Walking Stick Blogger

A Learning Space for Literacy and English Language Learners

On Humanism: A Dialogue

This exchange had taken place several years back, but I can draw ideas that contributed to the development of the edublogging framework. The breakdown of the differing bloggers roughly mirrored how I perceived the different aspects of self: private = essential; autonomous = synergistic; personal = emancipated, anonymous = shadow, or personae; networked = constructed, or utilitarian self. Both embeded and learning circles appeared in this exchange.



Humanism is critically important in adult education as it offers a number of central views about human nature, without which humanity is diminished. Humanism implies a faith in improvement of individuals and the society that are part of, and the role of education needs to be viewed as the path for renewal for society and the self.

Pearson and Podeschi argued for the existence of an intrinsic, essential self. Humanism holds as self-evident that humans have a capacity for freedom of choice, and can make of themselves what they choose.

Humanism holds up and celebrates what is finest in human thought and creativity, a faith in personal growth of all individuals.


Humanism holds certain assumptions of human nature. a sense of personal autonomy and human dignity, a sense of personal responsibility, a capacity for virtuous action, and an individual’s capacity for self-growth as well as a potential for influencing social progress.


Maslow was a strong supporter of humanism, argued that the inner core of a self-determining individual is free to uncover one’s real self, and decide what one will become. This capacity for self-growth and self-renewal leads to self-actualizing growth. Self-knowledge, in effect, leads to better individual value choices and better knowledge of universal human nature. The raw materials of this inner core, or inner bent, begins to rapidly grow into a self as it meets the world and begins to have transaction with it.


Despite the theories of behaviourism, of reducing human actions to conditioned responses and stimuli and reinforcements, humanism contends that there is something in humans that impels us toward growth as individuals and impels us to attempt to improve our human society.


Humanism concerns itself with the synergy between the uniqueness of individuals and the their commonalities with others in society. This synergy, in Maslow’s opinion, is the fusion of the self and the world. Humanism is not supportive of self-serving actions that diminish others. This jungle world, or zero-sum, implies the betterment of the unique individual at the expense of others. Humanism supports that there is both a uniqueness of individuals but embedment of individuals within society as well. These states are complementary, not antagonistic. Maslow was quite adamant on this point: “the possibility of growth within each one of us is betrayed whenever we diminish one another.”


Humanism serves all of humanity, placing the responsibility for betterment squarely on the shoulders of every person.


As educators, we have the the responsibility to contribute to the nurturing of intrinsic human attributes in oneself as well as in others. The educator should assist the adult learner to reflect on the manner in which values, beliefs, and behaviours previously deemed unchallengeable can be critically analyzed. (Brookfield). The human need for synergistic growth leads all of us to undertake the lifelong journey of self-creation which has consequences on ourselves and on others around us.


Humanism holds faith in the potential that one person can evolve as both an essential self and an embedded self. This enriched world-view contrasts sharply with the nihilism and despair and moral bankruptcy of the jungle world, which involves narcissistic ego-worship and the propagation of the cult of the self, of domination of one person over another.

The main reason that humanism must play a central role in education policy is that when the self is reduced to observable behaviours and competencies, the objectification of humanity begins, shifting the responsibility for betterment from individuals to social agencies and corporate interests. While humanism focuses on how we relate to human beings and oneself, the focus of behaviouristic educators is on how to make use of available human resources. This leads to an ideology of technicism, when workplace pedagogy is in the service of CEOs, when control lies in the hands of business, industry and governments. In effect, the result is that “men and women are still being educated on behalf of their rulers.(Collins) In addition, mechanisms of social engineering and social control encroach dictate to educators and learners alike what is to be taught, what is to be evaluated, and who is to receive a credential and who will not. Humanism, in contrasts, respects individual choice, and does not turn individuals into objects. 

Foucault argues that the very processes for individuation and self-actualization, whether it be prayer, meditation, confession, psychoanalysis, or a therapeutic intervention, perhaps even the teachable moment, reflects power relationships, reflects the manner in which authority and its by-products, are shared, exchanged or surrendered. (Pearson & Podechi, 1999)


There is an implied attack on the central assumption of humanism: the essential self. Foucault asserts the self is a useful, constructed fiction. We have been conditioned to be tied to our self-concepts, and we have come to be defined, and be defined by others, within the cages of “a regime of truth”. We are held within the confines of the normal imposed from without. We are held captive within the rigid cell of our borrowed beliefs of our conscience, of how we ought to behave, imposed by others, accepted unquestioningly and without reflection. (Foucault, 1979)


Only through the questioning and fuller understanding of deeply held beliefs, of values, of tacit knowledge very few of us question, can we free ourselves for the arduous journey of “self-making” (Taylor, 1986). I liken the journey as a trip up a mountain, where the closer to the top one gets, the more debris of belongings you see strewn across the landscape, and realizing you need to conserve strength to reach the top, you also chuck the baggage you held on to so dearly for so long, shedding the baggage as you ascend.


