August 1997

The Influence of Humanism in Education

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

In considering the influence of humanism on education I thought it might be useful to go through the Humanist Manifesto II and check all the ideas expressed there which I felt had been taught to me when I attended the public schools in my youth. The exercise turned out to be a very pleasant surprise to me. I had expected to check only six, eight, or perhaps 12 at the most; but when I had finished, I found that I had checked no less than 58 ideas. I had not fully appreciated just how much humanism had influenced modern education until I did this exercise.

I would like to mention to you just nine of the ideas I checked–every sixth one in the list. They are:

  1. that clear-minded men and women are able to marshal the will, intelligence, and cooperative skills for shaping a desirable future
  2. that people should work for self-actualization and the rectification of social injustices
  3. that, even as science pushes back the boundary of the known, man’s sense of wonder is continually renewed, and art, poetry, and music find their places, along with religion and ethics
  4. that it is desirable to safeguard, extend, and implement principles of human freedom
  5. that the conditions of work, education, devotion, and play should be humanized
  6. that equality of opportunity and recognition of talent and merit are desirable
  7. that the schools should foster satisfying and productive living
  8. that ecological damage and resource depletion must be checked
  9. that we must work together for a humane world by means commensurate with humane ends.

Those of you who attended private schools while growing up may find that a good many humanist principles are being taught there, too, although the number of them may vary according to the prevailing philosophy of education of the school. The same could be said of public schools.

How did it come about that the humanistic approach is so prominent in today’s schools in contrast to the situation that existed in education throughout most of civilized human history. To find the answer we must look at history.

Actually some elements of humanism were present even in the schools of early civilization, but the emphasis in those schools was not humanistic. The oldest known systems of education in history had two characteristics in common: they taught religion, and they promoted the traditions of the people. That is to say, they taught students to think and act the same as their ancestors had thought and acted. This contrasted with the humanistic orientation, which teaches people to engage in the search for truth and for solutions to problems open-mindedly with a sense of human caring by employing critical intelligence and the controlled use of scientific methods. However, some humanistic elements that were present in the schools of ancient civilizations were the teachings in Egypt of the sciences, mathematics, and architecture; in China the philosophies of Confucius, Lao-tzu and others; and in Greece gymnastics, mathematics, music, philosophy, and the aesthetic ideal.

The educational systems in Western countries came to be based on the religious tradition of the Jews, both in the religious form and in the version modified by Christianity. A second tradition was derived from education in ancient Greece, where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, were the influential thinkers on education. Jewish-Christian influence was a very unfortunate occurrence for the Western world, leading to that great period of institutionalized ignorance known as the Middle Ages, the first part of which is often referred to as the Dark Ages. Humanism fared badly during the Middle Ages, as superstition, faith in authoritarian, dogmatic religion, and subservience to religious and feudal authority took over. Superstition imposingly invaded the teaching and the practice of medicine, sometimes to the harm of people. “Mules fared better than men,” according to historian Will Durant. As this era ended, the poet and scholar Petrarch was probably the first to conceive of the thousand years from late Roman antiquity down to and including his own day as an age of darkness, marked by the extinction of excellence in both literary culture and public virtue.

Then in the fourteenth century a revival of culture took place which was aroused by the rediscovery of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Latin and Greek classics were found lying neglected in monastic or cathedral libraries, rotting in dust, or mutilated to make Psalters or amulets, in foul dark dungeons, old chests, and even tombs. The rediscoverers came to be called the humanists because they occupied themselves with the humanities, that is, with writings that were more human.

“The humanists captivated the mind of Italy,” and later Europe, “turned it from religion to philosophy, from heaven to earth, and revealed to an astonished generation the riches of pagan thought and art,” says historian Will Durant. “The proper study of mankind was now to be man, in all the potential strength and beauty of his body, in all the joy and pain of his senses and feelings, in all the frail majesty of his reason; and in these as most abundantly and perfectly revealed in the literature and art of ancient Greece and Rome. This was humanism.” The humanist-inspired revival, known as the Renaissance, following the example of ancient Greece, also led to a renewal of interest in science. Witness the wondrous changes that have taken place in human society in the 600 years since then that have been made possible by scientific research. The masses of the people in large areas of the earth now enjoy a standard of living far higher than in any previous centuries in all human history. This has come about by the development of an advanced technology that would not have been possible without the discoveries of scientific research. Although many people still live in poverty, progress has been made against it among hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of people. The masses of Asia have been saved from starvation by the scientific development of a new strain of rice, which produces four times as great a yield per acre as strains being raised a few decades ago. The huge populations of China and India have experienced improvements in their economies and in the standards of living for many of their people in recent decades. And the idea of education for the masses has taken hold all over the world.

