The Humanist Institute logo


Volumes available online
1: Ethics, Religion, Education, Welfare, Peace, and the State
2: The Aesthetics of Humanism
3: Science and Humanism
4: Rethinking Humanism: History, Philosophy, Science
5: The Enlightenment Reconstructed
6: Meaning in Humanism
7: Humanism and New Age Thinking
8: Humanism and Postmodernism
9: Humanism's Answers: Speaking to the Challenge of Orthodoxy
10: Living as Humanists
11: Humanists and Education
David E. Schafer
The Dilemma of Democratic Education
Harvey Sarles
The Emergent University
Philip J. Regal
The Brain and the University: Survival with Two Imperfect Organs
Robert B. Tapp
The Demise of the Humanities Department at the University of Minnesota
Howard B. Radest
First, Do No Harm! Medical Ethics and Moral Education
Don Page
Why Are We So Different? A Canadian View
Carol Wintermute
The Humanist Educator: Strengthening the Profession
12: Globalization and Humanism
13: Beyond Reason?
Volumes available only in print
14: Multiculturalism
15: Ecohumanism
16: The Fate of Democracy
17: Biomedical Ethics
Back issues
The Humanist Institute

The Humanist Educator: Strengthening the Profession

Carol Wintermute

A Humanist educator is involved in the development of individuals who will attempt the transformation of society. His or her methodology is dialectical inquiry based on a philosophy that seeks to discover universal truths for the attainment of justice and reciprocal relationships in this world. So far, so good. We educators have a goal, we have the means and we have the ideological perspective for our objectives. What's missing? In a nutshell, it is political organization. Not only are we inconsistent about what we are doing within our Humanist community but also we have not clarified our educational agenda in the public arena.

But let's take this issue step by step. The Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire points out that we can't deal with education without determining a clear political and ideological view point. As Humanists we have that viewpoint. It is so well documented in our writings with which we Humanists are familiar, that there is no need to define it further. At a meeting of Humanists in Germany, I heard a phrase which the Norwegians and other Europeans use regularly in referring to a world view. It is called life-stance.


The Humanistic life-stance has been made manifest in education by the works of Lawrence Kohlberg and his colleagues in defining moral development. What Kohlberg is aiming at with his moral development is not the inculcation of the Humanistic life-stance. Such an indoctrination becomes a narrow sectarian enterprise like every other form of cultural transmission. Nor is he talking about a kind of new age value's clarification which is centered on the individual's narcissistic exploration of biofeedback or past lives to discover a set of self- satisfying precepts. No, he defines moral education as changes in patterns of thinking which result from resolving the relationship between inner conflict with an external situation. This type of education depends on the individual reflecting on experience and finding more adequate ways to make decisions which enhance not only the quality of his or her own life but the welfare of others. Take for instance a true dilemma, Jeffrey whose friend Carl stole a large picture book on space exploration from the library. Until he talked with his school counselor, he thought he had only two awful choices in dealing with the situation. One, keep quiet, be loyal to his friend, but become an accomplice to a bad deed; or two, tell on his friend, lose a pal, but behave as an honest kid. The counselor introduced some new possibilities to the situation which spurred Jeffrey to come up with a third and more satisfactory solution for him and Carl. She challenged him to find a way to have the book returned but not inform on his friend. After struggling with this newly focused problem and being prodded along to think in new directions, Jeffrey decided to confront Carl with a way to have his pictures, return the book and save face. He persuaded Carl to take the book back, apologize to the librarian for keeping it overnight and ask her if he might make photo copies of his favorite pictures and use them to illustrate a report due in science class. You may not judge this the "best" solution but it was more satisfactory for the two boys than any previously conceived.

Cultural Transmission?

Too often education is limited simply to cultural transmission. In public school systems throughout the world the majority standards and values are authoritatively presented without question. It is a trap we want to avoid in our zeal for our life-stance. Yet, we resort to this method and become blind to the process of education because we, too, want children and adults to "know" our truths. The result of employing this method is to produce total apathy toward an imposed intellectualism which distances the students instead of engaging them in our issues As a postmodern counter to this impersonal, detached rationalism, new so-called spiritual movements have emerged gathered under the rubric of new age philosophies. The danger with new ageism is not that some of it is just plain silly but that it focuses solely on self-comfort. Americans have taken our beloved principle of individualism to the extreme of elevating personal satisfaction as the premier right in society.