Postmodernism further sharpens our wits to consider what forces keep us from self-emancipation. Postmodernism in the information age continues the trend that humanism started during the Renaissance: revealing and dispelling the myths of our individual and social existence. First, the supplanting of religious authority, then the supplanting of ideological certainties. Then perhaps in time the supplanting of conventional industrial education.


There is the essential, or transcendent, self, in terms of sentience, which is that “something that impels us towards growth as individuals and impels us to attempt to improve our human society.” (Pearson & Podechi, 1999)Maslow considered this inner core or “inner bent” and described the growth of the essential self from raw materials “as it meets the world and begins to have transaction with it.” (Maslow, 1962) Yet the essential self is actualized or stifled by such factors such as culture, family, environment, and learning.


In psychoanalytic theory, Jung referred to it as the transcendent function, of making the unconscious drives and instincts conscious. Parts of our individual personalities such as the persona, or conditioned mask we place over our individual spirits, as well as the shadow, the denied/suppressed parts of the personality, are brought into the awareness of the seat of the personality, the ego, the conscious self.

Erich Fromm referred to the escape of the self from autonomy, the need to bear responsibilty for self-actualization. Not all souls can/are willing to do this, and surrender a large part of the soul to others as a Faustian bargain.
Fromm described the process of transcendence as a transition from one of blind obedience to external authority to self-reflection, to questioning the authority of others, to eventually coming to a point of transcendence.

Martin Buber described the spiritual I-Thou dichotomy,asking about what constituted the essential self, and what is the acquired self. Melanie Klein’s theory of object relations described the role of envy and satisfaction of hungers as a struggle between envy, leading to incorporating the object of satisfaction, thus destroying it, and love, the tendency on the other hand for gratitude, or nurturing the source of gratification.

The self’s journey towards self-actualizing behaviours can be best described in Kantian/Hegelian terms:

On one hand you have the self as the solitary soul seeking its own immediate betterment, the solipsistic pursuit of overpowering and incorporating the other, to satisfy drives and hungers. The utilitarian mindset is a paradigm for action and for interaction with others. The student identifies strategies and resources to accomplish goals, using others as resources along the way. The orientation towards taking the online course is primarily utilitarian, irritated by community-building obligations, dutifully completing required posts after a cost-benefit analysis that makes it in one’s own personal interest to contribute to duty posts and replies.

On the other hand, you have the Kantian ideals, the universal good, the transcendence of the solitary soul for the betterment of the society, that the collective will can be better served with the suppression of individual needs and wants. That if everyone was to act alone it will in fact be more detrimental to individuals than it would be to suppress individual, asocial drives, and comply to rules of the social order, so that everyone can benefit much more. The student seeks community-building, social interaction, even willing to suppress individual needs for maintaining harmonious relations with others. This student suppresses irritation, anxiety and frustration that one feels to serve the greater good, the virtual community of learners that one is a part.

Humanism, I think, is the struggle between human tendencies towards solitary individualism and transcendent individualism. The engines in motion for reconciling this struggle is Hegel’s dialectic.

The continual struggle in every student and educator between rational egoism and altruism has an impact on how we perceive each other, ourselves, and our roles and expectations.

The emancipated self is a self-in-the-making.

Every situation places us in a web of roles and responsibilities, stirrings of discontent, of yearning. I would hazard that a self that has emancipated can view one’s role in the context of larger and larger contexts, not overly identifying oneself to any of them, shifting between them.

Michael Welton  responds:

Cleary and Hogan argued that self-education is an emergent capability that one could easily misunderstand or bypass; but a capability that one should gradually learn to embrace as an enduring responsibility. Both the successful nurturing of the capability, and its mature exercise as a responsibility, involve relationships of a particular quality with others.

So, as parents and teachers, as classmates, we must nurture this capacity to learn from the earliest years. Second, this important role depends largely on oneself as one learns to embrace learning as a personal responsibility, or where one fails to do so. Yet, this individual responsibility is best exercised and developed in an unforced, active and memorable way. The example Gadamer gives, and this is most certainly familiar to adult educators, is the learning circle, where one’s own sense of being-in-the-world comes to fullness as a being-with-others in purposeful relationships of learning. We can speak of the reciprocal character of self-education.

I think, too, that we can make careful arguments that our capacity for self-education, or self-direction-with-others, nurtured in intentional learning environments, can be linked with participatory democratic practices in public spheres.

The discussion of “transcendence” is a fascinating one. The psychologist Alfred Adler, who broke from Freud, postulated that we needed to transcend our formation as solitary egos (Buddhists argue for the non-self) in order to become fully social beings. In contemporary political discourse, I think the issue–posited as “solitary soul” vs. “Kantian universalism” by Glen–is rendered as a tension between liberal individualism and communitarianism. Communitarian thinkers like Michael Sandel worry that our society has very thin forms of solidarity, or social capital, and that healthy societies require shared norms to bind individuals to commitment to the commonwealth.

I like the sandbox metaphor. It is a powerful one, and certainly challenges us to imagine situations where we are provided with the toys, and the box, and given permission to do whatever we so chose in our play, all the while imagining we are free.

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Glenn GroulxhumanismMDDE613Michael WeltonUncategorized

netizenship • August 13, 2009

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