Neohumanism and Higher Education

Kathleen Kesson, Ed.D

Considering the many complex problems faced by humanity in these uncertain and precarious times can lead to a kind of holographic paralysis in which the critical examination of any single problem leads to an awareness of the ways in which all of our dominant and interlocking systems—economy, environment, governments, and education, to name just a few—are inextricably linked. Considering the purposes of a university education in the century ahead requires first that we inquire into the source and the scope of the global issues currently presenting themselves and that we examine the ways that higher education is itself implicated in the various problems it proposes to solve. Only then might we begin to think imaginatively about a new sort of postsecondary education, one that would frame our pedagogical mission in moral terms that begin to address the scope and complexity of our current dilemmas, and engage students and faculty together in genuine solutions for the seemingly intractable problems we face.

What is the relationship between the knowledge produced through research and reproduced through instruction in universities, and the planetary problems we face? In a compellingly argued book, The Culture of Denial (1997), C. A. Bowers articulates the connections between the “high-status” (abstract and decontextualized) knowledge embodied in most university curricula and the global spread of modern consciousness and a consumer lifestyle. Elites in most countries, usually educated in Western countries, are heavily invested, psychologically and often financially, in Western, “high-status” knowledge and they benefit from the spread of the culture of modernism. Modernization is accompanied by the loss of languages, the loss of cultural identity, the loss of traditional technologies that have evolved in response to local conditions, and the loss of bioregional sensibilities and traditional ecological knowledge: “…wherever education advances, homogenization establishes itself. With every advancement of education or the educated, a global monoculture spreads like an oil slick over the entire planet.” (Prakash & Esteva, 1998, p. 7).

Neohumanism, while not opposed to modern ideas or technological advancement, supports the sustenance of local cultures, languages, traditional forms of knowledge, and other important aspects of decolonization. In this spirit, how might we “think against” the tendency of “high-status” knowledge to replace local knowledge systems? How might we work with students and colleagues to interrupt the devastation of local culture and language that results from the spread of university-produced technological innovation? How can we make explicit and examine the collusion of the university-knowledge production machine with transnational corporate interests? How might we work to create learning environments in which ethical issues can be debated across the curriculum, and where students are encouraged to become self-critical about the uses to which their educations will be put? And how can we turn our classrooms and community-based learning sites into more democratic spaces in an era of privatization, corporatization, and individualism?

Based on scientists’ own projections about the limited window of opportunity we have to reverse current potentially catastrophic environmental and cultural trajectories, I am arguing for a “greening” of the university curriculum, and a serious investigation into the ways in which the high-status knowledge perpetuated by universities sustains ecologically and culturally problematic “myths”, such as the myths of progress, autonomous individualism, growth and consumption. As a starting point for the elaboration of a Neohumanist philosophy of higher education, I offer these principles as a basis for conversation about educating for decolonization, ethical decision-making, environmental sustainability, democratic practices, and social responsibility.

Replace “holographic paralysis” with “holographic analysis.”

I noted the paralysis that results from seeing the systemic dimensions of overwhelming global problems. We need to acknowledge the pain and perplexity caused by this awareness, and guide students into the broad and systemic analysis demanded by the scope of the problems. This requires that faculty shift from the narrow focus often required to obtain tenure and build a career to more interdisciplinary, holistic perspectives. We need to become astute generalists, as well as specialists, and we ourselves need to study the systemic nature of problems. Interdisciplinary and team teaching is one important move in this direction.

