This article was adapted from a keynote address given at the Educating for a Bright Future conference in Salorno, Italy.
Neohumanism: A Philosophy of Education for the Anthropocene
By Dr. Kathleen Kesson
A significant number of scholars from the sciences and the humanities agree that we have entered the Anthropocene, a new era in geological history (GR: ánthrōpos, ‘man, human’ + cene, ‘recent’). While debates abound concerning the chronological boundaries of this era, the geological indicators, and the details of the complex dynamics of interacting systems (atmospheric, climatic, geothermal, hydrological and biological), it is clear that human impacts on the earth are causing perhaps irreversible damage to the planetary ecosystem. We are witnessing the “great acceleration” — unprecedented species extinction and loss of biodiversity, increasingly dangerous weather patterns resulting in loss of life and property, and extensive pollution of our waters, air, and soil. New assaults on planetary life come to our attention daily. The question posed succinctly by American philosopher Roy Scranton (2018), is “We’re doomed. Now what?” How do we make the shift from the Doomsday scenario in which we currently find ourselves towards the optimistic future promised us by P.R. Sarkar, in which “Neohumanism will elevate humanism to universalism, the cult of love for all created beings of this universe?”
While action on all fronts is urgent, education is a primary vehicle for cultivating the “new human,” those who embrace this love of all created beings and align their actions with such deeply felt convictions. One scholar notes that
The generation about to enter schools may be the last who can still reverse the negative megatrends converging today. In order for these children to learn the needed new ways of thinking the present generation in charge of society must begin to set up for them a kind of education it never had and arrange to educate itself further at the same time. (Moffett, 1994)
Schooling is perhaps the most conservative institution in all societies, and research tells us that most teachers, when faced with making difficult educational decisions, default to teaching the way they were taught. Parents and communities often have the attitude that “it worked for me so why change things?” So, this task — to set up a kind of education most of us have never had — is a daunting one, and requires us to think philosophically about every aspect of education.
Why we need a philosophy of education
Philosophy is the love of wisdom (GR: philo, ‘loving’ + sophia ‘knowledge, wisdom’) and education is a very practical activity. A practical philosophy of education, then, should help us to make wise judgements about our teaching practice. Philosophies of education define what it means to be human and the nature of mind and consciousness, and articulate the aims and purposes of education. They explore how knowledge is constructed and how people learn. They help us to clarify our values, and provide visions of the “good life.” For example, the “cultural transmission model” values knowledge of the past, and understands the primary aim of education to be inculcating the values, beliefs and knowledge systems of the existing culture into the new generation. The individual is seen as something of a “blank slate” ready to be molded into the form of human valued by the existing society, or at least by the dominant classes in a society. Teaching methods, in this model, are characterized by a prescribed curriculum, the teacher as an authority, regular testing, and behavioristic methods of control, such as rewards and punishments.
Sometimes radically differing ideologies, values and beliefs give rise to new philosophies of education. For example, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries there was a reaction against modernism, with its mechanistic materialism, science, new technologies, and emerging bureaucratic society. The Romantics, as they were called, did not accept the idea of the human being as a blank slate, rather they believed us to be born with innate powers, or a divine spark, and they thus embraced the deep feelings of the individual soul and its emotional, spiritual, poetic and artistic nature. Romantics bemoaned the disenchantment of the world, and sought to reestablish the mystery, magic, mysticism, and myth that had characterized much of human history. Teaching methods, in this framework, lean towards the “drawing out” (LA: ēdūcere, ‘lead out’) of the inclinations and potential of the child and of pedagogies that encourage awe, wonder, and the imagination. This philosophy influenced the development of what has come to be known as holistic education (for its attention to the whole child).
Pragmatic (or developmental) theories of education associated with such thinkers as John Dewey and Jean Piaget sought to reconcile the contradictions between the emphases on outer experience (the cultural transmission model) and inner experience (the Romantic model) with the notion of learning as a transaction between inner and outer modes of knowing. Pragmatic approaches to education value democracy as the most efficacious form of social arrangements, and teaching methods in this framework are characterized by inquiry-based and experiential curricula, cooperative group learning, and the cultivation of reflection, logic and reason as primary forms of problem-solving.