Imagine a meeting of the Holistic Metaphysical Pagans for Earth-Centered Spirituality. Don't laugh, this could be a group within one of our own organizations. It meets to provide the missing emotional dimension to our overly rational and intellectual humanism. The group participates in guided imagery trips to get in touch with the essence of their past lives, so that they can come to terms with their value conflicts. One member reports that she has consulted with her Cleopatra and Lucrezia Borgia alter-egos and has decided to leave her husband and children to run away with her best friend's husband who is the head of the local drug syndicate. The group cheers her ability to communicate with herself and put her priorities in order. For them, life is in balance once you find out what really counts for you.

Beyond Relativism

Now in education this hallowing of individualism results in a kind of cultural relativism towards values. I call this the wishy-washy bleeding-heart liberal attitude. It calls for each prioritizing his or her own set of values, sharing them with others and declaring all of them valid. The very act of stamping all values as equal and personal is neither democratic nor ethical. It is pure unadulterated nonsense. There is no such animal as value neutral education. Values are intrinsic to the very notion of education.

And Humanistic values are not co-equal with the conservative values of cultural transmission or the new age values of cultural relativism. These groups advocate either adhering to a very prescribed set of virtues for the welfare of society or agreeing that all values belong to the personal realm. Between these extremes lies the humanistic ethical education of the interactionists like Freire and Kohlberg. For Kohlberg, there are definite universal values which are evident in the stages of human development. They are, of course, employed in individual decision making and yet they also are ethical imperatives in relation to society.

The farther along the developmental trail one travels, the more difficult is the battle to live by these ethical principles, but the greater the satisfaction for having done so. For the mind has been expanded to perceive the innate complexities in utilizing ethical principles. It can foresee that the consequences of behaving according to principles go far beyond the sphere of individual satisfaction. This is the essential point of ethical education--the purposeful introduction of difficult issues to cause reflection on one's experience to arrive at more adequate value systems for determining personal and public good.

For example, as a child you may not yield to the temptation to smack a playmate who calls you a name because the kid is a bully and will probably whack you back. A few years older and you resist because your mother promised you'd have to stay indoors if you were caught hitting. As a pre-teen you restrain yourself because hitting is against the school rules but as a teen you realize that the whole place would be chaos if everyone hit out whenever they felt like it, so you control yourself because it's the only sensible way to behave. As a adult you've learned to abhor physi-cal violence and know that a verbal insult is no excuse for smacking another person. Finally a Gandhi or King comes to the awareness that hitting another being is destructive to both of you physically and mentally and does nothing to enhance the worth, dignity and future relationship of two members of the human species. Such a person may decide on a principle of never striking or harming an-other human no matter what the provocation, even their own potential death.

First we learn to do "right" to avoid unpleasant consequences like retaliation or punishment. Next we do "right" to be part of the team and to go by the rules As our ability to comprehend and analyze experience increases so does our concept of "right". Now a larger view of life emerges in which doing "right" helps to tame the chaotic nature of the world. "Right" become a matter of not only doing well by yourself but of enhancing the good of the many. We move from the specific personal center of ourselves being imposed on by outside sources to the imposition of order on ourselves toward a general focus on humanity and planetary species.

Reciprocal Values

The more adequate value systems are based on the concepts of justice and reciprocity in relationships with the entities of this planet and are common to all cultures. The fact that they are rarely in practice in our cultures does not negate their position as the most desirable values for humane living. It only tell us that they are indeed the most challenging values by which to live. Thomas Huxley put it well, when he said that "perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the things you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not."

Inherent in these values is the method of teaching them. To stimulate a sense of justice and reciprocity it must be exercised in the educational domain itself. Democracy is essential in the teaching situation and respectful dialogue is the means to achieving it. Teacher and students are co-partners and co-equals in the learning process. Paulo Freire's amazing success with illiterate students is proof of his belief that if the teacher begins at the experiential level of the students, discovers what these students want to know more about, and represents content in the form of problems to be solved by all of them, comprehension will occur and expansion of both students and teacher's horizons results.