Acknowledge the cultural specificity of university knowledge

Most students leave higher education thinking that the knowledge they have received is value-free knowledge, gained from objective sources, and that it has universal applications. They learn that “other” cultures have biases, traditions, and superstitions, but that they have received a “neutral” education. We need to problematize this taken-for-granted notion that modern knowledge is a universal and unique form of truth, and educate students instead to understand it as a culturally specific form of knowledge, with a particular set of cultural results. For example, the particular form of modern knowledge embodied in science supposes a detached observer and the separation of the knowing subject from the known object. It further assumes that reason is necessarily separated from emotion and intuition, that scientists are free from bias, and that there is a linear progression of knowledge, resulting in the idea of progress. Indigenous scholars and feminist philosophers of science (see, for example, Kimmerer, 2015; Merchant, 1980) who do not experience themselves as separate from a network of biotic relations, have critiqued this approach to knowledge for its contributions to the environmental crisis. The rational “technological” form of consciousness sees the world in a particular way, and tends toward the manipulation and exploitation of the world. Many of the world’s people, rather than seeing themselves as masters of nature, understand themselves as deeply connected with plants, animals, and other humans in a complex web of relationships in which their own well-being is intimately coupled with the well-being of the whole. We need to value these multiple ways of knowing, contrast them with modern ways of knowing, and draw out the connections between ways of knowing and the uses to which knowledge is put.

Engage students in the solution of significant problems

In Democracy and Education, Dewey disputed the idea that education should be about preparing students for life in the future. While not disregarding the continuous unfolding of the present into the future, he believed that “every energy should be bent to making the present experience as rich and significant as possible. Then, as the present merges insensibly into the future, the future is taken care of” (1916, p. 56). Rather than focus on the memorization of immense amounts of data, much of which will dissipate after the final exam, students should be engaged in meaningful problem-solving activities that demand both the application of what has already been learned and continuous inputs of new information in an action/reflection cycle. Problems should be posed that connect with interests and concerns of the students, so that long-term social commitments might result from their experiences. Passionate involvement in a quest or a cause is a sure predictor of lifelong learning. Solving problems, even local and seemingly small problems, helps nurture the confidence that problems are indeed soluble, and may encourage students to attempt to unravel increasingly complex social and environmental issues.

Take to the streets

We need to move the site of learning outside the university walls into the community so that students might gain first-hand knowledge of social problems and their human dimension. We need to support institutional efforts at service, community-based, and project-centered learning, and ensure that these initiatives are both personally meaningful to the students and academically rigorous. These learning activities must be grounded in critical reflection and involve the kind of “holographic analysis” mentioned above, so that the experiences might be genuinely transformative for both the individual and the society rather than merely ameliorative. Feeding hungry people in a soup kitchen may alleviate momentary hunger, and it may make the service-learner feel momentarily righteous, but such activity does little in itself to reveal the systemic causes of hunger, or to initiate long-term solutions to the problem. When knowledge production in the university classroom is linked with informed efforts to collaboratively solve problems with (not for) local communities, students get a sense that their actions can lead to genuine improvements in the quality of life. Combined with a comprehensive, rigorous analysis, such community-based learning may indeed lead to long-term commitments on the part of students. In the field, students learn that applied knowledge always has social consequences, and faculty with a “systemic” understanding can help illuminate the sometimes unforeseen and complicated consequences of their activities.

Ethics is not an elective

Skepticism and deconstruction are valuable intellectual tools that keep us from slipping into dogmatism. An engaged citizenry in a thriving democracy, however, is continuously faced with moral dilemmas and ethical decisions that demand positive rather than negative intellectual labor. Lest students leave the university with the inclination to make decisions purely on the basis of pragmatism, or the “bottom line,” they need to be educated to think about the ethical dimensions of all of their decisions. The study of ethics in the university is often an elective, leaving students with the impression that ethical decision-making and moral action are optional. When ethics are studied, it is usually within a narrow career focus such as medical ethics or business ethics. But if students are to graduate from universities with an education that prepares them for life in a complex and turbulent world, their ethical education needs to be much broader: every citizen of the planet needs to be able to understand the arguments around complicated issues such as genetic technologies, global warming, and nuclear fusion. And they will need to understand not just the scientific debates but the vast cultural impact of the issues.

Question the authority of knowledge

We need to be courageous enough to interrogate with our students the knowledge encountered across the higher education curricula. We need to ask the important questions: Whose knowledge is this? How was it created? Who paid for the research? What interests does it serve? What conflicts characterized its generation? How might it be applied? How might it be misapplied? What radical or disruptive cultural changes might occur as a result of its application? What will the effects of this knowledge be, seven generations from this moment? Young people across the planet are exhibiting remarkable capacities at this moment in history for questioning authority, for healthy skepticism, and for informed political action. Postsecondary education needs to meet these emergent dispositions with a focus on critical media literacy, the analysis of information sources (and “fake news”), and the willingness to explore epistemological questions about how we have been conditioned to our ways of thinking by a complex set of factors.