The humanists had the important and original conception that education was neither completed at school nor limited to the years of one’s youth, but that it was a continuous process making use of varied instruments. Companionship, games, and pleasure were part of education. They sought a new historical consciousness. They reconstructed the past in order better to understand themselves and their own time. Their movement was going to have a profound influence on education in later centuries. And yet, despite their emphasis on the human, they had no interest in extending education to the masses, but turned their attention to the sons of princes and rich burghers. The masses were to remain steeped in poverty and superstition, untouched by the beauty and excitement of the humanist world view for another century.

Possibly the educational reform that has most influenced our culture toward the acceptance of humanistic values has been the establishment of universal education for all the people. Interestingly, the first popular movement toward public education for the masses since the days of the early Roman Republic was by a man who was at odds with the humanists, especially with the prominent humanist scholar Erasmus, who wanted to encourage education for a small group of writers and scholars only. The man was Martin Luther, who wanted to open up education to the sons of peasants and miners, for they had contributed to the success of his religious reforms in the Protestant movement. He favored limited democratic reforms which would open up schools for just a few hours a week to all, both boys and girls, regardless of their financial situation. Humanistic schools open to the public were established in Germany soon afterward. Phillip Melanchthon, moving away from Luther’s interest in combining education with religious reform, set up a new educational system, particularly a secondary school system. On the other hand, perhaps the most original contribution of the Reformation was the extension of education at the elementary level.

Elementary education for the middle classes developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, and more and more the state saw as its task the responsibility for establishing and maintaining schools. The 18th century was a special landmark in the development of education. In contrast to the religious and rationalistic orientation of schools in the 17th century, the ideal in the 18th century that prevailed more and more was the development of the secular, pragmatic gentleman.

Sir Francis Bacon advocated the use of inductive and empirical methods in the schools, which he thought would strengthen humans and make possible a reorganization of society. Philosopher Rene Descartes encouraged the development of critical rationality and the teaching of any practical discipline that makes man a master and lord of nature. An important new outlook of this age was the notion that education is guaranteed, not by limitless widening and assimilation of facts, but rather by the mastery of thinking and judgmental categories.

In America, the Puritans established what was probably the first school in the colonies in Boston in 1635. It was a far cry from a humanistic one. Its charges were instructed in reading, religion, and the colony’s principal laws. Puritanism was the established religion. Rejecting democracy and toleration as unscriptural, the Puritans put their trust in a theocracy of the elect that brooked no divergence from Puritan orthodoxy. So close was the relation between state and church that an offense against the one was an offense against the other and, in either case, “treason to the Lord Jesus.” The young, like the old, were sinners doomed by almost insuperable odds to perdition. Not even infants were spared. To God, indeed, they were depraved, unregenerate, and damned. Hence, the sooner the young learned the ground rules of the good society, as revealed in the Bible, the better.

When Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, the nation stood on the threshold of a tremendous transformation. During the ensuing quarter century it expanded enormously in space and population. Old cities grew larger and new ones more numerous. The era saw the coming of the steamboat and the railroad. Commerce flourished, and so did agriculture. The age witnessed the rise of the common man with the right to vote and hold office. It was a time of overflowing optimism, of dreams of perpetual progress, moral uplift, and social betterment.

Such was the climate that engendered the common school. Open freely to every child and upheld by public funds, it was to be a lay institution under the sovereignty of the state, the archfather, in short, of the present-day public school. In 1837, Massachusetts established the first state board of education. Its first secretary, Horace Mann, campaigned tirelessly throughout the state, often against bitter opposition, for more support for public schools and achieved success that was to start a massive movement for publicly financed common schools throughout the United States. The soil that rooted the common school became the seedbed for the high school, which also became prevalent by the next century. Now all states have mandatory attendance for all youngsters up to the age of 16 or 18. Three-fourths of all teenagers graduate from high school. Universal public education has spread throughout many parts of the world, and it has been perhaps the greatest educational development since the beginning of civilization!

The man who has had the most influence on the course of education in America in the 20th century is the educator, philosopher, social critic, and psychologist, John Dewey, who died in 1952. A humanist and an instrumentalist, he was considered the premier philosopher of his time.

Dewey was critical of the excessively rigid and formal approach to education that dominated the practice of most American schools in the latter part of the 19th century. He argued that that approach was based upon a faulty psychology in which the child was thought of as a passive creature upon whom information and knowledge had to be imposed. But Dewey was equally critical of the “new education,” which was based on a sentimental idealization of the child. This child-oriented approach advocated that the child himself should pick and choose what he wanted to study. It also was based on mistaken psychology, which neglected the immaturity of the child’s experience. Education is, or ought to be, said Dewey, a continuous reconstruction of experience in which there is a development of immature experience toward experience funded with the skills and habits of intelligence. The slogan “Learn by Doing” was not intended as a credo for anti-intellectualism but, on the contrary, was meant to call attention to the fact that the child is naturally an active, curious, and exploring creature. A properly designed education must be sensitive to this active dimension of life and must guide the child, so that through his participation in different types of experience his creativity and autonomy will be cultivated rather than stifled.

