June 1994

What Humanistic Education Is…And Is Not

In the field of education and especially in society today, “humanistic education” is the subject of considerable interest and controversy. Many people of good will immediately react “for it” or “against it,” depending on previous experience with the term…Actually, the term means many different things to different people. What follows is a very brief attempt by a number of educators to clarify the term “humanistic education” by describing what it is and what it is not…

Humanistic education is an educational approach. Most educators who advocate humanistic education typically intend this approach to mean one or more of three things:

  1. Humanistic education teaches a wide variety of skills which are needed to function in today’s world–basic skills such as reading, writing and computation, as well as skills in communicating, thinking, decision-making, problem-solving and knowing oneself.
  2. Humanistic education is a humane approach to education–one that helps students believe in themselves and their potential, that encourages compassion and understanding, that fosters self-respect and respect for others.
  3. Humanistic education deals with basic human concerns–with the issues throughout history and today that are of concern to human beings trying to improve the quality of life–to pursue knowledge, to grow, to love, to find meaning for one’s existence.

Humanistic education methods are used in public and private schools, the family, religious education, business and other settings.

Humanistic education is not a religion. In 1961, the United States Supreme Court ruled that non-theistic religions such as “Buddhism…Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others” are entitled to the same tax-exempt status as traditional, theistic religions. Ever since then, some people have confused humanistic education with the religion of secular humanism; because both terms have a common Latin root, humanus, meaning “human” (in turn derived from homo, meaning “man” or “mankind”). But humanistic education is not the same as secular humanism. In fact, there are thousands of priests, rabbis, and ministers of all faiths who disagree with secular humanism but who strongly support humanistic education. They believe the educational approach is entirely consistent with their religious beliefs, and can actually provide effective tools for teaching in religious settings.

James E. Wood, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, summed it up by saying, “The myth of ‘secular humanism’ in the public schools must be rejected as dangerous, unfounded, and unjustified.” When a Maryland group in 1972 charged the Montgomery County Schools with teaching secular humanism, the State Board of Education took twenty-one months and spent $200,000 of the taxpayers’ money investigating this claim, produced over 1600 pages of documentation and concluded that there was ‘no evidence sufficient’ to show that secular humanism was being taught in the schools.

Humanistic education enhances the teaching of the basics. Many of the major books and articles on humanistic education show teachers how to do a more effective job of teaching reading, writing, math, social studies, etc. Many of the best traditional-subject-matter teachers integrate humanistic education methods and materials into their basic curriculum. Rather than ignoring the basics, humanistic educators seek to expand our concept of what basic education is, saying that basic skills for surviving in today’s world go beyond reading, writing, computation, and vocational skills and include other skills for communicating, problem-solving and decision-making.

Humanistic education is supported by years of research and experience. One of the strongest reasons for supporting humanistic education is that, when done effectively, students learn! Considerable evidence shows that cooperative learning structures higher self-concepts, and the student’s motivation and interest in learning all are related to greater academic achievement. Studies also show that humanistic education can lead to fewer discipline problems, less vandalism and reduced use of illegal drugs…Such research findings do not prove that particular humanistic education methods should be used in all situations. These results do show that humanistic education is a valid educational approach that deserves serious attention and respect.

Humanistic education supports many goals of parents. What parent does not sometimes wish his or her children would listen more respectfully, choose less impulsively, calm down when overexcited, learn to be assertive without being aggressive, or make better use of their time? Many humanistic education methods teach students how to do these things. “Effectiveness training” teaches students how to really listen to others, including parents. “Values clarification” teaches students to “thoughtfully consider the consequences” of their decisions. Several humanistic education approaches teach students to relax and control their nervous energy and to plan and take more responsibility for their time. Humanistic educators often report that parents have told them how good communication was increased in their families as a result of some of the class activities and new skills the students learned.

Humanistic education encourages parent involvement in the schools. Many humanistic educators are parents themselves, who are very active in their children’s education in and out of school. Humanistic educators believe that parents should be knowledgeable about their children’s curriculum, should be active in parent-teaching activities, should be able to visit the school and observe, should have a way to make suggestions or register complaints about their child’s program, and within reasonable limits, should be allowed to request alternative learning options for their children when they disagree strongly with school practices.

Humanistic educators believe that schools have a role to play in the “values education” of students. While the home and religion have the major responsibility in the value development and moral development of children, the school also has a legitimate role. Few parents have ever questioned the school’s role in encouraging the values of punctuality, fairness, health, courtesy, respect for property, neatness and the like. Humanistic educators believe schools also should encourage the democratic and humanitarian values of tolerance, self-respect, freedom of thought, respect for others, social responsibility and the like. Schools cannot and should not be “value-free.”