Practice democracy in the classroom

If we hope to educate people to be active, engaged democratic citizens, and if we hope that the university classroom might be a place where they learn to do this, then we must begin to model democratic processes through more democratic pedagogies. A democratic pedagogy recognizes that students are not products on an assembly line—they are unique individuals with complex sets of interests, emotions, cares, and concerns. They should not have to leave the persons they are outside the classroom. Students have a right to be heard, to practice articulating complicated ideas, and to express half-formed opinions. They have a right to pose questions they would like to have answered through the course of study they are engaged in, and they have a right to shape their learning in ways that will be most productive for them. One of the hallmarks of a democratic society is the freedom to make innumerable choices—about where to live, who to live with, what to eat, what to work at, what to read and what to think. The university classroom should be a place where intelligent choice is exercised—over what to study, how to study, and how to express one’s learning. As members of a democratic classroom community, teachers also have rights—to pose problems, to bring in resources, and to move the learning toward higher levels of cognition, critical thinking, and creativity. A democratic classroom is characterized by open and participatory dialogue, caring and concern, attention to identity and difference, the negotiation of learning and knowledge production, and a commitment to reveal the hidden dynamics of power, so that students can come to appreciate the undemocratic forces at work in their lives, and work to transform them.

Teach for the well-being of subsequent generations

Those of us who have grown up in modern, industrialized, technological, information-saturated cultures have had great difficulty coming to terms with the moral responsibility we bear to the larger biotic community. We seem unable or unwilling to rethink our obligations to other species, or even to the generations of humans that will follow us. Climate changes, species extinctions, and environmental diseases do not seem to be enough to convince us to buy fewer cars, institute pollution-reducing forms of mass transit, stop using pesticides on our food, or invest in solar and wind power on the scale that is called for. Bowers (1997) suggests that this inertia is partly due to the conflicts we experience in relation to a number of cherished liberal notions: the “emphasis on individual freedom, the emancipatory power of critical reflection and instrumental rationalism, and the expectation that change represents a continual expansion of human possibilities” (p. 120). We will not be fulfilling our moral obligations to young people if we do not work to make some of the fundamental cultural myths contributing to the multiple and interlocking global crises—individualism, consumption, the linear accumulation of knowledge, unrestrained growth, progress, expansion, profit—problematic. Many of these myths, unfortunately, are inextricably entwined with the higher education curricula. If we are serious about unraveling these myths, we are talking about a fundamental rethinking, not just of the curricula, but of the very aims and purposes of postsecondary education. Bowers closes his profound and important book by reminding us that

    …the cultural form of consciousness reinforced in the educational institutions that help advance high-status forms of knowledge are imminent in the system of dams that obstruct the migration of salmon, in the air that carries the chemicals that are altering the forms of life that exist in the soil, lakes, and rivers, and in the shopping malls that depend upon subsistence culture being economically “developed” in ways that integrate them into a commodity-oriented economy. (p. 262)

We need to think very carefully about the ways in which the forms of knowledge promoted in higher education are implicated in the social, cultural, and environmental crises that we face, and to what extent we are perpetuating a form of cultural consciousness that is imminent in the very problems we hope to educate our students to solve.

Bowers, C. A. (1984). The promise of theory: Education and the politics of cultural change. New York: Longman.
Bowers, C. A. (1997). The culture of denial: Why the environmental movement needs a strategy for reforming Universities and public schools. New York: SUNY Press.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: The Free Press.
Kimmerer, R.W. (2015). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Merchant, C. 1980). The death of nature: Women, ecology, and the scientific revolution. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Prakash, M. S. & Esteva, G. (1998). Escaping education: Living as learning within grassroots cultures. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.
The full version of the paper from which this article was excerpted was published by invitation in a series titled “The Moral Conversation” in The Vermont Connection, 1999, V. 20, pp. 83-93.