Engaging with Matters of Consequence
In early June 2011, the Ikeda Center hosted an education seminar honoring the fifteenth anniversary of Center founder Daisaku Ikeda's June 1996 Teachers College lecture, "Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship." With this talk as a starting point, participants focused on some of the qualitative, values-oriented aspects of teaching, learning, and leading that Ikeda identifies as critical to global citizenship but which have a hard time finding a home in the high-stakes, data-driven, outcomes-oriented world of contemporary American public education. As seminar co-convener Stephen Gould put it, one purpose for the gathering was simply to "engage in dialogue as an end in itself."
Joining Dr. Gould, who is director of Lesley University's Educational Leadership Program, were Dan Butin, Associate Professor and founding Dean, School of Education, Merrimack College; Monte Joffee, founder and director of EdGloCit, an organization focused on education for global citizenship, and co-founder and principal emeritus, the Renaissance Charter School in New York City; Tricia Kress, Assistant Professor, Leadership in Urban Schools, Department of Educational Leadership, University of Massachusetts, Boston; and Bernice Lerner, Director of Adult Education at Hebrew College, and Senior Scholar, Center for Character and Social Responsibility, Boston University School of Education. Participating Center staff included President and Executive Director Richard Yoshimachi, Events Manager Kevin Maher, and Senior Research Fellow Virginia Benson.
After the participants shared personal introductions, Dr. Gould discussed the genesis of the seminar and framed some core themes for discussion. He began by telling how when he first attended an Ikeda Center event—the November 2009 Ikeda Forum, "John Dewey, Daisaku Ikeda, and the Quest for a New Humanism"—he immediately "was impressed at the quality of presentations, and the depth of the conversation, dialogue, and discussion." Along with sharing the Center's commitment "to promoting the ideas of community and democracy," Gould appreciated the focus on the philosophies of Dewey, Makiguchi, and Ikeda. "I didn’t know how, but I knew at that moment that I wanted to get involved in some way with the Center, "both for my own interest in connecting with community and also to get the doctoral students in my program connected with the Ikeda Center, too."
Gould's students are experienced public school administrators and leaders whose working lives are dominated by a need to comply with "top down mandates" pertaining to student and school performance. These mandates, he said, make it difficult for school personnel to "address matters of consequence and matters of substance" that aren't directly applicable to the empirical culture of testing that defines public education today. In his Lesley program Gould creates the space for open-ended reflection on such "matters of consequence." Working together, Gould, Yoshimachi, and Maher planned and structured a seminar that would allow the invited scholars to do the same, hopefully building community in the process.
GOING AGAINST THE TIDE
Maher launched the formal discussion by asking participants to reflect on two central themes of the Teachers College lecture on global citizenship. First, Maher noted that "Ikeda outlines three essential elements for global citizenship (wisdom, courage, and compassion), emphasizing that 'education should be a vehicle to develop in one's character the noble spirit to enhance and augment the lives of others.'" Next, Maher highlighted an idea cited by Ikeda in the lecture, namely "that student's lives are not changed by lectures but by people. For this reason, interactions between students and teachers are of the greatest importance."
Jumping right in, Dan Butin observed that of all the aforementioned virtues, courage might be the one most relevant to today's public school teachers as well as "those of us in higher ed." In an atmosphere defined by "notions of efficiency and control" being promulgated by district, state, and federal authorities, it can be hard, Butin said, for a teacher to know how and when to be courageous in terms of suggesting and implementing alternate educational models.
One contributing factor to this difficulty, said Gould, is that schools today, much like the education world as a whole, are as often characterized by adversarial factions as by a genuine sense of community. It's more possible to be courageous when strong relationships are in place, he added; in fact, without reasonably strong relationships in place it might even be "foolish to be courageous."
Nevertheless, it is still possible to "go against the tide" to bring important qualities to a school, said Gould. The key is to build on the positive relationships already in place. If, for example, you have a strong relationship with your students, "they will want to deal with the issues that they know are important to you. So if wisdom and courage and compassion are part of your personal curriculum and you have established the relationships—whether it's in the classroom or in the community at large with parents—I think it's very possible to turn things around and make it safe for people to follow."
Bernice Lerner shifted the discussion to the question of how you actually go about teaching qualities such as courage in a school environment. Drawing upon her extensive experience leading professional development sessions for teachers in character education and ethics, Lerner identified four dimensions to the teaching of positive character traits in classrooms, using courage as an example. These steps can be paraphrased as follows.
Dan Butin observed that this kind of deep, humanistic pedagogy is usually of less concern to the student teachers in his program than the immediate challenges of learning classroom management and developing other more-obviously pragmatic skills. Echoing Gould's remarks on "matters of substance," Lerner agreed that "the daily grind" of schools is so compelling that sometimes it is best to engage with the deeper dimensions of education in offsite retreat settings. Removed from their routines, teachers can more easily engage with one another on a philosophical or idealistic level.
Tricia Kress followed up by describing a process that she uses in her UMass classes to introduce new or challenging ideas. First, she asks students to look at their internal reactions to a given idea or educational practice, especially when they are predisposed to be skeptical about it. Next, students are asked to step back a bit and analyze their threatened convictions or preconceptions to see if there might be a way to reconsider or reposition them. Finally, Kress offers concrete examples of where and how the practice in question is actually working. Above all, says Kress, she wants to create reflective spaces where students are not in a defensive mode.
THE POWER OF INDIVIDUALS
In his various remarks, Monte Joffee synthesized the discussions around courage and other character traits with insights on the power of a single individual to positively impact and affect students. This faith, Joffee said, can empower the individual teacher to not "fall into despondency" in the face of the institutional pressures cited by the other seminar participants. Joffee noted that the 1996 Teachers College talk included important passages where Ikeda recounted how one man—his mentor Josei Toda—almost singlehandedly, over the course of ten years, educated the young Ikeda in all manner of academic subject matter.
In the talk, Ikeda goes on to say that "most of all, however, I learned from his example. The burning commitment to peace that remained unshaken throughout his imprisonment [for resisting Japanese militarism] was something he carried with him his entire life. It was from this, and from the profound compassion that characterized each of his interactions, that I most learned. Ninety-eight percent of what I am today I learned from him."
Referring to Lerner's comment that all good teachers need "a store of stories" to share with students, Joffee said that today's dispirited teachers "need stories of educators who don't give up." He then shared the powerful example of Toda's mentor, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a lifelong educator and the creator of the philosophy and system of Soka, or value creating, education. It took great courage for Makiguchi to maintain his humanistic principles in the increasingly fascistic Japan of the early 20th century, Joffee said. Furthermore, Makiguchi never lost faith in his educational vision, even after being removed from the principalship of several successive schools.
There is transformative power for teachers and students alike, the group agreed, in the stories of individuals who persevere and create value in the face of opposition and even the direst of circumstances, including imprisonment. *
TECHNOLOGY AND THE TEACHING OF ETHICS
Towards the end of the seminar, Steve Gould shared an anecdote about Albert Einstein that steered the discussion toward a consideration of how the increasing integration of computer technology into our lives and classrooms might actually improve our capacity to deal with subjective, non-technological matters of character and ethics. As legend has it, Einstein was asked for his phone number and he responded that since he never calls himself he doesn't know it. He added that if an occasion should arise where he does need it, he knows where to look it up.
Could it be, wondered Gould, that education's traditional emphasis on knowledge retention could come to be seen as irrelevant now that huge portions of the world's information are instantly available online? Instead of needing "individual people to be reservoirs of knowledge," Gould continued, might we instead come to see that what we really need is for them to be lifelong learners, community builders, problem solvers, and the like? Lerner concurred, saying that we don't need students to memorize the dates of battles; instead we need students to be discerning in their use of technology. She added that regardless of whether one is online or offline, "ethics is still ethics and courage is still courage and compassion is still compassion."
Kress built on the other comments, saying that certain, uninventive uses of technology just don't add much educational value at all; for example memorizing or accumulating knowledge in a traditional way and then "using a computer to present what you've memorized." Echoing Lerner, Kress said that it remains crucial to create learning environments, with or without technology, that foster the development of deep qualities like curiosity, compassion, and courage. If technology doesn't bring something unique to the process, she wondered, "then why bother"?
A number of related themes were interwoven into the overall discussion. Highlights include the following.
Research and Practice
The Aims of Education
As the seminar neared its conclusion, Tricia Kress remarked that even though she was quite taken with Gould's opening idea that, as she paraphrased it, "dialogue is an outcome in and of itself," she nevertheless would be leaving the seminar with "visions of possibility" and many concrete ideas for "next steps" in her own teaching at UMass, Boston. Others agreed that they would be returning to their respective programs and workplaces with a stronger commitment to dialogue as an essential component of personal and organizational success.
Richard Yoshimachi closed the session by sharing remarks that Daisaku Ikeda's son, Hiromasa Ikeda, had delivered at the 2011 Soka University of America *** commencement, which had just occurred the previous week. Mr. Ikeda told the assembled students that they should aspire to be "pioneers" with the courage to break through "the walls of difficulties." He added, however, that if you are a courageous pioneer, but still somehow isolated from other people, you cannot really accomplish anything. Thus, one should one should develop the wisdom to take positive, collaborative action, "right where you, not somewhere far away."
* In July 1943, Makiguchi was imprisoned, along with his protege, Josei Toda, for resisting Japan's imperialistic culture of war. Some 400 days or so later Makiguchi died in a prison hospital. He was 73 years old at the time.
** In addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the UN has released human rights agreements relating to torture, genocide, the rights of children, and more.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue