in such a wonderful orchestra.”
           
Ms. Benson also invoked an important figure in the development of the Center’s approach to education: the late Vito Perrone, formerly director of teacher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She cited an insight he had shared when he served as commentator on Daisaku Ikeda’s 1996 talk on global citizenship at Teachers College, Columbia University. Speaking of commonalities between the American educator-philosopher John Dewey and Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Dr. Perrone observed: “They saw education as a critical path to a more promising place filled with the seeds of imagination —that distinctively human capacity to envision a world of greater possibilities. It is that natural disposition toward imagination, evoked through education, that should give us hope.” He then quoted Eric Heller: “Be careful how you describe the world, it is like that.”

For the next several hours the assembled scholars imagined together ways that Soka education might transform both the education landscape and broader society for the better. What follows is neither verbatim nor complete, but rather an impressionistic reflection.

Urgencies

It might not be true that education today is more fraught with conflict and controversy than in previous decades; maybe it is always so, given that education gets at fundamental questions about human purposes. Nevertheless, there are what moderator Jason Goulah called a number of “urgencies” being felt and experienced in the education world today. His question to guide the morning discussion was this: how can value-creating education provide a fresh perspective or approach that might lead to novel solutions or ways forward out of the various crises and dilemmas now being experienced by teachers and students?

William Schubert, Professor Emeritus of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago, responded saying that educators need always to keep two essential questions in mind. First, how can we help young people understand that their lives are something they are actively constructing, that they are “composing” their lives, as Mary Catherine Bateson phrased it? And second, the eternally urgent question: How shall we live together in the world? This latter question is certainly one for educators, added Namrata Sharma of the School of Education at the State University of New York at Oswego, but it is also a question that is fundamental to the fields of religion and politics. Jim Garrison said in response to Schubert that a key way to construct or compose a life is through dialogue, especially across difference, which counters xenophobic thinking. Here Garrison cited Daisaku Ikeda’s 2017 Peace Proposal, observing that such thinking is “propelled by a stark division of the world into good and evil. It leaves no room for hesitation or scruple.”

In regard to politics, Dr. Goulah asked if Soka or value creating education is in some way deficient. That is, there is nothing explicitly political about the Soka worldview, and in some ways the concerns of the soka movement can be seen to be “above politics.” However, his own students at DePaul have indicated to him that they would like to see the Soka philosophy be more political. Among the gathered scholars, Isabel Nunez, professor and chair of the Department of Educational Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, brought the most research experience looking at the political dimensions of education, so Goulah asked if she might like to weigh in. Professor Nunez observed that value-creating politics, like value-creating education, most always begins with attention to personal transformation, no matter the objective. You can’t create harmony until you create harmony within, she said. Instead of political revolution, Daisaku Ikeda calls for “human revolution,” which he characterizes thusly: “A great human revolution in just a single individual . . . will enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.” Soka practice is political by being itself, political by implication, since all actions are understood to have consequences.

Current Ikeda Center Education Fellow Kendrick Johnson of DePaul University jumped in, making connections with his work conducting professional development for teachers. What he has found is that unless teachers have learned to create value within they won’t be able to create value in their schools or the lives of their students. Former Education Fellow and current faculty at DePaul University Gonzalo Obelleiro concurred with the simple observation that when visiting schools, teachers do not appear to be happy. It was here that the morning conversation found what would become its center, as well as a recurrent theme in the afternoon.

Is it not urgent, wondered Ming Fang He, that we bring back the joy of learning? It’s a unique dimension of Makiguchi’s work that he emphasizes happiness. He, who is Professor of Curriculum Studies at Georgia Southern University, said that given the amount of despair, anger, and hatred in the United States, Soka/value-creating philosophy is more relevant then ever. With its emphasis on self-cultivation and a focus on the love of learning, Soka education is well poised to contribute to a revitalization of the humanistic spirit of education for educators of every sort.

Following up, Fernand Gervais, who is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Laval University in Quebec, Canada, observed that the overwhelming condition he sees manifesting at his institution, at other schools, and more broadly in the world is the “disease of anxiety.” He described this as “an inner problem,” one that is spreading socially, fostered by the isolated lives people live. Addressing this problem is no luxury, but an essential task for educators, and the soka perspective could be important to that.

Current Ikeda Center Education fellow Melissa Riley Bradford, a doctoral student at DePaul University, concurred, saying that central to this anxiety is the profound sense of disconnection experienced by teachers and students alike. Part of this has to do with a feeling of disconnection from larger society. It also relates to the “industrial model” of education, in which students are seen as machine-like entities that receive inputs and produce outputs. Student engagement with the material or school is an afterthought, with competition serving as the main driver. Through her research she has seen that the Soka concept of “human revolution” can provide teachers and school leaders with a sense of personal agency and faith in their ability to make a difference in their school communities. The Soka mindset discourages counterproductive “finger pointing,” she said.