The child is not completely malleable, nor is his natural endowment completely fixed and determinate. Like Aristotle, Dewey believed that the function of education is to encourage those habits and dispositions that constitute intelligence. Dewey placed great stress on creating the proper type of environmental conditions for eliciting and nurturing these habits. His conception of the educational process is therefore closely tied to the prominent role that he assigned to habit in human life. Education as the continuous reconstruction and growth of experience also develops the moral character of the child. Virtue is taught not by imposing values upon the child but by cultivating fair-mindedness, objectivity, imagination, openness to new experiences, and the courage to change one’s mind in the light of further experience.

Dewey also thought of the school as a miniature society; it should not simply mirror the larger society but should be representative of the essential institutions of this society. The school as an ideal society is the chief means for social reform. In this controlled social environment of the school it is possible to encourage the development of creative individuals, who will be able to work effectively to eliminate existing evils and institute reasonable goods. The school, therefore, is the medium for developing the set of habits required for systematic and open inquiry and for reconstituting experience that is funded with greater harmony and aesthetic quality.

Dewey perceived acutely the threat posed by unplanned technological, economic, and political development to the future of democracy. The natural direction of these forces is to increase human alienation and to undermine the shared experience that is so vital for the democratic community. For this reason, Dewey placed much importance on the function of the school in the democratic community. The school is the most important medium for strengthening and developing a genuine democratic community, and the task of democracy is forever the creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and participate.

We have come a long way since the days of early civilizations in creating schools that contribute meaningfully to the self-actualization of the individual and the society. But in spite of this encouraging progress, it is all too obvious that powerful influences are still at work in our society today, as they have been in all societies throughout history, that would thwart education for humanistic self-actualization and superimpose on us an authoritarian, dogmatic, superstitious approach to life. Will Durant has commented, ” The historian acquainted with the pervasive pertinacity of nonsense reconciles himself to a glorious future for superstition; he does not expect perfect states to arise out of imperfect men; he perceives that only a small proportion of any generation can be so freed from economic harassment as to have leisure and energy to think their own thoughts instead of those of their forebears or their environment; and he learns to rejoice if he can find in each period a few men and women who have lifted themselves, by the bootstraps of their brains, or by some boon of birth or circumstance, out of superstition, occultism, and credulity to an informed and friendly intelligence conscious of its infinite ignorance.”

19th Amendment
August 18, 1920

The concept that the people under a government should have a voice in selecting its leaders was a significant idea coming out of the 16th century’s Age of Enlightenment.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776, declared the equality of all people, yet it was not until August 18, 1920, that women in the United States were officially recognized as equal participants in the nation’s political process. On that date the 19th amendment was ratified, ending the long struggle for women’s political suffrage in this country. Women are still battling for equality in business and the religious process.

–Flo Wineriter

Reform City Campaign Finance

The Salt Lake Tribune (June 10) reported that the Salt Lake City Council is considering reforming the city campaign finance codes to limit the amount candidates can spend. The proposed limits are $17,000 per candidate for the City Council races and $340,000 for each mayoral candidate.

The City Council cannot require candidates to limit their expenses, as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that campaign spending is protected by the First Amendment. The most the City Council can do is set up a voluntary program to encourage candidates to limit their expenses.

But, what are reasonable expenditure limits for the mayoral race? Are qualified citizens who would perhaps make excellent candidates not running because they don’t have access to large sums of money? Is the mayoral race in Salt Lake City becoming similar to U.S. Senate races in which only the wealthy can compete? What will happen to our democracy if our elected leaders need to either be independently wealthy or have easy access to huge sums of money in order to run a competitive campaign?

The Salt Lake City Council can devise a better plan with dramatically lower voluntary spending limits. Here is just one suggestion: Before both the primary and the general election, the city could mail to all city residents a candidate-approved information flyer which shows back-to-back where the candidates stand on important city issues. Those candidates who did not agree to limit their expenditures would get one line with their name and the fact that they refused to limit their expenditures.

The quality of our democracy is dependent on well-informed citizens who believe that their elected officials are responsive to their needs. Campaign finance reform is desperately needed at every level of our government. The Salt Lake City Council has the opportunity to help create an electoral process which will help strengthen citizen confidence in our government.

–Barbara and Norman Tanner
Letter to the Editor Published in
The Salt Lake Tribune

Youth Hear About Humanism

The Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation invited me to participate in a Cultural Diversity panel discussion June 13, at Snow College. On the panel were representatives of LDS, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Calvary Baptist and Humanism. The audience consisted of Freshman High School students representing the student leaders of more than 80 Utah High Schools.

