What Humanistic Education Is...And Is Not

June 1994

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