This idea of finger-pointing refers not only to one’s attitude toward others but to one’s attitude toward oneself, a point that Isabel Nunez said she really internalized after reading an article from Ann Diller on the topic of compassionate self-talk. Sharing one of the key ideas from her article, Diller, who is Professor Emerita of Education at the University of New Hampshire, said that the teacher needs to be compassionate with him- or herself about his or her own despair or even self-hatred or self-doubt. The moment something is resisted, is when it persists, she said.

Kendrick Johnson

Still, the challenges in school environments are real. There are limits to how much Soka educational philosophy, or any philosophy, can do to rectify the kind of disengagement from school that many young people feel, especially among communities with pervasive poverty, said Gonzalo Obelleiro. Many young people in such communities have a hard time seeing how high school is relevant to them, even with caring teachers serving in these schools. Kendrick Johnson offered a slightly different angle, saying that the young people he has worked with in schools in the inner city of Chicago do have aspirations, but that outside the school, there are countervailing forces. From a soka perspective one might ask, how might their conception of what it means to create value actually come to be valued by the larger culture?

Julia Hrdina, doctoral student in educational leadership at Lesley University, helped point the conversation in a new direction when she observed that in her experience Soka teachers make a difference in schools through who they are and what they value, for example collaboration and dialogue, but that they would have a hard time articulating any particular Soka education pedagogy. Anticipating the afternoon discussion she said this reality suggests important areas for inquiry. How does Soka education differ from existing approaches like Social and Emotional Learning? How, objectively, would they define Soka practice?

Nozomi Inukai, doctoral student at DePaul and a researcher at the Institute for Daisaku Ikeda Studies in Education there, pointed out that most faculty at Soka University of America, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, are not members of Soka Gakkai International, and therefore might not think about their work in explicitly soka-derived terms. However in her doctoral research she has observed a few things. All SUA faculty appreciate the Soka-derived ethos that pervades the school, which manifests in a commitment to continual improvement. Professors are commited to collaboration and communication with one another with a focus on improvement within departments. And the success of students is also defined to a significant degree in terms of improvement.

At least two areas for research emerged from the morning conversation. The first, as suggested by Jason Goulah, is to explicitly analyze how the transformation of the teacher leads to the transformation of the class. The other is to better define the specific practices that distinguish Soka education. Regarding this process, Virginia Benson mentioned that it is important that teachers themselves articulate their experiences and views on education rather than leaving it to business leaders and politicians. This is something Vito Perrone emphasized, she said. Jim Garrison asked about the repository of Soka education teacher experiences that has been gathered in Japan. Could something like that be done here?

Intersections

The afternoon session, with its focus on how each scholar’s work intersects with the practice and philosophy of Soka education, picked up where the morning session ended, and provided further context for talking about vital “next steps” that could be taken to advance the field. Here are some highlights.

Julie Nagashima, former Education Fellow and recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh doctoral program in education, identified several areas for increasing knowledge around Soka education and the implementation of Daisaku Ikeda’s philosophy of education. First of all, she concurred with a suggestion from Gonzalo Obelleiro that comparative analysis should be systematically done to connect key Soka education concepts with similar concepts in other major pedagogies. Next, scholars need to think about the range of research methodologies best suited to research on Soka education. In her view narrative inquiry is especially well suited. Other questions include the place of teacher education in Soka education, and the especially compelling one of how Soka education can address social justice issues.

Another vital step is to define the field of Soka education research. Jim Garrison echoed others and emphasized that more than any other action, creating a journal devoted to a topic helps both to raise the profile of a field and sharpen its identity in the eyes of education scholars in general. Therefore creating a journal for Soka education studies, and the related field of Daisaku Ikeda studies, would be one of the most important steps for this burgeoning community to take. The scholars in attendance could in fact form the nucleus of contributors, both to start and as it develops. Related steps include publishing articles in education reviews as well as in popular education publications. The assembled scholars could also form the core of a special interest group, or “SIG,” at the American Education Research Association.

For most of the remainder of the afternoon, scholars talked about thematic intersections with their work and the kinds of topics that could benefit from more attention. For example, Ming Fang He brought up several areas for investigation, including research into Soka education in the context of diaspora communities. Bill Schubert said that it would be beneficial to focus more research attention on what he calls the “outside curriculum,” which refers to all the learning young people engage in outside of school. What, he asked, does value creation look like in those environments? Jason Goulah returned to the topic, raised earlier, of Soka education and philosophy in relation to vital political and social movements such as Black Lives Matter. Nozomi Inukai later added that there is not enough material in the Soka literature about gender issues. Daisaku Ikeda emphasizes women’s empowerment, but more particulars are needed.

