Humanist views on education

A couple of days ago Andrew Brown over at The Guardian said to me that a lot of humanist concerns with education seemed negative – opposing religious schools, opposing this and that – and could I write something for him that laid out some positive humanist thoughts about education in 600 words. Coincidentally, I’d just talked the day before about the consequences of humanism in educational thought at the University of Sussex Humanist Society so I said yes.

The article is in the print Guardian today on p.43. and you can read it on the Guardian website or here:

Against faith schools, against worship in schools, against confessional RE in schools – sometimes humanist views on education are portrayed in entirely negative terms. In fact, any humanist taking action on these issues is doing so for positive reasons, being in favour of integrated schools without discrimination, inclusive assemblies that bring a school together, and objective, fair and balanced education about beliefs. But more than that, humanists have originated powerful educational thinking of their own down the centuries.

One of the most prominent contributions has been in moral education. Seeing morality not as a set of rules derived from a transcendent deity but as an organised attempt to reinforce human social impulses in the here and now has a clear effect on how you seek to develop morality in children.

Sixty years ago the humanist educational psychologist Margaret Knight caused a national moral panic when she suggested on the BBC that moral education could usefully be uncoupled from religious education. She said moral training should be an independent effort, not just involving the passing on of principles and ways of thinking but having an emotional basis too. “Warm-hearted and generous natures are developed not primarily by training and discipline, important though these are in other ways, but by love,” she said. Today, not least because of humanist educators like Harold Blackham (who founded the still-running Journal of Moral Education) and James Hemming, these ideas are near to mainstream.

Development of reason and scientific and critical thinking is another concern of humanists in education. “The humanist is a rationalist, one who puts reason first … stresses the open mind, dedication to a disinterested search for truth,” said Blackham. Beyond the search for truth that motivates in a subject like science, humanists in education have prioritised the development of critical thinking and a rational spirit for its social consequences in the formation of democratic citizens. This was a lifelong concern for the humanist political thinker Bernard Crick, responsible for the introduction of citizenship education. In case this still seems too coldly utilitarian, we have the humanist idea that the ability to reason and inquire freely is personally fulfilling too: “I appeal to you to be rational, critical, inspired with the spirit of enquiry … You shall never be free on this earth so long as you remain a voluntary subject to forces unknown and unknowable,” said the Indian humanist MN Roy.

If you believe death is the end of our personal existence, the individual cannot achieve their full flourishing in some world to come. So personal fulfilment, if achieved at all, can only be achieved in this life. Education on this view kickstarts this lifelong journey of personal development, and the study of art, literature, philosophy, religions, science, history and so on is not just a process of acquiring knowledge but of making a life for oneself that is meaningful and fulfilling. This is a third area when humanist views have an enormous impact on educational thinking.

It’s unlikely there would ever be a “humanist school” as there are religious schools – if humanist organisations ever did run schools they would surely be secular ones, run along inclusive lines and encouraging open-minded autonomy among pupils. But humanist thinking on education can help teachers, parents and others to reflect on how our values shape this most important endeavour.

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