Education: a humanist perspective

(Note: RE Today has been publishing a series of article on the concept of education from different religious and philosophical perspectives. The current issue has a piece by me from a humanist perspective and this is it)

Education and Learning: a Humanist perspective


By ‘Humanists’ I mean the contemporary usage of the word: men and women who have a naturalistic worldview precluding god(s) and a life after death, have human happiness and fulfilment as the goal of their ethics, and assert that in the absence of ultimate meaning and purpose to the universe, human beings make and sustain meaning for themselves. It is impossible to distil centuries of approaches to education taken by such people into just a few hundred words. We could examine humanist perspectives on the teacher, on the school, on the learner and each of these investigations could be book-length. There would also be considerable variety among the different humanist perspectives we might explore, involved in an ongoing debate and conversation with each other. I have not chosen to develop my own individual humanist perspective on education in this brief article, but instead to indicate the broad areas of agreement amongst humanists who have written on education, or been educators, quoting liberally from some of my favourite such people along the way.


A Humanist perspective on education

What we can immediately discern is a broad agreement over what the aim of education should be. Usefully summarised by Jeaneane Fowler, a humanist view is that education ‘should foster creativity, independent thought, the ability to analyse material carefully and thoughtfully, and the ability to argue rationally’; it should be ‘aimed at the all-round development of the personality and of the full range of an individual’s talents’ and involve the ‘encouragement of rational and critical thought and not blind obedience … developing individual freedom in tandem with moral responsibility’ through a process of reflective  enquiry, ‘asking questions about the nature and purpose of things, asking questions about needs, about the self, society, where we are going in life and what kind of individual pathway is right in life, making moral decisions, thinking about responsibilities, about relationships, and about individual, societal and global needs’. (Fowler 1999, 170)

Humanists, like anyone, agree that part of the process of education involves the acquisition of knowledge. For humanists the knowledge in question is, on the one hand, knowledge of the universe and our place in it:

First the wonder of the infinitely dynamic universe, with its millions of galaxies, and millions of stars within each galaxy, linked to all the exciting explorations of modern astronomy. Then, the place of our world in this immensity, not as an inconsequential speck in the ocean of space but as of very great significance, because in our earth – no doubt along with other planets attached to other stars – life exists. Then, the story of the evolution of life on this planet, man’s recent appearance and struggles, his first tentative adventures beyond the protective sphere of the earth’s atmosphere … Children are heartened and enthralled by such a picture. It is contemporary, relevant, indubitable, adventurous, challenging. (Hemming 1969, 204-205)

And, just as important, knowledge of the achievements and history of humanity over the last few thousand years – our common human heritage:

… what Michael Oakeshott stated most succinctly, that: ‘Every human being is born an heir to an inheritance’, and to enter this common inheritance of human achievements through education is ‘the only way of becoming a human being, and to inhabit it is to be a human being’. (Hayes 2006, 84)

Beyond the acquisition of specific knowledge, humanist approaches to education have always valued reason and the cultivation of a rational approach to the acquisition and categorisation of any knowledge; Bertrand Russell and the pre-Socratic teachers alike placed enormous value on the cultivation and encouragement of curiosity. Moral responsibility has also been a feature, and humanist thinkers on education such as James Hemming, Margaret Knight and Harold Blackham placed enormous importance on the development of values in education; Bernard Crick extended this interest out into social and political contexts. The development of ‘personal completeness’ informed by the idea of ‘the whole person’ has also been a fundamental part of the humanist approach to education. These three aspects of a humanist approach to education will give as good a shape to an account of humanist approaches to education as any other.


Knowledge through reason and inquiry

The humanist writer and educationist Harold Blackham, who did much work in education, said,

The humanist is a rationalist, one who puts reason first; and he stresses the open mind, dedication to a disinterested search for truth. (Blackham 1968, 127)

This is the approach to knowledge that humanists would like to see embodied in education, where that education is a search for facts.

Critical thinking is not just the best way to understand the universe and reality; it also has great social benefits:

The more educated the electorate, the more they should be able to understand the issues. By education I mean, of course, the ability to think for themselves and distinguish between fact and propaganda. (Hawton 1963, 84)

For Indian humanist M N Roy, the ability to reason and inquire freely is personally emancipatory as well as socially productive:

I appeal to you to be rational, critical, inspired with the spirit of enquiry. Don’t take things simply for granted. If you do not have the courage to revolt against authority outright, then at least go to the extent of demanding on what sanction is the authority based. You shall never be able to be free on this earth so long as you remain a voluntary subject to forces unknown and unknowable. (Roy 1963, 119)

The general idea is that this sort of education – rational, critical, scientific  – sets a child up for life, and that bogus metaphysics permanently infantilises rather than educates:

I disagree when you argue that man cannot in general do without the consolation of the religious illusion, that without it he would not endure the troubles of life, the cruelty of reality … Man cannot remain a child forever; he must venture at last into the hostile world. This may be called education into reality. (Freud 1927, 91)

Of course, the process of scientific education is not coldly rational. It also involves the nurturing of values and emotions and inspirations:

Among such qualities the chief seem to me: curiosity, open-mindedness, belief that knowledge is possible though difficult, patience, industry, concentration and exactness. Of these, curiosity is fundamental; where it is strong and directed to the right objects, all the rest will follow. (Russell 1944, 158)


Moral education

Why should I consider others? These ultimate moral questions like all ultimate questions can be desperately difficult to answer, as every philosophy student knows. Myself, I think the only possible answer to this question is the humanist one – because we are naturally social beings; we live in communities; and life in any community, from the family outwards is much happier, and fuller, and richer if the members are friendly and cooperative than if they are hostile and resentful. (Knight 1954, 49)

Religious criticisms of a humanist approach to moral education often focus on the question of what can be the ultimate sanction of the moral training given by the humanist educator. The assumption is that, without punishment or reward after death or the approval or disapproval of an omnipotent deity or an improvement in one’s next life, people will naturally be selfish and fail entirely to consider others.

