Walking Stick Blogger

A Learning Space for Literacy and English Language Learners

Reframing Humanism

(paper written for MDDE613 course at Athabasca Unversity)

 Humanism is important to education because it asks us all, students and educators alike, to question our learning environments, our obligations and roles, our values in relation to our place in society, our own means to care for not only our essential, intrinsic selves, but for the selves of others. Humanism requires us to acknowledge, celebrate and uphold that which is greatest in human beings: autonomy, dignity, responsibility, striving, curiosity and idealism (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999). Humanism is an ideal that we can all strive for, a call to all for the act of virtuous self-making that requires courage and determination. This process is constantly unfolding, as we become more embedded into our communities and more self-actualizing as individuals. Humanism is the one theory in education that holds individuals as more than the sum of the genetics, feelings, experiences, histories, struggles, hopes and dreams of mankind. Instead of emphasizing human limitations and conditioning, it instead directly challenges humanity as persons to strive for dignity, for responsibility, for the courage involved for making choices (Norman, 2004). Only humanism requires us to be ourselves, not passive recipients or objects of forces beyond our own control. Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that humanity has to work at making themselves, that they have no one, fixed, nature, only choices (Norman, 2004).


Hofmeyr (2006) describes the essential nature of the self-making process from a humanistic perspective:


“A reconceptualized self appeared on the scene: exit self, the product; enter self, the creator. The self is now no longer considered as the passive product of an external system of constraint and prescriptions, but as the active agent of its own formation” (p.216).


In his later writings, Foucault considered the role of the self (Hofmeyr, 2006). Maslow, later in life, turned to the dangers of the ‘jungle-world’ and its negative impact on the formation of self-identity (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999). These changes of focus by prominent theorists reflect attempts to reconcile divergent ideas and reformulate the core concerns of humanist thought: care of the self – for – itself, and care of the self – for – society. Both theorists attempted to address the central issue of human beings: how to care for selves as fully autonomous, fully integrated beings? Humanism’s biggest contribution to education is that it continues to ask the tough questions and continues to seek answers.


Humanism requires individuals to become prepared to make choices about themselves, their lives, their families, and their life-world. The freedom to choose, the choice to acquiesce or to withhold consent, the choice to become self-directed or not, are essentially the core issues Humanism delves into. Erich Fromm, in Escape from Freedom, summed up the individuation process and the struggle for self-actualization humans uniquely face: “Although character development is shaped by the basic conditions of life and although there is no biologically fixed human nature, human nature has a dynamism of its own that constitutes an active factor in the evolution of the social process”  (Fromm, 1969, pp. 316-317). Maslow argued that through the process of learning more about oneself, one can learn to make better value choices, further spurring self-actualization. The ability to make effective choices is one central theme of humanism. Another central theme is that there is an essential, or transcendent, self, which is that “something that impels us towards growth as individuals and impels us to attempt to improve our human society” (Pearson & Podechi, 1999). Humanists such as Maslow recognize that the essential self is actualized or stifled by such factors such as culture, family, environment, and learning. A person’s potential to make informed value choices, for embracing freedom, is greatly affected by social conditioning. Good social conditions are a prerequisite for the full realization of a person’s intrinsic nature, leading to the growth of an individual’s universal and unique nature. This in turn leads to the development of greater personal responsibility for continuous, sustained growth and self-actualization (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999).


The idea of an essential self, however, was criticized by postmodern theorists such as Foucault, who asserted 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’ (Collins, 1995). 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). This stance is not entirely incompatible with humanism, however, and instead adds an element for a more comprehensive description that accounts for the difficulties people encounter when told they are free to choose, and yet find themselves afraid and surrender their will to others. According to Jurgen Habermas, “Acquiescence to the deployment of manipulative, coercive strategies is obtained at the expense of an enlargement in emancipatory potential and genuinely transformative learning” (Collins, 1995, pg. 91).  But limiting our view of human relationships to just power relationships does not tell the entire story, does not reveal the heroic nature of human beings. The denial that individuals have any freedom is flatly false. There are personal stories of survivors, who, in spite of tremendous coercion, refuse to give up their freedom to refuse consent to those who aimed to subjugate them (Norman, 2004). “…there must be something in addition to power relationships and practices, because individuals who think against the grain of, or at least oblique angles to, these totalizing practices do exist” (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999, pg. 49).


Humanism recognizes the importance of social forces and power relations in forming human personality, and recognizes the dangers of fostering narcissistic, selfish temperaments. It concerns itself with the synergy between the uniqueness of individuals and commonalities with others in society. This synergy, in Maslow’s opinion, is the fusion of the self and the world. The ‘jungle world’, or zero-sum world-view, implies the betterment of the unique individual at the expense of others (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999). Humanism supports that there is both a uniqueness of individuals, but there exists the possibility of harmonious 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” (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999, pg. 51).


It is 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). Humanism as a theory helps humanity consider options to existing political and social structures that serve vested interests. The humanist outlook needs to be considered, particularly when mechanisms of social engineering and social control threaten to encroach on the freedom of choice and autonomy of individuals. This tendency for external authority to dictate to educators and learners alike what is to be taught, what is to be evaluated, without first a process of consulting and obtaining informed consent of the individual learners, conflicts with humanist sentiments. Humanism, then, has a central aim as it applies to education: respecting the intrinsic uniqueness, worth and dignity of each person. Humanism aims to assist learners to find and use their voices to venture out as witnesses and agents of change in their communities and themselves.