Humanistic education is not psychotherapy. It is not the goal of humanistic education to help students overcome deep-seated emotional problems. Rather, humanistic education seeks to help students to lean useful skills for living and to deepen their understanding of issues relevant to their academic and social development. Teachers do not need to be trained psychologists to conduct humanistic education activities. They do require sensitivity to students, classroom management skills, and the ability to conduct a class discussion. These skills are within the grasp of all good teachers.

Humanistic education is not responsible for the increase in drug and alcohol abuse, vandalism, teenage pregnancies, violent crime and other problems besetting our nation’s youth. It seems absurd to have to state this, but a number of groups are irresponsibly scapegoating humanistic education by blaming it for all or most of the problems of schools and society today. They ignore the fact that these serious problems exist in school districts that have barely even heard of humanistic education, let alone use it. Rather than causing these problems, humanistic education has been one of the few serious attempts to try to deal with these problems which are disturbing to us all.

Humanistic education is not a panacea. No one claims that implementing humanistic education methods and approaches will instantly, or even eventually solve all of society’s problems. There are many problems in our communities, country and world which require complex and long-term solutions. At best, humanistic education can better equip young people with the skills and attitudes to play a more effective role in seeking these solutions.

Humanistic education is not necessarily synonymous with good teaching. Just as there are many “traditional” teachers who do a poor job of teaching reading and writing, there are also ineffective “humanistic” educators. We all probably know of teachers of both varieties who are open to criticism. This should not lead us to a wholesale attack upon the public schools or upon any particular approach to teaching. Rather than eliminate important goals from the curriculum, we should encourage all teachers to get the training they need to do the best possible job. And we should provide the support and funding to help the schools continue attracting qualified and competent professionals and find better ways to guarantee that each and every child will have the opportunity for the maximum learning and growth.

Humanistic education is essential for preparing young people to be citizens in a democracy. If democracy is to work, its citizens must be educated. They must know how to gather information, distinguish fact from opinion, analyze propaganda, understand many different viewpoints, understand justice, think for themselves, communicate their opinions clearly, and work with others for the common good. These are among the most important skills that humanistic education seeks to teach our youth.

–Bob Green

AHA Conference Report

Praise for Dr. Jack Kevorkian and criticism for the Boy Scouts of America were highlights of the 53rd Annual Conference of the AHA. At the awards banquet Dr. Kevorkian was praised for his tireless battle defending the principle of self-determination for people with a terminal illness. He was presented the 1994 Humanist Hero Award and responded with deep appreciation to the AHA. Dr. Kevorkian, with a body-guard and an attorney by his side, was friendly and gracious to dozens of Humanist members who wanted to shake his hand and personally thank him.

Most of the AHA delegates signed a document expressing disapproval of the insistence of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) that every scout must sign an oath to God and the BSA official statement: “…no boy can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.” The signed petition awarded a “Badge of Dishonor” to the BSA for their shameful treatment of the non-theistic community in the United States of America.

The AHA Board of Directors urged editorial changes in the publication of the Humanist magazine and recommended that it contain more articles and information that will promote humanism. Members who attended meetings of the Board as observers expect we will see some definite changes in the magazine in the near future.

More than 200 members attended the 1994 conference.

–Flo Wineriter

Can The Humanities Make Us Human?

Or Why I Stopped Studying Math and Switched to Philosophy

Lecture/Discussion presented at the meeting of the Humanists of Utah on May 12, 1994, by Patrica L. Hanna, Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah, and a former math student. The following notes were used by Dr. Hanna in her presentation

When Bob Green asked me to address you for a few minutes in February, he suggested the topic: “How can studying the humanities make us humanists?” Then I ended up having surgery and was home recuperating on the day I was supposed to be here. I’m going to stick to my original title for tonight. I’ll keep my remarks brief so there will be time for discussion.

Before answering this question directly, I would like to spend a few minutes talking about definitions; after all, I am a philosopher of language and I would be derelict if I didn’t spend some time talking about definitions.

“Human.” Clearly, I don’t intend by this term to invoke images of some biologically fixed classification. No matter how long or hard a dolphin studied humanities, it would not result in a transformation from one genus and species to another. But, one might ask, am I not misusing “human” if this isn’t what I mean? No. If you look at the debate surrounding free choice vis-a-vis abortion it is apparent that when someone says that abortion is wrong because the fetus is human, they do not mean that the fetus has such-and-such a genetic structure. When someone else says that this is not the point, but insists that the fetus has the potential to become human, they don’t mean that it lacks the appropriate genetic structure but might develop it in time. No, in both cases the term human is being used as a moral or value term; and it is in this sense that I use it when asking whether studying humanities can make us human.