These latter points relate to another raised by Goulah, namely, the matter of skepticism toward Soka education and its humanist language in the academy. Many educators who question the political neutrality inherent in the Soka stance, for example, proponents of critical theory, also object to the framing of the Soka agenda as humanistic or one based on humanism. The thinking is that humanism as developed in Europe has been a subtle mechanism for holding certain “Western” values as universally normative. Jim Garrison has given a lot of thought to this matter and explained how the Buddhist nature of Soka humanism renders this critique irrelevant. In Buddhism, there is no fixed self, no entity that simply is, or which remains in static relationship with the world. This notion of impermanence is closely linked to the Buddhist doctrine of interdependence. Humanism thus understood, is creative rather than hierarchical, and resists the essentializing of certain traits among certain populations, so endemic to the colonial project. Therefore Buddhist humanism provides a way out of the humanist conundrum.

At this point the conversation turned back to the question of anxiety among students, with Fernand Gervais expressing his belief that Soka or value creating education can help us to “dig deeper” into understanding or addressing condition in which students find themselves. The competition that is pervasive in society is such that the word anxiety might not be strong enough. He clarified that in French usage, the word for anxiety deals with particulars, say of getting a good grade or job, but what he sees is more closely related to despair or anguish, which in his view deal with speculative fears about the future, for example those dealing with mortality. Soka education and philosophy are well positioned to help us deal at that level of things in his view.

Ann Diller and Melissa Bradford

Julia Hrdina offered ways that Soka philosophy and education can help with this seeming dilemma. In her view, “respect for others” is the essential expression of value creation, and as such is the foundation for stronger social connections within a school. And, as research shows, social connections are a significant source of health and wellbeing. As for the pressure of competition, she said that the most important question for students and teachers alike is not how you will succeed, but rather how you will contribute. 

A related Soka quality is that of agency, the sense one has that they can make a difference in their own lives and in the world, a quality closely related to resilience. For teachers, this means increasing their capacity to avoid burnout, a common malady in contemporary public education. In his own research looking at issues of race, gender, and sexual identity, especially as they impact “queer black boys,” Kendrick Johnson said that his immersion in Soka philosophy led him to emphasizing agency for this population, in other words, what they can do to increase happiness in their lives despite unsupportive circumstances. For Johnson, schools are liminal spaces, in-between spaces, where young people can begin to develop their orientation – not just sexual – toward the wider world, and Soka philosophy can strengthen young people in this process.

Another area with both philosophical and practical importance is how Soka orientations can help us move from what Melissa Bradford called the punishment-reward model of education. In her doctoral research she has observed in schools that the work of “meeting standards” is a thin measure that can render students alienated or unmotivated. Isabel Nunez concurred that the truth is that too often there just isn’t a good reason for students to actually be engaged. Therefore, teachers need to begin with that fact, and then work to create value.

Here, Bradford invoked Ikeda’s contributive model and referenced Makiguchi’s emphasis on gain, beauty, and good, a variation on the “transcendentals” of classical Western philosophy: truth, beauty, and goodness. Gain here means the creation of value where none existed or as an extension of existing value. With this perspective Soka education has much to contribute as it provides a way to look at trying or restrictive circumstances such as high-stakes testing and challenges educators to nevertheless create value.

In comments that served to partly sum up the day, or at least to provide a reflective perspective, Ann Diller observed that the emphasis on value creation presents a challenge to each of us in the form of this persistent question: How do we as teachers actually create value right here and right now? Critically, this “doing” includes how we employ our awareness and our consciousness, said Diller. Teachers need to regularly check their internal “weather,” and if it is less than good, consciously determine to not “discharge” it onto students. The goal is to create a nonjudgmental space that leaves room for the love and joy that Ming Fang He spoke of at the outset of the day.

And one more piece of wisdom from Diller: to truly create value, she said, you have to consider not only your own vision of gain, beauty, and good, but also the vision of others. Jim Garrison underlined this point. Value creation is co-creation, he said. There is no other way for it to happen. And, further, a teacher can't coerce value from students.

Conclusion: Purposes

Earlier in the afternoon, Gonzalo Obelleiro observed that much of the anxiety he experienced in his youth related to a “failure to find purpose,” and thus by extension his life lacked a coherent narrative, a prime source of meaning making. Soka philosophy clearly offers a purpose, found in the opportunity to create value that arises in every moment. But is this enough to fuel a widespread movement in the US? As a Buddhist-based movement, observed Isabel Nunez, the Soka movement does not have the advantage of an organizing principle such as the battle between good and evil that motivates so many to cohere in the name of other religions. Yet, as Jim Garrison observed at the start of the day, rejecting such dualisms is central to the goals of humanistic education in the Soka mold. Namrata Sharma observed that Gandhi was able to build the Satyagraha movement, defined not negatively but as a commitment to the truth of nonviolence, so it can be done.

These questions of purpose brought the conversation full circle to Bill Schubert’s opening question of how shall we live together. Of the many answers offered, one answer resonated most strongly, expressed through the orchestra of voices contributing to the dialogue: we should work on our own joy and happiness so that we can contribute to the joy and happiness of others. The daylong seminar, filled with camaraderie, offered a model of what this work might look like in practice.

* June 23, 2017

 

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