THEORY AND PRACTICE: What is Humanist Education?

In his 1950 Nobel Prize lecture, Bertrand Russell says, “the main thing needed to make the whole world happy is intelligence,” and such, he explains further, “is an optimistic conclusion, because intelligence is a thing that can be fostered by known methods of education.” From the liberal standpoint, making education accessible guarantees two important entitlements for a people under a democratic system – freedom and equality. The right thing to do, in fact, is to remove the impediments to the autonomy of human beings. For people to improve their lives, they need to make better choices. The same can only be realized through humanist education.

The humanist tradition, thus, promotes the primacy of human freedom. It asserts the judicious use of human reason. The American political philosopher John Rawls says that “moral education is education for autonomy. In due course everyone will know why he would adopt the principles of justice and how they are derived from the conditions that characterize his being an equal in a society of moral persons.” Through education, a person finds his or her rightful place in the whole scheme of social and political relations. Rawls believes that “equally if not more important is the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy the culture of his society and to take part in its affairs, in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth.”

Justice in the liberal sense primarily serves the above purpose. The basic structure is established to make men and women enjoy their autonomy. It is this freedom that ultimately defines the value of one’s humanity. Wilhelm von Humboldt suggests that “whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but still remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.” It is not uncommon today, as it was the case decades ago, to require that the knowledge learned in the classroom should be applicable to the demands of the globalized economy. The same is a defeatist attitude since it runs counter to the innate talent of every man

Indeed, programming what our children are to study, which is a certain kind of reductionism, is nothing short of being oppressive and anti-humanist. Humans are not machines. Russell tells us that “the soil and the freedom required for a man’s growth are immeasurably more difficult to discover and to obtain.” For the British thinker, “education should not aim at a passive awareness of dead facts, but an activity directed towards the world that our efforts are to create.” The humanist tradition picked this insight from von Humboldt, who according to Noam Chomsky, pursues the spirit of humanity in the idea that “to inquire and to create – these are the centers around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve.” The humanist tradition, in this sense, relies on the powers of the individual, or more specifically, the moral powers of the individual in order to transform the world.

Humboldt says that, “all moral culture springs solely and immediately from the inner life of the soul, and can only be stimulated in human nature, and never produced by external or artificial contrivances…” The main point of Humboldt is that a free person is in charge of the affairs of the world, his or her inner nature and soul dictating the mission and ends to which all human intelligence is devoted. There are hard choices to make but these choices will eventually decide what must become of human life.

The same is the spirit of Jose Rizal’s important message: “The youth is the hope of the fatherland.” External authority, Russell contends, only tends to “make man an instrument to serve its arbitrary ends, overlooking his individual purposes.” Rizal saw the same, and it was for this reason that he fought against the tyranny of Spain. The humanist tradition, in this respect, is rooted in the utmost desire of humans, which is to be free, and as a responsible human being, decide the course of one’s life and destiny.


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