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Home » Thinkers & Themes » Themes » HGSE Panel on Humanistic Education


Humanistic Education:

Beyond the Traditional/Progressive Debate

Summary of a 2002 Panel Discussion

conducted at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

with Ted Sizer, Nel Noddings, Larry Hickman, and Monte Joffee


Introductory Remarks

The evening began with Dottie Engler, co-director of external relations and development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, welcoming the audience and thanking Ginny Straus, BRC executive director, and Larry Hickman, director of the Center for Dewey Studies, for their support of the program. In her opening remarks, Straus spoke of how the Center was particularly grateful for the opportunity to engage a dialogue on education as the intersection of education and global ethics has become an increasingly important aspect of the Center's agenda. Among the reasons for this emphasis, Straus noted that the founding organization of the BRC, Soka Gakkai International, was itself created by an educator, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1870-1944) who, with a number of colleagues, waged "an uphill fight for education reform in pre-WWII Japan."

She explained that in Makiguchi's day, rote learning and education aimed at the creation of "obedient national citizens" was the goal. As Makiguchi and his contemporaries advocated "value creating pedagogy" in the face of an oppressive militaristic regime, they were inspired by John Dewey. Straus explained the rationale for the evening's public discussion as "an opportunity to take a fresh look at educational philosophers working in the tradition of humanistic education to see if we might find common ground between traditional and progressive thinkers." As she turned the podium over to Ted Sizer, she invited the distinguished panel of speakers to "think out loud with all of us tonight about this challenging topic."

In regard to the topic before the panel, Sizer declared that "Its great virtue is its sweeping scope." He quickly added, "It's great vice is sweeping scope." He went on to explain that "humanistic education" is a term that has been widely used to mean many things, but that it originated in Europe with Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) who urged his followers to "know thyself." Over time, the idea of "humanistic education" was developed by a number of philosophers, including John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Alfred North Whitehead. He also noted the contributions of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, both regarded as founders of the twentieth century movement in humanistic psychology.

Ultimately, Sizer suggested, the term "humanism" has come to be understood as a way of thought that places the dignity of each human being ahead of other concerns and emphasizes life on Earth as the most important focus of human experience. While different terms have been applied to humanistic education, such as "progressive education" in the United States, he noted that the essence of humanism is respect for oneself and respect for others. Based on this fundamental orientation, Sizer observed that "It is no surprise that humanistic education has very deep moral roots."

Opening Questions

Sizer then referred the audience to the quotes listed above from leading proponents of humanistic education and directed a particular question to Nel Noddings based on a quote from Dewey's Nationalizing Education (1916): "For unless the agencies which form the mind and morals of the community can prevent the operation of those forces which are always making for a division of interests, class and sectional ideas and feelings will become dominant, and our democracy will fall to pieces." With this warning in mind, Sizer asked, "As a practical matter, can and should schools rise to this task of lessening divisions by developing in their students a habit of caring as you have defined it in your work?"

"The short answer is 'yes'," Noddings replied, before cautioning the audience not to interpret the phrase "lessening divisions" as an admonition against dissent. "Dewey always advised us to cherish our dissenters," she said. "What Dewey was trying to prevent were the kinds of pernicious divisions that become matters of self-interest."

Noddings went on to advocate "caring" and the "practice of caring," but not in the sense of mere feeling. "Caring implies sensitive, receptive attention," she explained, "as well as 'motivational displacement' which means that motivational efforts are directed to the needs of the other." She closed by underscoring that "the career has to do something," albeit within the framework of the culture and resources at hand. Drawing on her many years as a math teacher, Noddings added that "I cannot understand why every student needs to learn algebra and geometry, but I do understand why every student needs to learn something about caring."

Sizer then directed a question to Larry Hickman inspired by a quote from Dewey's My Pedagogic Creed (1897): "Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. I believe that education must be a continuous reconstruction of experience." Sizer's question to Hickman was, "What did Dewey mean by 'reconstruction' and how might Dewey have responded to Paulo Friere's call for 'men and women to transform the world'?"

