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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 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 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 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.


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Yokota: I'd 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 far?

Hickman: It's 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 these dialogues.

Yokota: One 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.

Yokota: Do you see differences in the concept of the mentorship in the Soka Gakkai and in Dewey's perspective?

Hickman: Dewey 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.

Mr. 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 ways.

Yokota: Would 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 their best.

Yokota: The 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 mentee.

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.