Humanism to Neohumanism – from Macro to Micro

Notes from a talk by Eric Jacobson at the Educating for a Bright Future Conference held in Salorno, Italia


Its birth: Born right here in Italy, humanism tells us that humanity is a family with similar needs across the globe. Pico della Mirandola wrote about humanism, “To man it is granted to have whatever he chooses, to be whatever he wills”.

Tenets of Humanism: Rooted in Christianity, one of the original ideas of humanism was that humans were created in god’s image. Some of the tenets of humanism are:

  • Devotion to human welfare
  • A doctrine, attitude or way of life centered on human interests or values
  • Gives human dominion over other life forms
  • Promotes free will to develop “higher” human traits

Humanism in the Renaissance became a rebirth in celebrating and sanctifying the human experience. Instead of a denial of beauty, love, and individual joy, the human experience was being proposed as something divine, something that should not be suppressed. It also had a strong component of promoting free will. Humans had the ability to move towards God by promoting their higher qualities.

Its rise: Humanism had a major rise after World War II. Seventy million people died; half were soldiers, half were civilians. This was quite a shock to the world.
The late Dr. Haim Ginott, child psychologist and holocaust survivor wrote:
“My eyes saw what no person should witness: gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot by high school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, or skilled psychopaths… education is important only if it serves to make our children more human.”

This sentiment helped give rise to the United Nations, so that we might never suffer this type of catastrophe in the world again. The deployment of the atomic bomb made us realize we cannot afford another war. The authority of the UN has grown painfully and slowly over time, but has been hampered by geo- and socio-sentiments, and by capitalism. It still remains the vanguard and flagship for the humanist movement and strives to set a moral code for the world.

Limitations of Humanism: Humanism is not a bad thing; it’s just not a complete thing. In writing about Neohumanism, Shrii P. R. Sarkar always begins with something good from humanism. However, here are some of the ways Humanism falls short:

–Separates humans from the rest of creation:
I was taught in school growing up that human beings are animals at the top of the food chain. Anything beneath us we can eat, and anything that could eat us we should kill. This view puts human beings outside of the natural food chain and leads to such horrific acts as the mass murder of the North American bison population for idle entertainment while traveling.

–Unable to overcome limiting sentiments: Humanism has not been able to overcome limiting group sentiments. Our sense of self extended to our family, to our geographic region, and to the social groups we are part of, is natural and necessary. National sentiment can be a very positive step. But it can’t stop there. Humanism has not provided a path to go past these limiting sentiments.

–Progress has been based on technology supplying material need: Humanism defines progress by our ability to provide everyone with material goods, e.g. how many people have a refrigerator, cell phone, etc. With this view, technological progress is valued while our progress as a species is not. This idea can be summed up by this image, “A monkey driving a car… is still a monkey.”

–Sky-kissing arrogance:
Humanism’s narrow view is not aligned with universal observations. Any open-minded observation about the universe should tell us that we are not masters on the top, but we are part of an integrated network. It is clear by the climate change crisis today that our decision making has been based on a very limited understanding, or narrow angle of vision of our place in creation. It is estimated that with our senses we perceive less than one percent of the physical waves around us. Yet, we have a very high opinion of our ability to understand and manipulate our environment.

–Commandeered by Secularists: Another problem with humanism is that it has become commandeered by secularists. As mathematicians unraveled the laws that operate the universe, and scientists showed how to predict and manipulate them, a godless version of humanism took shape, placing humans as masters of all creation. A view emerged that the laws controlling this universe are fixed and mechanistic. Any form of knowledge that did not conform to this mechanistic view was rejected as unscientific. As masters of all creation we don’t need God; we think we know how this universe works and we can make it work to our advantage.


Shrii PR Sarkar first coined the word in his book, Neohumanism: The Liberation of Intellect, in 1982. “When the underlying spirit of humanism is extended to everything animate and inanimate, in this universe, I have designated this as Neohumanism. This Neohumanism will elevate humanism to universalism, the cult of love for all created being of this universe.”

Note that it starts with the underlying sprit of humanism, that there is something beautiful in humanism… but we need to extend that to everything. When I was in India, Sarkar introduced this philosophy and said about it:
When the sweetest touch of the human heart is extended to all things….
We already know the sweetest touch of the human heart, the inspiration and path for extending it to all things– that is the challenge of Neohumanism.

Neohumanism is a new vision of humanism. It is humanism re-imagined. For the sake of clarity, I am simplifying Neohumanism into three components:

  • Re-imagining what it is to be human: What Am I?
  • A redefined view of human progress: What is Progress?
  • A new story for life: What is My Story?

What Am I?

We need to redefine and re-experience our sense of identity. We need to grow our embrace and rethink what is the essence of being a human being. Are we only thinking animals, or are we something more than that? When the twin towers in NYC came down all racial differences were put aside; everyone was just an American. But there is a big difference between trying to love everyone as your own, and seeing your very self in them. I want to focus on the experience of growing our embrace, and the perennial source of inspiration for doing so, something that is renewable and sustainable.

