Dewey Studies furthering East-West dialogue | Philosophy | SIU

Southern Illinois University



College of Liberal Arts

Dewey Studies furthering East-West dialogue

­­­­Dr. Larry HickmanDespite a major relocation from the edge of campus to Morris Library, the Center for Dewey Studies recently delivered again on two prongs of its comprehensive mission—to engage in outreach and creative activity—with contribution to a volume furthering East–West dialogue. What is the relevance of American philosopher and educator John Dewey in the 21st century? This is the question Professor of Philosophy Larry Hickman, director of the Center for Dewey Studies, takes up in conversation with Jim Garrison and Daisaku Ikeda in Living as Learning: John Dewey in the 21st Century (2014).

In many ways, the book is the fruit of a conversation which originated some time ago in the ideas of John Dewey, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda. The latter two were the first and second presidents of the Soka Gakkai, which is a worldwide network of lay Buddhists in the Nichiren tradition who work to promote peace, culture and education.  The Soka Gakkai, which means “Society for the Creation of Value,” had its origins in educational reform, a subject which also profoundly interested Dewey. Hickman and Garrison join Ikeda, current president of Soka Gakkai International, for a dialogue between Nichiren Buddhism, and Dewey and pragmatism.

Hickman finds the similarities between the two strands of thought and practice “remarkable.” He has worked with Soka Gakkai for the past twelve years, serves on the board of Soka University of America, and collaborated on the present volume with Garrison and Ikeda for a year and a half prior to publication. “I feel very good about this work. It really fits in with what we do at the Center,” Hickman says.

Education is tantamount to spirituality for the Soka Gakkai, and this focus is evident in the several affiliated organizations, of which the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is one. The Cambridge center hosts various public people intent on the promotion of dialogue and increased cultural understanding. Hickman has been honored as an invited lecturer at this center on several occasions.  

Hickman shaking handsBeyond Tolerance

At a time when the world is witness to horrific instances of human cruelty, the present volume contends that merely teaching tolerance is not enough. The three discussants point to Dewey’s and Makiguchi’s insistence that we must aim higher—toward understanding, if new values are to be created for a rapidly changing world. Forbearance may have had its historical moment as the best urging of democratic societies, but Hickman and collaborators place their faith in comprehensive education for global citizens. Such an education would certainly include history, philosophy, geography, sciences, languages and some international experience as a better way to meet the pressing demands of the twenty-first century—in short, a liberal arts education, over the more narrow, careerist preparation currently in vogue.

Interest in the thought of John Dewey runs deep in the Department of Philosophy at SIU. Not only is the department the principal academic unit associated with the Center for Dewey Studies, but a volume dedicated to the thought of John Dewey was, significantly, the very first to appear in the department’s long-running Library of Living Philosophers book series. Hickman and the center’s editors have almost completed editing the Dewey Papers and are digitizing them for availability to scholars. Hickman has also authored and coauthored many other books and essays on Dewey’s philosophy . Several of Hickman’s colleagues have also written about Dewey’s contributions to American philosophy and culture, and Dewey’s work is taught regularly at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Starting Where We Are

Worldwide interest in the work of John Dewey continues to be strong. There are today 12 international Dewey Centers, located in the following countries: China, Japan, Germany, Italy, Spain, France (Paris), Switzerland, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil and Argentina. These sister institutions work, to use one of Dewey’s favorite terms, in the “context” of their own countries. Hickman has presided at the birth of all twelve of them. Each one of the centers is adapted to its location, and is generally connected to a university or another center.

Chinese scholars, in particular, have had a special affinity for Dewey, dating back to Dewey’s extended “visit” between 1919 and 1921. According to Hickman, Dewey “is still regarded by many Chinese as the personification of a cultural bridge between their country and the United States.” Chinese scholars continue to make their pilgrimage to the Center for Dewey Studies in significant numbers. Hickman recently spent 15 days at Beijing Normal University lecturing on the development of American pragmatism, from Charles Peirce to current journal publications.

Hickman believes that Dewey’s openness to individual differences, to cultural differences, made him beloved to a people who appreciated his advice about “starting where you are.” The idea is that a profound understanding of the world can be arrived at by beginning in attentiveness to one’s immediate context, and creating value there. Dewey’s belief in the possibility of human transformation is similar to the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, central to Mahayana Buddhism, the promise of the lotus rising to flower in purity from even muddy waters.  The last words in the volume are Hickman’s: “The test of the ideas and ideals that we have discussed will be their ability to be of service in times such as these.”

The Center for Dewey Studies welcomes visitors to its new location in Morris Library, one floor down from entry level.

L. A. Brown