Is this fear-and-favour, sanction-driven morality the best approach to parental caring or moral education? Humanists think not, and instead emphasis the value of altruism and co-operation. (Herrick 2009, 58)

A humanist moral educationist like Margaret Knight does not accept that people are naturally selfish but instead focuses on the existence of social impulses that can be developed and encouraged. At the same time, she does not pretend that all we need do is nurture these impulses. She sees morality – as all humanists do – as ‘an organised attempt to reinforce the social impulses’ and accepts the need for coherent rules that embody the best of the last 7000 years of social evolution. She also observes:

In any case this question of ultimate sanctions is largely theoretical. I have never yet met the child – and I have met very few adults – to whom it has ever occurred to raise the question: ‘Why should I consider others?’ Most people are prepared to accept as a completely self-evident moral axiom that we must not be completely selfish, and if we base our moral training on that we shall, I suggest, be building on firm enough foundations. (Knight 1954, 43)

Humanist approaches to moral education have also tended to emphasise the importance of not only what we teach children, but also how we teach them, in line with the belief that,

What we have to do is to promote not only knowledge of moral values but the will and the capacity to live morally, founded on a personal moral insight…Moral education is not an intellectual content only or even primarily, but a carefully planned combination of formative experience and valid information, each aspect being matched to the maturation of the child, so that moral insight and understanding gradually deepen and extend as the child grows. (Hemming 1968, 114-116)

Most inspirationally, the basis of moral education for humanists is human solidarity and the commitment to a view of the oneness of the human species:

We have to accept that there is nothing in any human being that is not a possibility in ourselves also, and nothing in ourselves that is not echoed in the experience and behaviour of the entire human race. (Hemming 1969, 44)


Happiness, meaning, fulfilment and the whole person

Again and again in the humanist tradition we come across this concept of ‘the whole man’. it seems a natural goal to aim at if the life of the individual is confined to this world. If we believe that the real self is immortal, its progress must be unbounded and life on earth merely a preparatory school. On the other hand if we are not immortal, completion must take place, if at all, in the present life. (Hawton 1963, 146)

Today we would say ‘whole person’ but the sentiment is identical and has dominated humanist thinking on education for millennia. In the absence of ultimate meaning and ultimate purpose to the universe, human beings individually and together can and should create meaning and purpose for themselves. This is the one life we have; we must make of it as much as we can; education sets us on that path.

Human beings can acquire an art of living, an art of creating their own life experience, but these are life expressions that are enhanced when society itself creates the necessary foundations for such individual expression. To be a ‘whole person’, each individual has to develop the kind of self determination, the kind of control of the self, that promotes the decisions in life that encourage personal evolution. And the greater the scope for this, the greater the personal evolution, the greater the sensitivity and empathy to the world beyond the self. (Fowler 1999, 181)

Humanists acknowledge that the pursuit of this ‘good life’ will be different for different people and humanist educators have been frank about this diversity:

Different individuals chose very different styles. The more advanced the civilisation the wider the choice becomes. No doubt in a primitive community nearly every one conforms to the dominate pattern; the few who fail are ostracised. Even so outstanding non-conformists must have survived, and not all of them could have been silenced. (Hawton 1963, 107)

In fact, they often welcome diversity as the inevitable consequence of freedom, even when they entirely disagree with the choices in question. Cyril Bibby, with reference to his own child, demonstrated the humanist acceptance that the direction chosen by the child may be a very different one from that chosen by the parent:

They have all wished to go with their friends to Sunday school and we have not discouraged them, but it certainly came as a bit of shock when the eldest lad at the age of sixteen declared his wish to be baptised. We regret that he does not see things as we do, but we felt that for a lad of that age to present himself in church for a ceremony usually undergone by babies represented a certain moral integrity and courage, and we were glad to accept his invitation to go along with him on that occasion. (Bibby 1959, 11)

It is not difficult to see how the aim of developing this aspect of the child through education can be ensured: the gift to the child of as wide a range of opinions, art forms, literatures, sciences, emotions, and forms of knowledge and experience as possible; opening the eyes of every child to the boundless range of options before him or her and encouraging each young person to seize the short day and live it to the full.




Bibby, C (1959) ‘Children who want religion’ in M Knight (ed) Religion and Your Child: a symposium on problems of Humanist parents (London: Rationalist Press Association).

Blackham, H J (1968) Humanism in M Knight and J Herrick Humanist Anthology (London: Rationalist Press Association).

Fowler, J (1999), Humanism (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic).

Freud, S (1927) The Future of an Illusion in M Knight and J Herrick Humanist Anthology (London: Rationalist Press Association).

Hawton, H (1963) Humanist Revolution (London: Barrie and Rockliff).

Hayes, D (2006) ‘Re-humanising education’  in D Cummings (ed) Debating Humanism (London:Societas).

Hemming, J (1968) ‘Moral education’ in A J Ayer (ed) The Humanist Outlook (London: Pemberton).

Hemming, J (1969) Individuality Morality (London: Nelson).

Herrick, J (2009) Humanism (London: Rationalist Press Association).

Knight, M (1954) Morals without Religion and Other (London: Dennis Dobson Ltd).

Roy, M N (1963) Practice of New Humanism in M Knight and J Herrick Humanist Anthology (London: Rationalist Press Association).

Russell, B (1926) On Education (London: Routledge).

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