Hickman replied by first interpreting Dewey's use of the word, "reconstruction" which he described as "one of Dewey's favorite words." Tracing the roots of Dewey's concept of 'reconstruction' to Hegel's dialectic of life and Darwin's evolution of naturalism, as well as to the work of Charles Pierce and William James, Hickman explained that "reconstruction means the application of intelligence which, in turn, means observation and experimentation in the management of human affairs." Thus, Dewey's view of "reconstruction" constitutes a positive process of inquiry designed to engage students around a problem so that they can work out a solution with the resources at hand. The "rich instrumentalism" implied by such a process is, Hickman suggested, at the heart of Dewey's approach to teaching and learning. "Dewey's idea is that one finds ways for students to communicate around problem-based issues," he said.

Hickman elaborated further by pointing out that "experience" is a "double-barreled word" in the sense that "experience is not only 'had;' it is also structured." In other words, it occurs within a particular environment. "It is the structured aspect of experience that brings the educational ideas of Dewey and Freire together," Hickman suggested as he quoted from "Creative Democracy," a lecture written by Dewey in 1939:

"[Experience is] the free interaction of human beings with their surrounding conditions, especially the human surroundings, which develops and satisfies need and desire by increasing knowledge of things as they are. Since the process of experience is capable of being educative, faith in democracy is all one with faith in experience and education."

Hickman linked this idea to Freire's work by pointing out that, according to Freire, "a person's ontological vocation is to transform the world. Both Dewey and Freire emphasize the unity of theory and practice, recognizing that they must inform one another; both Dewey and Freire were strong advocates of economic justice as one of the most basic underpinnings of education; and both Dewey and Freire rejected single-cause or single-factor analyses of social ills, along with rote learning. If they were here today, I would expect they would also reject 'teaching to the test'," Hickman said.

That said, Hickman observed differences in Dewey's and Freire's notions of 'reconstruction.' "Dewey grew up in America, in New England, a society where he took democracy for granted. Freire, on the other hand, grew up in a different political environment that accounts for his more radical ideas of education," he said. In closing, Hickman returned to similarities between the two philosophers, noting that "both wanted to transform the world of our experience at the level of lifelong learning as educators who have faith in the open-ended quality of human experience."

Sizer's final question in this segment of the program was directed to Monte Joffee and based on a quote from A. N. Whitehead's The Aims of Education (1929): "(What) we want is an understanding of an insistent present. . . Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilisation (sic) of knowledge . . . ."

"What might Whitehead's 'insistent present' be for The Renaissance Charter School?" Sizer asked Joffee. "Does your school practically embrace it as a vehicle for learning and, if so, does this help your students get ready for the Regents Exams [standardized tests administered in the state of New York]?"

Joffee replied by explaining that The Renaissance Charter School began with a "beautiful proposal that would fit in the Museum of Humanistic Education." He quickly added, "The only problem was, the kids arrived... and when the kids arrived a lot of us were really challenged." He recalled issues of racism and differences that emerged among teachers, emphasizing that "the wonderful thing about the 'insistent present' is that we didn't give up and we survived." For Joffee, survival itself is the "insistent present" because it requires that teachers, students, and administrators work together and find solutions. Regarding the Regents Exams, Joffee spoke of how important it became for his students to take the same exams that other, established schools were taking. For this reason, he brought the Regents Exams into the school. "Hopefully our statistics will look good, and then we can do what we want to," he quipped.

Purpose of Education in a Democracy

The next section of the discussion was open to issues of special interest raised by panel participants. Noddings turned the focus of the conversation to Dewey's comments in Nationalizing Education (1916), stressing that "he never meant a national curriculum, national standards, or high-stakes testing."

Quoting from a later work, she read: "If the teaching profession can educate itself and the public to the need of throwing off this incubus [i.e. the burden of all that is wrong with the educational system], genuine educative forces will be released. The freedom and impetus that result will enable the schools, without a centralized system, to develop a system of truly national education, by which I mean one animated by policies and methods that will help create that common purpose without which the nation cannot achieve uniform movement."

Returning to the earlier quote presented to her by Sizer in which "lessening divisions" appeared to be a concern of Dewey's, Noddings interpreted the later comment to mean that, in the present climate, Dewey would advocate "common commitments and common values" but not that he would advocate the removal of all dissent. She, furthermore, suggested that Dewey would be opposed to the "uniformity and coercion we see in schools today."

In this context, Noddings addressed the difficulty of Dewey's word usage which, she said, often leads to a distorted understanding of his ideas. "He used many ordinary words in un-ordinary ways."

