A NORTH AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE ON HUMANIST EDUCATION

Henry M. Levin, William H. Kilpatrick Professor of Economics & Education. Teachers College, Columbia University. Past-President, CIES

The CIES conference theme for 2015 explores a future where education is a moral enterprise that develops and shapes minds to embrace a form of humanism that is inseparable from social justice and equality, which defines the world as a complex whole, an interconnected and interdependent ecosystem of diverse humans caring for a common planet. This vision of humanist education is in harmony with Ubuntu, which inspires a multiplicity of worldviews, indigenous epistemologies and ideological thought in a world that is inclusive while fostering autonomy and humanity. It is conceived to guide academics, policymakers and practitioners and learners in different locations.

A humanist education places its emphasis on the internal development of the human within the quest for a just community rather than predicating the development of the person on the external demands of the existing economic and social order. Moral development and behavior is as important as knowledge and its use. Rousseau emphasized that we are born with innate human goodness, but by exposure to society we are corrupted. Dewey echoed a similar view when he decried the preparation of children to fit and be prepared for the existing society of his day.   In his view industrial society was a corrupted scenario, one that was not receptive to humane treatment and healthy relationships.  For Dewey such educational goals as economic productivity were a “by-product” of the educational process, possibly a valuable by-product, but not the central aim of education. To both of these great thinkers the goal was to create social growth through an education by building on the innate and benign human nature of children, which was viewed as kind, curious, and sociable.   In this context the purpose of the educational process was to create healthy social growth within the social entity of the school that would ultimately grow to transform the larger society of communities and nations as school children emerged from the chrysalis of the school into the garden of adult life.  Note how this view does not perceive schooling as a “means-ends” relation where children must be extruded into the forms that fit society.  Rather it is premised on a society which must be malleable to the social growth of the young rather than being considered a fixed entity that is sacrosanct.

In creating a humanist education, we are attempting to add the letter e to the ending of the word “human” by using education to transform the young into knowledgeable communities that foster inclusion, autonomy, and dignity, Ubuntu. In the jargon of educational policy, this has both public and private components.  Public components include not only the goal of inclusion, bringing all of the young into a community that has ethical norms, common languages for communication, social mores, and political processes for overcoming differences.  The public purpose of education is to form community with local, regional, national, and international communications.  Further, it aims to transform and improve our societies to create greater fairness and human value.  These are public purposes.

Private purposes include the goal of developing the individual growth of each child and adult to build on the personal interests and predilections embodied by families as well as to develop individual talent.  But, even this is premised on exposure to a range of ideas and possibilities that make it possible to discover interests and talents, surely a community endeavor.  It is the blending of the public and private purposes of education, of the social and the individual goals that creates a fully humane education. The public and private goals must be balanced in education, not seen as competitors.

Sadly, the public imperative of education has been eroding in North America with the shift to privatization as the strategy and language of reform alongside the narrowing of educational quality to that of standardized test results.  The primacy of privatization and market choice have been promoted as the mechanisms of educational improvement along with the assumption that test scores are the main currency of educational quality.   This movement has been reinforced by the social media which undermine democratic debate by making it possible to restrict personal access to information and contacts that reinforce one’s parochial views rather than embracing exposure to the broader discourse on which education must be formed.  The language of educational reform has been narrowed to how one can attain educational advantages for one’s own child over the children of others. 

This focus on privatization has not only been promoted by national entities, but also in the international arena by the lending, marketing, and investment thrusts of powerful multinational organizations that address education.   The international effort has been designed to promote a consumer approach to education for parents as well as highly profitable opportunities for investors. This advocacy for choice and market opportunities without consideration for the public purposes of education translates into separation, segregation, and stratification of children along social, racial, ethnic, and religious lines rather than emphasizing the creation of good education for all. The ongoing erosion of a public focus undermines the attainment of Ubuntu.  Just as climate change and pollution affect broad swaths of the earth and all who live there, so does the education that we provide determine the broad welfare of all inhabitants.  It is my hope that the CIES meetings provide opportunities for us to discuss and debate how education can add the letter e to the word human to attain universal and humane educational opportunities.