Challenges to Pragmatism and Romanticism came with the advent of Critical Pedagogy, a philosophy of education that takes a hard look at the social structures that construct our worlds. Drawing upon a Marxist conceptual foundation, Critical Pedagogy insists that we acknowledge the ways that capitalist relations, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression have limited the full development of human powers, and that we shape an education grounded in the development of critical thinking in order to understand and overthrow these limitations
Neohumanism: A unique response to the historical moment
It’s important to note that all of these existing philosophical approaches, the spiritual and the secular, are very much grounded in Humanistic concepts and classic liberal traditions, ways of thinking that place human beings in the center of the picture (anthropocentrism), and which value the autonomous individual with their capacity to gain self-knowledge through reflection and to better understand the world through the application of reason. The old philosophies of European Humanism provided humanity with a vital service by liberating us from much of the superstition and irrationality of the medieval Christian Church and initiating an era of scientific thought and rationality, and the contributions of Humanistic philosophy to individual rights, freedom, and self-determination should not be understated. But just as the ancient tenets of this philosophy are necessary but not sufficient to guide us through the Anthropocene, existing educational philosophies, even the progressive and holistic ones of the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries are inadequate to steer us through the era that is upon us. Neohumanism, while drawing upon many of the important tenets of Humanism, emphasizes the “new ways of thinking” that are uniquely capable of educating the “new human” — persons with the knowledge and dispositions to care about the welfare of all the species of the planet and to live in harmony with the ecological constraints that we are only now coming to terms with in the Anthropocene.
Neohumanism and Ontology. Ontology (Greek ōn, ont- ‘being’ + -logy ‘study of’) is the study of what it means to be human, including the broad categories of being, becoming, existence, and meaning. Neohumanist educators are fortunate in that P.R. Sarkar articulated a comprehensive philosophy of Being to draw upon, a philosophy that encompasses the mundane and the cosmic, which understands the known universe as dynamic, and that defines the human as a multi-dimensional being engaged in a quest for realization and spiritual understanding.
One main idea that profoundly shaped Humanist thinking is the idea of the individual, the “I” as a bounded entity, surrounded by stable substances and objects in space that constitute separate “others” to manipulate, utilize, and transact with. This concept developed in the context of the Western Enlightenment along with the subjugation of nature and the application of reason and logic to all of the problems of existence. This sense of separation, mastery, and control in concert with an economic system predicated on resource extraction, endless growth, and needless consumption has led us to the ecological tipping point at which we find ourselves. Neohumanism requires the cultivation of an ontology that is relational, that understands there is no separation of self and other, of knower and known, of subject and object, but rather endless flows of being and becoming in which we are deeply interconnected with everything in creation, visible and invisible, material and molecular, objective and subjective.
In the context of relational being and becoming, virtually all aspects of education require reconceptualization: everything from our notions of individual achievement to our valuing of independence and autonomy, from our theories of human development and cognition to theories of experience and academic subject matter. If everything is in process, or relational, then we must awaken to the profound interdependence between the human organism and the environment, the life histories and trajectories of ‘objects’ and our own implication in these, as well as the human connection to transcendent levels of mind. A Neohumanist curriculum would embrace this multidimensionality, the whole of ontological experience.
Essential question: How do we sustain the positive aspects of the individual self – the right to sovereignty over one’s body, the right to discover one’s dharma and engage in personally meaningful activity, the right to be recognized as fully human – while sustaining these rights in a context of relational interdependence, without unintentionally fostering fuzzy cognition or New Age haziness? How do we navigate the tension between being and becoming?
Neohumanism and Epistemology. Epistemology (Greek epistēmē ‘knowledge’+ -logy ‘study of’) asks fundamental questions about the nature of knowing. How is knowledge constructed? What are the sources of knowledge? How do we come to know anything? How can we know what is true?
Throughout our Humanist history, Western models of education have spread across the planet, resulting in the loss of language, tradition, culture, and indigenous ecological knowledge. Some scholars have aptly called this “epistemicide”. In the process of valuing a particular version of scientific investigation and reason over all other forms of knowledge creation, and in the context of conquest, patriarchy, and economic imperialism, ways of knowing that exist outside these contours have been marginalized or suppressed: embodied knowing, contemplative knowing, intuitional knowing, narrative knowing, aesthetic knowing, mythic knowing, and intergenerational knowing. Neohumanist educators need to cultivate an epistemological pluralism, while understanding that all ways of knowing are not necessarily equal, and that different epistemologies are suited to different tasks and purposes.
Knowledge is not a “thing-in-itself” that can be transmitted from one isolated mind to another, or from a digitized environment to a human brain via language or image. Knowledge is part of an ever-changing system, a pattern of relations, and is embedded in culture. Language shapes how we perceive and understand the world, and we transmit worldviews and taken-for-granted cultural habits with every word we utter. A relational philosophy asks more of us than that we simply “teach” or “acquire” neutral facts about academic subjects. To truly know anything, in a deep way, we must embrace the occasion of knowing in its temporal multiplicity: understanding the past (how the knowledge was made) the present (what does it mean to me in this moment?), and the future (what are the consequences of this knowing?) We must expand the boundaries of our sources of knowledge: What might it mean to discard a notion of an “us” who think and a “them” that do not? Can we learn to “think like a tree?” Can we learn to put traditional ecological knowledge (much of which has been exterminated along with the people and cultures who have acquired it) alongside empirical science?