Posing problems directly related to students experience challenges them to respond. This is their world and not the alienating domain of intellectual theorizing. Each response evokes a new challenge from the teacher to perceive the situation in a different way. This expands students' abilities to understand the complexities of the problem and find more adequate ways of solving it. The method requires the teacher's respect for the students' experience which in turn engenders the necessary trust for the students to become committed to the discovery process itself.

I was part of a University of Minnesota research team designing an experimental drug course which was introduced in a public middle school. The control class was taught a straight "this is what the awful drugs will do to you" course in a regular classroom setting with lectures, lessons and workbooks leading to passing a drug awareness test. The experimental class sat on the carpeted floor in the locker bays. Sample activities included body awareness games such as a submarine trip into the blood system and role playing drugs as nerve blockers, while talking about things we did on weekends to get "high" on life. Many discussions centered on what to do when you're feeling low about yourself and life, which then will make you feel restored and capable again. We did not lecture on drugs, we waited for specific questions about drugs and did the research together

I taught both kinds of classes. The children in the first type scored significantly lower on the test than the kids in the "it's your life" discussion class.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking about experience necessitates dealing with issues of justice and reciprocity. The fact that problems are based on reality and experience leads to solutions that not only can be acted upon in everyday life but require it. For example, if the problem presented is one of a hurt done to a group member and the group decides that it was an injustice which must be corrected, therein the seeds are sown for seeing that injustice itself is something that should not occur.

Sounds very sensible, rational and simple, doesn't it? But it is very difficult and time consuming to educate in this fashion. It is more expedient and familiar for us to tell students that the answer to life is to be just and loving to others--and here's how you do it. Believe me, in two minutes, the classroom will be devoid of any truly living bodies.

Throughout the western world, I have found that we Humanists have a universal problem in attracting young people to our movement. They do not want to be told anything by the adult population, even our dramatic heresy to tradition. They, like past generations, are into discovering for themselves. They are taking charge of educating themselves on the streets and by television. They do not trust our words because they rarely match our actions.

To obtain their trust and interest we have to demonstrate that we are willing to suspend talking about our precious agenda for world transformation to take an authentic interest in them as persons and as a group. Young people, especially, are vulnerable to any movement which focuses on self. We must begin with that fact and develop our abilities to sublimate our desire to inform them about our non-selfish life-stance. Only then are we free of the very ego which we are attempting to move them beyond. An interest in a young person's personal development and transformation is a prerequisite to the expansion of their horizons to include others in their patterns of thinking.

Learning to view matters from another's perspective is the next essential step in ethical education. It encourages the individual to move beyond self-development and become involved with the welfare of the group. The definition of group then can be expanded until it applies not only to school, town, nation and species but life in general. Ultimately, ethical principles for life are derived which are imperatives for a transforming intervention in society.

So, how well are we Humanists doing as educators of creative transformation? We have some problems. They are centered on our abilities to implement our educational objectives. Part of our difficulties lie in how we are organized throughout the world. In several countries we have organized communities, some of which are based on the church model, others on the community center model and in some, educators have access to the school system. No matter which, it is easier to have continuity and long range programs when we are organized into some kind of units which meet regularly. In some of our countries there are no formally organized communities with buildings and regular interaction of members. In these cases, education consists of the preparation of youth for civil ceremonies and the edification of adults through publications, seminars and conferences.

I really don't believe that we can do much of a job of ethical education under such spotty conditions. It's an enterprise that requires more than occasional attention. Some sort of local organization is most suitable for this purpose. In only a very few locations do we have schools that offer ethical education. We may indeed need to provide more of them for ourselves in the future. At the same time, we need to do what we can to influence education within the systems run by our governments.

When we do offer some sort of educational program on an ongoing basis we often do so with borrowed materials and patched together curriculums, much of which does not reflect current youth experience. My experience is mostly with materials used in the US within church and community model groups. For children and young people, we often are willing to use any liberal appearing curriculums which seem to be critically process oriented but in reality are value inculcation programs or mere value's clarification exercises. Many of the educational programs have only the sketchiest references to the developmental goals and philosophical base which I have previously outlined. There is a lack of focus and direction to much of what passes for ethical education in these communities.