In this sense, to be human is more than belonging to a certain genus and species, it is also to possess the ability to make choices and to act on them; further it is to belong to a very large and spatially discontinuous community of fellow agents, what we might call the global community of persons; and finally (and perhaps most importantly), it is to see oneself and others as members of this community and to accept mutual obligations and rights in virtue of this membership.

On this understanding, southern slave holders were not fully human because they failed to see themselves and their slaves as members of a mutual community; likewise, some Afrikaners are not fully human for similar reasons; anyone who worked in the Nazi death camps lacks full title to being human; and, in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia there is more than enough room to accuse various participants in the conflict of failing to be human.

We can now restate the question, and restricting the class of students to entities belonging to the appropriate genus and species:

Can studying the humanities

  1. help develop the ability to make choices and to act on them;
  2. help bring us into the global community of persons; and
  3. help us to see ourselves and others as members of this community and to accept mutual obligations and rights in virtue of this membership?

This is a longer question, but I think it makes the landscape of the inquiry much more perspicuous. But there is one further piece of definitional housekeeping.

“Humanities.” What is/are the humanities? At the University of Utah, The College of Humanities contains the following departments and programs: Asian Studies, Communication, English, History, Humanities Center, Languages and Literature, Linguistics, Middle East Center, Philosophy, University Writing Program.

At other universities, the administrative divisions are different. For example, history is often considered as a social science, communication as a free-standing school. But this really doesn’t help us. At universities, groupings aren’t ultimately anything more than arbitrary administrative decisions made by someone on the basis of who knows what criteria. I think that the best definition is the one that we use at the Humanities Center, taken from The Humanities in American Life, Report of the Commission on the Humanities, issued in 1980.

“Through the humanities we reflect on the fundamental question: what does it mean to be human? The humanities offer clues but never a complete answer. They reveal how people have tried to make moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of a world in which irrationality, despair, loneliness, and death are as conspicuous as birth, friendship, hope and reason. We learn how individuals or societies define the moral life and try to attain it, attempt to reconcile freedom and the responsibilities of citizenship, and express themselves artistically.”

Here the burden shifts from listing the subjects which are appropriate for a course in humanities to the methodology used in approaching an open-ended list of subjects.

Many have remarked on the value of an education in the humanities in helping us to find our center, our core values. And surely it does this. After all, what better way to discover what you believe a good life to consist of than by reading Plato and Aristotle on the good life, or by learning about the impact that such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, Charlemagne, Hitler, Lao Tzu, and Confucius have had on history and reflecting on how this impact might have differed had they been other than they were, or by learning about different cultures, their languages, literature, history, art, and forms of governance?

This is certainly a first step toward addressing 1, 2, and 3 above; but let me try to be more precise. The humanities requires us to do several things in approaching any topic. First, we must come to a clear understanding of the issues raised; in turn, this requires us to gain a sense of the history of those issues, how and when did they arise? Have they developed and evolved over time? How? What influences do changes in culture have on the issues.

The first requires the development of our analytic and critical skills, as well as the ability to read carefully and with an open mind. The second requires us to have a sense of intellectual history and of the diverse cultures and people of the planet. The humanities gives us all of this. Philosophy, discourse analysis, rhetoric, critical thinking, literary analysis, and the study of the structure of language all call upon and expand our analytic skills. History, cultural studies, the study of languages and culture enable us to address the second set of questions.

And this tells us how the humanities enables us to develop the ability to make rational choices and to act upon them; but it also shows us how we are drawn into the global community of people making and acting on such choices.

Once I begin to appreciate how the problem of other minds or the problem of evil first emerged, and once I see how this very same problem still engages us today, I cannot help but recognize that I am a sister of the long dead Egyptian or Greek or Chinese thinker who contemplated the same mysteries that engage me today. I also cannot help but look at the mother in New Guinea, sitting at home in her hut, playing with her daughter and see myself playing with my daughter; both of us are concerned that our daughters develop into well-functioning adults, both of us worry about fixing meals and cleaning and a myriad of other little things that go together to form part of the “good life”. Once this new form of seeing has emerged, the recognition that I am part of a global community is irresistible.

And with this recognition comes another realization: if we are fellow “citizens” (so to speak), we are not disconnected, we are not islands unto ourselves. This community provides us with support and with obligations; to be human is to help and be helped, and to recognize this mutually dependent/supportive relationship.

An interesting and informative discussion then followed between Dr. Hanna and a number of members and visitors in attendance.

Editor’s Note: In her lecture of May 12, 1994, Professor Patricia Hanna quoted the noted philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, but she was unable to get it to me in time for the June Journal. The quote is pertinent to her presentation and I include it now:

If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world, not the facts–not what can be expressed by means of language. In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole. The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.
So too at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.
Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

–Ludwig Wittgenstein,
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
translated by Pears and McGuinness