Humanism stands opposed to paternalism, instead drawing the source for its strength from the hopes and dreams for self-actualization of individual learners, not the vested interests of institutionalized education and the organizations that act as its stakeholders. The main reason that humanism must play a central role in education policy is that when the self is reduced to observable behaviors and competencies, the objectification of humanity begins, shifting the responsibility for betterment from individual learners, to the nameless authority of social agencies and corporate interests.  Humanism focuses on how we relate to human beings and oneself, and not on how to make use of available human resources.  Humanism is a critic of the trend towards technicism, where workplace pedagogy is surrendered to the interests of CEOs, when control lies in the hands of business, industry and governments (Collins, 1985). In effect, the critical role of humanism is to counter the consequences that ensue when, instead of being autonomous learners, seeking self-education, “men and women are still being educated on behalf of their rulers” (Collins, 1995 pg. 88).


Humanism aims to cultivate our capacity for self-education, or self-direction-with-others, nurtured in intentional learning environments.  Maslow argued that the inner core of a self-determining individual is free to uncover one’s real self, and decide what one will become (Maslow, 1962). This capacity for self-growth and self-renewal leads to self-actualizing growth. Self-knowledge, in effect, helps people make better choices and helps them gain better knowledge of universal human nature. Self-directed learning acknowledges that not only can adults learn, but can learn better without undue pressure from externally imposed directives (Collins, 1995).  Self-directed learning considers the individual learner as central, as the agent for that first encounters and initiates learning (Draves, 1980).


Welton (2006) described Cleary and Hogan’s argument that self-education is a potentiality that students should be encouraged to gradually embrace. Both the successful nurturing of this potentiality, and its responsible, mature use, are based on how we relate with others. The self-development of one’s potential depends largely on oneself and the degree one learns to embrace learning as a personal responsibility.  This type of learning, however, is best exercised and developed in a non-coercive, engaging and meaningful manner. As educators, we have the responsibility to assist the adult learner to reflect on the manner in which values, beliefs, and behaviors previously deemed unchallengeable can be critically analyzed (Brookfield, 1985). Humanist educators also need to become advocates for supportive, non-threatening learning environments.


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 has faith in the potential that a 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’, of the tendency for actions based on a cost-benefit, or utilitarian, analysis, and involves narcissistic ego-worship and the propagation of the worship of the self-for itself, of domination of one person over another (Pearson & Podeschi, 1999).


Humanism argues that there is something more in human beings, which move us all steadily, relentlessly toward growth as individuals, and which demands of us to attempt to improve our human society. Raw materials of a person’s inner core start evolving into a self as soon as it encounters the external world and begins interacting with it (Maslow, 1962).  Humanism is critically important in adult education because it shines bright optimism on the prospect of making improvements in the lives of individuals and the society they are part of. Humanism serves all of humanity, placing the responsibility for betterment squarely on the shoulders of every person. The role of humanism in education can be viewed as the path for renewal for society and the self.


Humanism is like a servant bard, cultivating the unfolding collective narrative of humanity’s struggle between our tendencies towards solitary individualism and potentialities for transcendent individualism. It gives voice to the stirrings of the emancipated self as a self-in-the-making. Every situation places us in a web of roles and responsibilities, stirrings of discontent, of yearning. Humanistic educators enable learners to be empowered to take part in their communities, and assist their students to become autonomous, self-directing beings. Humanist educators believe that, in the words of St. Clair, every moment “we create and recreate ourselves, defining ourselves by constraint, but also in terms of possibility” (St. Clair, 1998, pg. 7-8).  All individuals are ultimately responsible for contributing to the creating of greater possibilities, and that the need to grow is the “generating force for engaging in a lifetime enterprise of self-creation that has consequences on others” (Pearson and Podeschi,1999, pg. 51).






















Brookfield, S. (1993). Self-directed learning: Political clarity, and the critical practice of adult education. Adult Education Quarterly, 43(4), 227-242.

Collins, M. (1995). Critical commentaries on the role of the adult educator: From self-directed learning to postmodernist sensibilities. In M. Welton (Ed.) In defense of the lifeworld: Critical perspectives on adult learning (pp. 71-97). Albany: SUNY Press.

Fromm, Erich. (1969). Escape from Freedom. New York: Avon Books

Hofmeyr, B. (2006). The Power Not to Be (What we Are): The Power and Ethics of Self-creation in Foucault. In Journal of Moral Philosophy, 3(2), 215-230

Norman, R. (2004). Introduction. In R. Norman, On humanism thinking in action (pp. 1-25). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Pearson, E. & Podeschi, R. (1999). Humanism and Individualism: Maslow and his Critics. In Adult Education Quarterly, 50(1), 41-55.

Welton, M. (2006). A Rich Exchange. In MDDE 613 Forum on Postmodernism and Humanism, retrieved November 10, 2006, from http://cde.lms.athabascau.ca/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=1787&parent=9923

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

netizenship • August 13, 2009

Previous Post

Next Post

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar