Humanism Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

Humanist philosophies, under different names, have developed in many cultures worldwide over thousands of years. This article discusses the history and basic tenets of humanism as an educational movement. The philosophies of prominent humanists, including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and John Dewey, are discussed. Instructional strategies based upon humanistic principles are described. Counter philosophies are briefly outlined.



Educational Psychology > Humanism


Humanism is "a philosophy of life inspired by humanity and guided by reason" (Institute for Humanist Studies, n.d.). Humanism "provides the basis for a fulfilling and ethical life without religion." Humanist philosophies, under different names, have developed in many cultures worldwide over thousands of years.

Humanism as a paradigm, philosophy, or pedagogical approach developed in the 1960s in reaction to the psychoanalysis and behaviorism that dominated psychological thought in the first half of the twentieth century. Humanism soon became known as the third force in psychology, leading to the birth of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1961, the formation of the Association of Humanistic Psychology in 1963, and recognition of humanistic psychology as a field by the American Psychological Association in 1971. There are two primary branches of humanism: secular and religious (Huitt, 2000). Secular humanists believe that individuals have everything they need to grow and develop to their fullest potential. In contrast, religious humanists believe that religion plays an important role in human development.

In the educational realm, humanism gained popularity as an alternative to the overly mechanistic approaches to learning and teaching that dominated schools at the time, as well as many cognitive theories of learning and motivation that failed to recognize the importance of student affect in learning (McInerney, 2005). Most learning theories focus on what learning is and how it takes place, focusing on limited aspects of learning such as acquisition, management, and formation of knowledge (Zhou, 2007). These theories neglect the "relevance of learning to the learner as a holistic experience of personal growth" (Zhou, 2007, p. 131). Humanism, in contrast, "is the only learning theory that emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between learning and the learner and the reciprocal relationship between individual actualization and social transformation that make learning a unique human experience" (p. 131).

Humanism views education as a method of fulfilling human potential based upon individuals' needs and interests ("Humanism," 2007). The humanistic approach emphasizes human freedom, dignity, and potential. It is based on the belief that "human beings are capable of making significant personal choices within the constraints imposed by heredity, personal history, and environment" (Elias & Merriam, 1980, p. 118). Humanist principles are grounded in the following major assumptions:

* Human nature is inherently good;

* Individuals are free and autonomous, thus they are capable of making major personal choices;

* Human potential for growth and development is virtually unlimited;

* Self-concept plays an important role in growth and development;

* Individuals have an urge toward self-actualization;

* Reality is defined by each person; and

* Individuals have responsibility to both themselves and to others (Elias & Merriam, 1980, p. 118).


These principles provided the foundation for major developments in psychology and education (Hiemstra & Brockett, 1994). The most well known psychologists contributing to this new paradigm were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Maslow (1970) believed "the process of education should lead to the discovery of identity and understanding of self as a whole person." He developed a motivation theory based on human needs, and his five-level Hierarchy of Human Needs includes physiological/ biological needs, safety, belonging and love, need for esteem, and self-actualization. Only when lower, more basic order needs are satisfied are individuals capable of attending to higher order needs. Conversely, if the things that satisfy lower order needs disappear, individuals are no longer concerned with higher order needs. For example, children who have witnessed a violent act such as a school shooting and consequently fear for their safety are incapable of learning until they are assured they are safe.

Carl Rogers (1961) developed the concept of "client-centered therapy" designed to help clients develop greater-self-direction. Humanistic education is based on similar ideas. Patterson (1973) believed "the purpose of education is to develop self-actualizing persons" (p. 22). Valett (1977) defined the purpose of humanistic education as the development of "individuals who will be able to live joyous, humane, and meaningful lives" (p. 12).

Humanistic Education

Humanistic education seeks to provide a foundation for personal growth and development that allows individuals to learn throughout their lives in a self-directed way (DeCarvalho, 1991). In humanism, learning is student-centered and personalized (Ediger, 2006). Education of the whole child is emphasized, and learning is considered a "personal growth experience" (Lamm, 1972). Testing may measure specific learning but humanists believe there are many other ways to evaluate learning (Ediger, 2006). Multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1991) are recognized and celebrated. Because of their diverse skills, talents, abilities, all students should not be held accountable to the same standards.

Figure 1: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1970)

The major goals of humanistic education are to:

* Accept the learner's needs and purposes and create educational experiences and programs for the development of the learner's unique potential.

* Facilitate the learner's self-actualization and feelings of personal adequacy.

* Foster the acquisition of basic skills and competencies (e.g., academic, personal, interpersonal, communicative, and economic) for living in a multicultural society.

* Personalize educational decisions and practices.

* Recognize the importance of human feelings, values, and perceptions in the educational process.

* Develop a learning climate that is challenging, understanding, supportive, exciting, and free from threat.

* Develop in learners a genuine concern and respect for the worth of others and skill in resolving conflicts (Tomei, 2004).

Gage and Berliner (1991) define five basic objectives of the humanistic view of education:

* Promote positive self-direction and independence;

* Develop the ability to take responsibility for what is learned;

* Develop creativity;

* Curiosity; and

* An interest in the arts.

These objectives were developed based upon the following principles (Gage & Berliner, 1991):

* Students will learn best what they want and need to know.

* Knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of knowledge.

* Self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student's work.

* Feelings are as important as facts.

* Students learn best in a non-threatening environment.

From a humanistic perspective, teachers strive to make learning more responsive to students' affective (emotions, feelings, values, and attitudes) needs. The focus of teaching is on meeting both the affective and cognitive needs of students to promote their self-actualization in a cooperative, supportive environment ("Humanism," 2007). Thus, teaching is more than presenting subject matter in an organized way; it also involves helping students "derive personal meaning from the information" so they are motivated to learn (Tomei, 2004). An integrated curriculum, with a strong emphasis on the arts, is generally advocated by humanists (Ediger, 2006).

There are a variety of ways teachers can implement a humanist approach in their teaching (Huitt, 2001). Some of these include:

* Allow students to have a choice in the selection of tasks and activities whenever possible.

* Help students learn to set realistic goals.

* Allow students to participate in group work, especially cooperative learning, in order to develop social and affective skills.

* Act as a facilitator for group discussions when appropriate.

* Act a role model for the attitudes, beliefs, and habits you wish to foster in your students, always striving to become a better individual.

Although humanism has met with varying degrees of acceptance, Combs' (1978) rationale for the need for humanistic education has continued to hold relevance:

* Problems facing humans...

(The entire section is 4012 words.)