Panelists were asked to make an opening statement addressing the question, “What challenges and responsibilities do you have as a leader or member of your faith group here in Utah?” Responding to that question, I told the students my task is two fold: 1) to enhance public awareness of humanism and 2) to promote the positive principles and belief system of humanism.

In response to questions regarding theology I explained that humanists consider the nature of gods unknowable so we concentrate our attention on human nature and look for ways to improve the quality of this life.

The one hour panel discussion with all of the conferees was followed by an opportunity for more intimate discussions with several small groups of students. I was pleased and impressed with the interest and serious questions the students posed in the group sessions.

Hopefully these 80-plus Utah High School leaders now have a rational interest in humanism and will not be easy targets of those hate mongers who portray humanists as immoral destroyers of cherished human values.

–Flo Wineriter

Love Thy Neighbor

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

What makes Christians so bloodthirsty? Kurt Vonnegut, Honorary President of the American Humanist Association and author, says it is the doctrine, Love Thy Neighbor. Here is his statement excerpted from a speech he gave to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Rochester, New York, in 1986:

“I listen to the ethical pronouncements of the leaders of the so-called religious revival going on in this country, including those of our President (Ronald Reagan,) and am able to distill only two firm commandments from them: Stop thinking, and obey. Only a person who has given up on the power of reason to improve life here on Earth, or a soldier in Basic Training could accept either commandment gladly.

“I was an infantry Private during World War II and fought against the Germans in Europe. They had crosses on their flags and uniforms and all over their killing machines, just like the soldiers of the first Christian Emperor Constantine. And they lost, of course, which has to be acknowledged as quite a setback for Christianity.

“I will tell you what my theory is: The Christian preachers exhort their listeners to love one another and to love their neighbors, and so on. Love is simply too strong a word to be of much use in ordinary day-to-day relationships. Love is for Romeo and Juliet.

“I’m to love my neighbor? How can I do that when I’m not even speaking to my wife and kids today? My wife said to me the other day, after a knock-down-drag-out fight about interior decoration, “I don’t love you any more.” And I said to her, “So what else is new?” She really didn’t love me then, which was perfectly normal. She will love me some other time–I think, I hope. It’s possible.

“If she had wanted to terminate the marriage, she would have had to say, “I don’t respect you anymore.” Now that would be terminal.

“One of the many unnecessary catastrophes going on right now, along with the religious revival and plutonium, is all the people who are getting divorced because they don’t love each other any more. That is like trading in a car when the ashtrays are full. When you don’t respect your mate any more–that’s when the transmission is shot and there’s a crack in the engine block.

“I like to think that Jesus said in Aramaic, “Ye shall respect one another.” That would be a sign to me that he really wanted to help us here on Earth, and not just in the afterlife. Then again, he had no way of knowing what ludicrously high standards Hollywood was going to set for love. How many people resemble Paul Newman or Meryl Streep?

“And look at the spectrum of emotions we think of automatically when we hear the word love. If you can’t love your neighbor, then you can at least like him. If you can’t like him, you can at least not give a damn about him. If you can’t ignore him, then you have to hate him, right? You’ve exhausted all the other possibilities. That’s a quick trip to hate, isn’t it? And it starts with love.

There are all these people who have been told to do their best at loving. They fail, most of them. And when they fail to love, day after day, year in and year out, come one, come all, the logic of the language leads them to the seemingly inevitable conclusion that they must hate instead. The step beyond hating, of course, is killing in imaginary self-defense.

Respect does not imply a spectrum of alternatives, some of them very dangerous. Respect is like a light switch. It is either on or off. And if we are no longer able to respect someone, we don’t feel like killing that person. Our response is restrained. We simply want to make him feel like something the cat drug in.

“So there you have my scheme for making Christianity, which has killed so many people so horribly, a little less homicidal: substituting the word `respect’‘ for the word `love.’

“I have little hope that my simple reform will attract any appreciable support during my lifetime, anyway, or in the lifetimes of my children. The Christian quick trip from love to hate and murder is our principal entertainment.

“In America it takes the form of the cowboy story. A goodhearted, innocent young man rides into town, with friendly intentions toward one and all. Never mind that he happens to be wearing a Colt .44 on either hip. The last thing he wants is trouble. But before he knows it, this loving man is face to face with another man, who is so unlovable that he has absolutely no choice but to shoot him. Christianity fails again

“Very early British versions are tales of the quests of the Christian knights of King Arthur’s Camelot. Like Hermann Goering, they have crosses all over them. They ride out into the countryside to help the weak, an admirably Christian activity. They are certainly not looking for trouble. Never mind that they are iron Christmas trees decorated with the latest in weaponry. And before they know it, they are face to face with other knights so unlovable that they have absolutely no choice but to chop them up as though they were sides of beef in a butcher shop. Christianity fails again.”