Why Neohumanism?

By Dr. Marcus Bussey

A friend recently asked me: What does NHE bring to the world not already covered by other holistic approaches to learning? My answer was simple: It helps us rethink limits. The current global system that education has been designed for is generally acknowledged to be unsustainable. We are teaching in a physically limited world as though there were no limits. This is a problem! Neohumanism shifts the focus on limits from the physical to the spiritual. Limits in this context are indeed limitless. The human urge for expansion can be met in neohumanist classrooms whilst the limits of the material world are accepted as necessary constraints on the kind of human behaviour that has lead us and our planet to the precipice of collapse.

The philosophy of Neohumanism sits at the core of this reorientation. It fosters an ethos in classrooms, schools and their communities that is relational, co-creative, participatory and pragmatic. Put simply Neohumanism is an invitation to explore human identity not from the rarefied heights of human uniqueness and anthropocentrism but through finding our humanity in relationships to the world we inhabit. This world is filled with a host of ‘others’: the soil and air, the biological, the human, the Cosmic. All play a part in our neohumanist identity. We access this richness by growing our inner life through meditation and service. These two elements link spiritual practice with social and ecological action. This bridge allows us all to continue to expand the inner wealth of our lives whilst accepting the practical constraints the material world places upon us.

It is this connection between inner expansion and social action that makes neohumanism special. As pedagogy this approach results in the recognition of the many dimensions of life that education prepares us for. In this it goes beyond the focus on intellectual achievement which lies at the heart of Humanism. It also goes beyond the vocational and utilitarian focus of Industrial education. It also extends the focus of spiritual, democratic and cultural schooling – generally characterised as ‘alternative’ – by retaining commitments to the full human project of becoming a cosmic-citizen. Of course this is an ideal goal, something to aim for. It is not a utopian state of perfection.

To work towards becoming a cosmic-citizen we need to develop processes that engage the material, the mental and the spiritual as equally significant domains of learning and growth. Each domain speaks to different elements of the Neohumanist vision. The material requires a hands on approach to the world and its processes and problems; the mental calls for the development of a critical and compassionate consciousness that embraces both a practical optimism and also a robust ignorance; the spiritual focuses on developing an awareness of the inner life, the tools for reflection and creative expression, and a meditative orientation to life that can be described as spiritual pragmatism. Curriculum is being developed to address these domains. Its growth is shaped by the context for the learning, the resources available and the needs of students and their communities.

These key areas are not set in stone but are points in a Neohumanist learning landscape that is constantly evolving to meet the needs of the learning context (class, school, community, planet, cosmos). In this ‘landscape’ the personal, the social and the ecological are intimately linked. Hence, my point that neohumanism helps us rethink limits. At this time the physical limits of our planet are increasingly impacting on human systems. Some of these systems we are coming to realise are not sustainable – yet we keep focusing on the physical limits without acknowledgement of the personal, intellectual, cultural and spiritual dimensions to this problem. Neohumanism can help us address the anxiety felt by many particularly in developed countries that sustainability is ultimately about going without.

There is no doubt that physical limits will bring changes to our world and the ways we live but there is no necessary condition that states that we are destined for diminished futures. Indeed the future according to Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar, the founder of the Neohumanist Education movement, is bright. It is bright because a richer more inclusive consciousness is on the rise. It is part of the growing global consciousness we all share in. This consciousness – of which neohumanism is an expression – ultimately will have social, economic and ecological effects as people challenge and change systems of injustice that are driving segments of humanity towards increased poverty and marginalisation and other sections of the planet towards ever growing resource consumption. Key to this work is the fact that resources of this planet are not simply physical. The ecological, cultural and spiritual resources are open to all when the basic needs of life are met.

To recognise this calls for a reorientation in the practices of people. At the risk of belabouring the point, these practices are physical, mental and spiritual in nature. Neohumanist educational approaches to this rethinking of limits focus on the importance of Service as a driver of co-creative learning. True service empowers both the served and the one serving. This wonderfully simple insight has implications for curriculum, for action and for the pushing back of the limits that constrain human imagination and learning. Service decentres the modernist fixation on ego-driven learning. Learning is no longer about personal command over a set repertoire of culturally and socially enabling literacies. Now the focus is on literacies that foster partnership and compassion. In this neohumanism operates as a form of critical spirituality that reframes learning as a co-creative act involving the learner and the object of learning in a deep loving dialogue.

This dialogue can be mapped, as in Table 1, around six kinds of service. Each with its own curricular implications. When engaged in service to the Present, to the Collective, to the Past, to the Future, to the Whole and to the Cosmic Principle we immediately find a new orientation to the pressing question of limits. We find meaning and purpose in our learning with, for and on behalf of this world and also with, for and behalf of our interior world. This releases educators from the compulsion to focus on the surface instrumentalities that keep us locked in current, maladaptive, materialist responses to the major issues we face as a global community today. So for me bringing a neohumanist approach to education is a no brainer – it invigorates and deepens my personal and teaching life whilst sharing something magical with all who join me on the learning journey.


Key areas of concern for Neohumanist educators are:
  • Positive outlook
  • Practical life skills (personal and social)
  • Service orientation
  • Intellectual inquiry and curiosity
  • Environmental/Ecological consciousness
  • Interpersonal and intercultural capacity
  • Creative and aesthetic sensibility
  • Reflexive awareness of culture (the good and the bad of it)
  • Spiritual grounding

TABLE 1: Service at the Heart of the Curriculum

Critical Spirituality Neohumanist Schools
Overview of Service Domains In NH Schools
Neohumanist Landscape
Physical Interpersonal/
Just Relationships Build NH Futures Holistic/
Critical Spiritual Task Identify deprivation of fundamental human needs – seek to address these via Action Focus on social justice issues Challenge roles and the forces (media, economics, dogma of religions, etc.) that maintain these; ethical thinking Develop imagination, creativity and moral courage Foster understanding of systems, sense of awe and wonder, identification with planet Explore silence, presence, stillness, pattern, relationship to the Numinous
Action Service that empowers, service1 to the present (ie soup kitchen but also training) Scenarios, role playing, play back, group work, shared responsibilities; service to the Collective Question, advocate, change patterns of consumption, service to the past (dangerous memory); ethical living Play, story telling, service to the future (eg. plant a tree, consume less); education for sustainability Singing and all Arts, ask unanswerable questions (ie play with paradox and aporia); service to the Whole Meditation, listening, service to the Cosmic Principle
Mode Physical work to enhance the life of others Interpersonal/
Intrapersonal work to enhance the life of others
Work on Pseudo culture and the expansion of consciousness to free the mind from a range of limited sentiments; free mind from cultural addictions Work on inspiration, hope and empowerment so that all aspirations become realizable; be creative Work on sense of belonging to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts; work on awe and wonder Work on the spiritual dimension of our individual and collective lives


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