Neohumanism, unlike some spiritual pedagogies, does place a value on rationality and critical thinking. Rationality, in its deepest sense, is the capacity to question the sources of knowledge, to be skeptical about truth claims, and to be mindful of the ways in which knowledge has been used to manipulate, subjugate, obfuscate, and render powerless. It encompasses more than simple reason and logic: true rationality must be informed and tempered by contemplation. To speak of contemplation is to open up horizons of knowing of which humanity has only has the faintest of glimpses. In this regard, we can say that our understanding of epistemology is in its infancy. P.R. Sarkar refers to pará vidya (spiritual, or intuitional knowledge) and apará vidya (mundane knowledge). While there are certainly sages and enlightened people who are gifted in the ways of spiritual knowledge, and many excellent educators who are adept at leading young people to deep intellectual understandings of the world, there has yet to emerge a comprehensive pedagogy that seamlessly integrates these two poles of wisdom in ways that do justice to the integrity of both domains. That, I believe, is the task of Neohumanist educators.
Essential questions: How can Neohumanist educators navigate the tensions between reason and intuition, the spiritual and the rational, the material and the ideal, the internal and the external, skepticism and inner knowing in order to cultivate new humans with the wisdom to see humanity through the spiritual, psychic, intellectual and physical challenges of this era? How can we teach in a way that is deeply rooted in the language and culture of specific places, while cultivating a sense of universalism (love for all creation)?
Neohumanism and Axiology. Axiology (GR: axia “value” or “worth” + -logy ‘study of’) encompasses questions of value, and includes the study of both ethics and of aesthetics. What do we consider to be of worth? What constitutes the good, the true, the beautiful? How should we live? For educators, this extends to important questions of what is worth knowing and what should be taught.
Cultural pluralism has brought about a sense of ethical relativism, and there is uncertainty about what if anything, can be considered a cardinal value. In our late-Humanist society, in which ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ capitalist ethics have become the dominant social value, and the market is the ultimate arbiter of ethical questions. Should we endanger fragile habitat in order to drill for oil? Of course, if profit is the main value. In the relational, process philosophy of Neohumanism, in which the inherent value of all living things is acknowledged, ethics are the principles we would use to regulate these many and varied relationships. Sarkar rejects the kind of simple rule-based morality encoded in many traditions, yet subscribes to the notion of overarching ethical principles under the broad umbrella of the question: Does this contribute to the welfare of all? The curriculum can no longer be constructed to serve dominant economic and political interests, as it is currently, but must address the deep interconnections that we are coming to understand between and amongst humans and all ‘other’ life forms.
In a Neohumanist curriculum, ethics would be infused across the curriculum; every subject from biology to history would be approached through an ethical study framework. In the study of ethical dilemmas (and we face countless of them in this new era), it is important to cultivate the arts of reflection, deliberation, and discriminating judgment, to invoke, as Sarkar suggests, both reason and intuition. In this way, ethics can become, as he proposes, a facilitator of personal and social transformation – a tool for expansion.
In our modern Western societies, the arts are commodities, with ascribed value based on notions of uniqueness and scarcity. In a Neohumanist world, the arts could serve more ancient and life-preserving functions, involving young people in participatory aesthetic experiences that create and recreate the fundamental stories of our existence – our human bonds, our relationships with plants, animals, sea and sky, and the mythic stories that carry forth and transmit the blueprints of a moral universe (see Kesson, 2019).
Essential question: How do we cultivate an ethical and aesthetic approach to education that highlights our moral obligations to the future, and is thus uniquely relevant to our era, an era in which “the way we live now determines not only how, but if, future generations will live on the Earth” (Fitzgerald, 1999).
Neohumanism asks us to reconsider the fundamental aims and purposes of education. Rather than educate so that a tiny sliver of people rises to the top of the global income chain, we need to educate all people for the art of living well on a fragile and sacred planet. The new vision of reality is one of relationship, the cultivation of deep relationship with all of creation and between the past, the present moment, and the future. Millions of young people are rising up, shouting out that they will no longer tolerate the destruction of their planet. It is up to all of us who care about these “new humans” to support their yearning for an education that is relevant, meaningful, purposeful, just, and joyful, which nurtures the human spirit and its innate love for all creation, and which enables humanity to create a survivable and “thrivable” future.
Fitzgerald, J. (1999). Rekindling the wisdom tradition. In Transcending boundaries: Prabhat Rainjan Sarkar’s theories of individual and social transformation. Maleny, Australia: Gurukula Press.
Kesson, K. (January, 2019). Cultivating ecological wisdom through the arts. Gurukula Network, 47.
Moffett, James. (1994). The universal schoolhouse: Spiritual awakening through education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Scranton, R. (2018). We’re doomed. Now what? NY: Soho Press.