Interview with Professor Larry A. Hickman
July 12, 2010
[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
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
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.
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 Mr. 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
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
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.
* * * * *
like to ask you about your dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda
and Jim Garrison, which is currently
being serialized in the Japanese Todai magazine. What has your experience of the dialogue been thus
been a great pleasure. The issues that Mr. Ikeda raised stimulated me to think
more critically about issues that I normally have on my mind in some inchoate
sense, but that I don't always make the time to consider in the detail that was
afforded by these dialogues.For
instance, I was quite impressed by his insights into the role of mentorship. I
am going to miss working with him and my friend and colleague Jim Garrison on
of the interesting things about this dialogue is that it is a scholarly dialogue aimed at a general audience.
Hickman: It has been a marvelous experience, because in
scholarly work one sometimes tends to get focused a bit too tightly on
technical problems. As I was preparing for these dialogues, however, I imagined
a housewife and an office worker who might be reading my words. It was both a
challenge and an inspiration to try to address that audience, to picture
someone reading those installments and to
imagine what they would be
thinking and how they would react.
you see differences in the concept of the mentorship in the Soka Gakkai and in
was a rather shy person. He lacked the personal charisma of a leader like Mr.
Ikeda, but he was nevertheless a great thinker who inspired many dedicated
students who were quite serious about promoting his ideas. He was not an
organizer in the way that Mr. Ikeda has been, although he did have quite a
large network of friends, colleagues, and disciples--not just in the academic
world but also as a public intellectual. He had a style of mentorship that was
different from Mr. Ikeda's. Even though he lacked the abilities of a great
public speaker, he was able to inspire his disciples by the depth of his
thought and his ability to articulate powerful ideals.
Ikeda, on the other side, in addition to his wonderful ability to conceive and
articulate powerful ideals, is highly charismatic. Having visited with him several times, I can say
that one looks into his eyes and sees an enormous depth of intelligence, a
vigorous commitment to creative dialogue, and a keen interest in the people
around him. It is highly appropriate that he has many disciples who have been
greatly inspired by his life and work.
I spend much of my professional life promoting the
ideas of John Dewey and encouraging other people to do so as well. But I
continue to be inspired by Mr. Ikeda in ways that are quite different from my
great appreciation for Dewey, in part because of the enlightened ways he
manages spontaneous teaching opportunities at a very personal level. One
example that was related to me involved his ability to go on to a football
field and talk to players and encourage them to be the very best at what they
do. I don't think I can imagine Dewey doing that.
These two very different approaches to mentorship
are, of course, elements of a larger whole. They are both important, and they
both work because people are different and they respond to mentors in different
you clarify what you mean by charisma?
Hickman: I am using the term "charisma" in a positive
sense. It is what I had in mind when I mentioned Mr. Ikeda's presence. When I
shake his hand and we have eye contact, I see a person who is mindful and
focused on our meeting at that moment in time. He is not thinking what he is
going to have for dinner, or what problems he has to solve later in the day. He
is present in the moment. Consequently, there is a connection that is almost
electric. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we would all make an effort to achieve
that level of mindfulness!
By the way, when I have seen him speak to hundreds
of people I have been impressed by that same kind of energy, that same level of
attention to the people in the audience. That is what I mean about the positive
sense of charisma. He is able to connect to people and to inspire them to be
mentor and disciple relationship can easily be misunderstood as a relationship
of one person simply, even blindly, following another.
Hickman: Yes, it can. But a productive mentor and disciple
relationship must always be an interactive relationship.
I am confident, for example, that I have learned
as much from my graduate students as they have learned from me. When I go into the graduate seminars I tell them,
"Please just think of me as a more advanced graduate student. Because,
especially at this time, when we have so much that is being published and so
many fields and specializations, you will have read and thought about things
that I haven't. So we are going to share information. We are going to develop
together. We are going to think together." One has to approach mentorship
in that way, I think, or one tends to become authoritarian and really blind to
the opportunities of the transaction and interaction between the mentor and
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.