Regarding Dewey's concept of "national education," Hickman referred to Dewey's cautionary remarks about "hyphenated Americans" [i.e. German-American or Asian-American]. One of Dewey's key points, according to Hickman, was that the hyphens must join rather than separate and, thereby, enhance the whole.

"Dewey was not a proponent of the melting pot theory, nor was he in favor of the 'salad model'," Hickman said. "He would, rather, talk about hyphenated Americans using the metaphor of the jazz ensemble in which each instrument plays its part, operating with a very careful tension and caring about what the other instruments are doing while blending together as a whole. At the same time, each instrument has its own ability to have a solo part." According to Hickman, this metaphor reveals Dewey's strong belief in the strength of diversity, an idea he developed during his own work in the 1890s with immigrants.

"Dewey would not approve of the federal government taking over education," Hickman declared. "He would say that 'national education' would come when we begin to trust our experience in the classroom and when we begin to trust teachers to do the kind of job that works at the personal level."

In this context, Noddings observed that there were "two views of democracy" operating in Dewey's debates with his contemporary, Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977). While Dewey never denied the need for common values and commitments, he saw them as "dynamic achievements." In other words, Noddings explained, "they didn't have to be in place before democratic participation began." Hutchins, on the other hand, thought that everyone needed to be grounded in the same education in order to participate. "Dewey wanted everyone to participate in the associative mode of living we call democracy, believing that the common values would come out of that association."

Joffee noted that Dewey's "pragmatic influence" came from his belief that the common people possess knowledge and sense which operates as a fundamental force. He raised a question about the current social climate in America. "People are not so sure there is fundamental reason and understanding in society," he said. "We see the seams ripping in our work with youth and so many of the problems we see with our young people come from a complete lack of faith in anything other than individualistic living." Noting "a lack of optimism," Joffee posed the question: "What were the roots of Dewey's optimism and can we find a new basis for optimism here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, given the fact that society is under so much stress?"

Hickman questioned the notion that American society today is more pressured than it was in Dewey's time. Pointing to 1939, he reminded the audience that democracy was in peril in Western Europe and even in the United States during those difficult years. "Through it all, Dewey had faith in human experience," Hickman said.

"I think the experience has to be more inner-generated at this point," Joffee replied. "We have to go beneath experience to find a fundamental pattern in the depths of human life in order to find the power to say 'Stop! There is meaning here.'"

In response to Joffee's remarks, Noddings raised another question: "In what areas do we need to go beyond Dewey?" For example, she said, "I've never been entirely satisfied with Dewey's views on moral education. He always avoided tying it down, wanting to make it depend on consequences without stating the consequences."

Noting that "going beyond Dewey is something that Dewey would love," Hickman pointed out that while discourse was primary for Dewey to the extent that it sometimes overshadows experimentalism, he very much advocated an experimental approach.

Sizer observed that "the current scene is very absolutist and disrespectful of educators," then went on to ask, "If you're a school person on the line and you respect the respectful tentativeness and patience of Dewey's ideas, what do you do?"

Joffee took up Sizer's query by expressing his view that metaphors are essential at this point. He then proposed a "metaphor of desert reclamation," suggesting that we are in a situation where foundations of teaching and learning must be recreated. Joffee emphasized the need for meaning in the educational experience, stating that "... meaning has to come from below... we need micro-solutions rather than macro-solutions." He, furthermore, interpreted "the agony of children as a manifestation of the philosophical crisis" and urged those present to "put value into the context."

"You know a good school or a good classroom when you're in it," Joffee said. "Each successful Monday morning is a beacon to everybody else. It says, 'There is hope here'." He recalled Dewey's idea of a school as "the laboratory of democracy" and likened the work of educators to "blowing the trumpets and saying, 'Life is worthwhile'."
Inquiry Inside and Outside of the Classroom

As the conversation continued, and largely in response to the "search for meaning" discussion, one of the key issues that emerged was the question of how to infuse classrooms and public discourse with a sense of inquiry. Noddings spoke of the importance of an ethical commitment to inquiry as advocated by Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), adding that "we're living in an age where there is no talk about the aims of education. It is assumed that we know what the aims are." She also pointed out that "We usually have critical thinking as an aim but we don't encourage students to use critical thinking on critical matters."

Sizer observed that "there is not so much a contradiction as a disconnect" between the system as it operates and those who "believe in restraint and diversity and respect and discussion." He wondered aloud if this situation might force people of values and vision to use force in order to get a society which doesn't need to use force? Hickman offered Dewey's view: "You never make democracy by using undemocratic means." He also suggested that we have many "different kinds of avenues, if we choose to use them" when it comes to educational reform. Noddings also replied to Sizer's comment: "I would never advocate physical force," she said, "but I would advocate verbal rebellion."

Sizer further questioned the climate for inquiry when he said, "Has our public room of maneuver narrowed substantially in the past 15-20 years so that, in fact, the kind of discussion and agreement we're talking about is very difficult to do given the assumption that something is deemed 'good' if it makes money?"

Joffee suggested that "In order to restore discourse, there needs to be training and patience." He also spoke of the dignity of each child in a diverse society, recalling Makiguchi's habit of leaving rice balls in a closet for poor children where they could find them, rather than handing out food publicly. Suggesting that the current climate is characterized by "vision impoverishment" and pointing out that "Pacifism doesn't mean stupidity," Joffee offered Makiguchi's concept of "humanitarian competition" as a means of pulling ourselves out of an era of confusion and inequity. This process encourages students to say to themselves, "No matter what, I'm going to thrust myself into a socially rich context and try to create value there."

Accountability & Equality

The relationship between economics and education was discussed in light of school quality and standardized testing. Hickman framed the question with humor: "How can we continue to have a strong educational system when catsup is a vegetable?" In other words, what kind of support exists for students, teachers, and schools in the current climate of mediocrity? Noting the disturbing economic disparities among American schools, Hickman suggested that more resources would be required to "come to terms – in Deweyan terms – with the American educational system."

Noddings suggested that it was not simply a question of spending more money, but of what we are spending money on. She also suggested that test scores could be predicted by driving through neighborhoods, implying that the better neighborhoods would, most likely, produce better test scores. Similarly, Joffee referred to an "SPZ index," which he defined as "Starbucks Per Zip Code," as a reliable indicator of high test scores. On a more serious note, Joffee spoke of how difficult it is to reduce the prevalence of low expectations among students in poor neighborhoods or under-funded schools.

Later in the program, Noddings returned to the impact of the publication of test scores on poor children, "who are already depressed, " suggesting that it was an inappropriate practice.

In this context, Joffee spoke of his respect for educators who are working daily to "restore a humanistic vision of education and society," stating that "This is the mission of the educator today." With characteristic humor, Joffee added, "There's a special spot in heaven for us."

Audience Q/A

Returning to the issue of inquiry, a comment came from a woman who suggested that the kind of inquiry and critique proposed in the discussion "is foreign to the culture of schools," even among teachers. Her question to the panel was, "How do we reawaken inquiry and critique?" Sizer replied simply, "Stay the course," while Joffee spoke of the "Critical Friends Groups" he has worked to implement at The Renaissance Charter School. "It's very slow work to get people to talk together collegially," he said, noting that training and patience are required. "At this point, every teacher in our school is a member of a Critical Friends Group where they're learning how to talk about their professional practice."

Noddings suggested that things "will get worse before they get better," especially in light of the new guidelines for federally-funded research which emphasizes large-scale experimental and quasi-experimental studies. "They've ignored that much of what we know about education comes to us from history, philosophy, and literature," she said. "The idea is to base policy on evidence-based research."

Another member of the audience brought historical context to the issue of educational reform by reminding those present that as recently as the 1940s, married women were not allowed to teach school in some areas of the United States and many students, particularly African-American students, were consistently treated with disrespect. Her remarks suggested that we have come farther than we realize and, furthermore, things continue to evolve.

Joffee's call for "a new basis for optimism" was explored by another member of the audience who asked if he meant "a call for moral absolutes." He replied by saying, "There is some kind of pattern there we can draw upon. We understand more all the time about the 'web of life.' Maybe the synthesis is about to happen."

As one member of the audience observed, public discourse was not encouraged in the 1930s, yet both Dewey and Makiguchi taught their students to engage in moral inquiry by asking questions. The panel agreed that we might learn from their work today in order to redefine education at the beginning of a new century. One of Makiguchi's points, Joffee explained, was the importance of moving from the valueless life to a life of value, from a non-contributive life to a contributive life. As he suggested that we are at some stage of a process, with some people working toward a world of value, Joffee said, "I think the world really is waiting for the new heroes. I think there are great grounds for optimism."


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