A Humanist Curriculum

Part of this problem arises from those who are called upon to implement an ethical education program. Curriculum writers are not often our leading philosophers and educational professionals. In my experience, children's education has been left to the devices of amateurs, public school oriented professionals and the parents. They stumble around together to come up with what they want the kids to know. It is not the process of education but the content of what is to be imparted that takes center stage with such planning groups. Henry Adams said it nicely: "Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts."

These well-meaning volunteers miss the boat entirely with their lists of Humanist facts. That is most understandable as they have not been engaged with professional ethical educators to discover what is involved in a Humanistic education. Ethical education is not focused on learning facts. It is centered on creating the desire to know the facts that will clarify experience. Of course, teacher training in the inquiry method is basic to the whole endeavor.

The kind of world citizen, Humanists educators are interested in helping to create, is not the person who can quote laws and clichés for behavior. Humanist educators aim toward the individual who can think through a situation to see the consequences of his/her actions as well as the consistency with which s/he acts according to the rational principles which are important for human welfare. The teacher for this process can not be a lecturer, but must be a provoker of thinking. The accomplished student is one who subsequently takes that role upon him/herself for future decision making.

Education for adults fares little better. Our leaders are stretched to capacity. When they can take time to participate in seminars and classes the results are very encouraging, but it happens too infrequently. In the States we have only just begun to train new leaders in the ethical education process. One example is The Humanist Institute in New York to train leaders from our various Humanist groups. The interactionists' method of education is in full use here.

We Humanists seem quite able to produce strong individuals and factions but are sadly lacking in the ability to foster cooperative action. As possible transformers of society we fall into the category of verbal revolutionaries who talk a lot but do little except on an individual basis. I find it amazing that we can recognize that education is the agent of evolution in society and yet we are always leaving it to "others" to do it. In this aspect we resemble the rest of society in abdication of educational responsibility. We are guilty of not being politically astute enough to make the development of a universal Humanistic education program for young people and adults a top priority of cooperative action within our movement.

We need professional guidance to tell us what is possible as to the ends and means for ethical education. Some of these answers are in the literature. But the next step of putting theory into practice has to come out of our own movement. Thus I suggest that an education committee could be formed which brings together all the resources we have for ethical education and organize these resources in ways that will suit the situations in our countries and communities. We could create a framework for ethical education which would be adaptable to individual, family, local, regional and national settings. It would be a very strenuous task but not an impossible one.

Beyond this work within our movement, we need to address ourselves to the political realities of public education. Like everyone else we have been content to criticize state education but leave the decision making power in the hands of the bureaucrats. If we are in the business of transforming society then we have to be the managers of change.

This is not a job for our educational professionals alone. Education is the business of every one of us who takes Humanism seriously. It is the crux of the movement. Humanist educator Maxine Greene of Columbia University is the most articulate spokesperson for the need for Humanists to create and occupy the public arena. We must come together where we are located and act, "as sanitary squads" to face the pestilence in education of "technicism, false piety, mean-spiritedness, and special issues." She states that one of the obligations of Humanists today is "to fight the plague by opening the public space, by struggling for an articulate public, by setting a place for freedom and taking initiatives never thought of before."

To manage change in state education we need to become a political force, not to engage in full scale warfare which only mobilizes the opposition, but to do battle with specific infringements on rights and curriculum materials within the system. We must take issues to the public, educate it about our position, and try to win its assistance in our campaign. We must demand education which teaches children to think critically about facts and issues. There will be no creative transformation of society for the good until we do. Like Mark Twain says, "Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre but they are more deadly in the long run."

In conclusion, we are able to define ethical education, articulate our goals and objectives in relation to it and have the methodologies to employ it. Now all we have to do is join our Humanist educators in taking responsibility for organizing it amongst ourselves, demonstrating its effectiveness and agitating the public to demand it in our state institutions.

© 1997 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.

ISSN 1058-5966

Copyright © The Humanist Institute - All rights reserved.

If you have comments about this web site, please visit The Humanist Institute's contact us page.