I’ve spent many years talking to learned people about this. Most people will agree that consciousness exists. If you watch the time elapse photography of a plant, you can‘t but notice its consciousness expressing itself. It is reaching, spreading its arms, shrinking from things. Where was that consciousness before? Consciousness must have been somewhere on Earth at the start of life. It must have been present in inanimate matter. When that matter got compressed into forming a nucleus, then further condensed and focused into the first nuclear cell called life, consciousness immediately began to emerge and express itself. It continued expressing itself more as life forms developed, becoming ever more sophisticated. That consciousness therefore must lie quiescent within earth’s factors…. solid, liquid, light, air and space. Since the earth was born from the sun, then consciousness must have been in the sun. If the sun was made from gasses condensing in space, then consciousness must be in those gases and in space. In truth, we are made of stardust. We are connected with all things. We are the result of eons of evolution, the elements of the universe now able to bear witness to its Self.

The universe was designed for life… it wasn’t some infinitesimal accident that happened in one perfect place. This universe was designed for life and we are the living proof of that. If we are the stars, we are indeed connected with all things. If we are connected with all things, we are the universe itself bearing witness to its own existence. It therefore is our destiny to remove all the limiting labels and to continue to expand our awareness of self as the same consciousness that pervades all things. That experience I have only found through meditation. Others have found it while communing with nature. It’s not just a concept. It’s an experience that will guide your intuition and your intellect to make the right decisions. To make the case in point. I was once an arrogant and selfish person who tried to do service but didn’t feel it in my heart until I had a mystical experience which took me outside of my ego. I can see myself in others now. Not just intellectually. The experience of ourselves as a human being needs to change and expand.

What is Progress?

We need to redefine progress as a species instead of as material progress. Instead of measuring how many people have cell phones, how about measuring how much people are learning to care about more than just themselves? Mother Theresa was an advanced human being. Why? Why do we all agree that is true? Her first public act happened when she saw people dying in the Calcutta streets and held their hands so they would not die alone. That to me is progress. We don’t even have the barometer to measure such progress in a correct fashion. That’s why we have the global climate and other crises, because we are advancing with technology but not as a species. We are many years away from World War 2. Perhaps we are not slaughtering millions of people, but we slaughter 70 million species instead. Have we learned our lesson yet?

Human mind moves from physicality toward the unknown. Too often we measure our life by physical comforts, possessions and basic needs. We need to move in a different direction – intellectual progress and then spiritual progress – away from physical progress- reaching towards the unknown as a measurement of progress. Why do we know how to manufacture a car that won’t pollute and will bio degrade, yet we don’t do it? Why do we know how to make carpeting without using any cancer causing chemicals, yet we continue to poison? We know how to do many progressive things but we don’t do them! We don’t have the proper definition of progress. We should not be able to continue doing things in a destructive way that we know how to do better. This happens because real progress has not been accepted as a goal for humanity. We would rather do things the expedient way, the instantly profitable way, than to change ourselves. We must change our definition of progress.

What is My Story?

In the US, the indigenous people were born into the world with a sense of story… why am I here? what is my purpose? ‘To fulfill the dreams of my ancestors. To protect my tribe. To leave the earth better than I found it.’ Whereas when I was born into this world I was told a different story ‘eat drink and be merry because tomorrow I die’. The modern story is consume and enjoy. We need a new life story:

Individual Story:
I am evolving towards something, overcoming labels that have limited me, no longer satiated by only material goods. I experience joy overcoming my past as I fulfill my human potential. I am here to connect with all, embrace all, and make them my own.

Collective Story: We are all moving together, none can be left behind, distinctions must be removed, injustice must be confronted, it is our mission to make ourselves, our society and our ecosystem reflect the unity of its true nature.

Neohumanist Education

Neohumanism doesn’t only belong to education. But I am going to focus on how we are going to apply this Neohumanism I have just outlined to education. Neohumanist Education seeks to apply the principles of Identity, Progress and Story to every aspect of schooling. These principles become the three main avenues of expressing Neohumanism in Education. How are we going to apply these re-imagined principles to every aspect of school?

What am I? — Freeing the Mind of all dogma & limited sense of identity.

We need to free the young mind from all limitations and a limited identity. Here are some limitations we should be consciously working to free the young mind from:

  • all labels – We place so many layers of labels placed on ourselves. We need to see that there is an essential self that is not labeled. If you can go back to a time before you knew even your name… part of yourself that is continuous without any label… that is a type of identity meditation
  • all inherited and imposed bias
  • geographical identity
  • sociological identity
  • physical characteristics
  • all isms other than universalism
  • imagined impossibilities – These form a big mental wall that says “you can’t do that because…” Usually it’s because there is some dogma that stops you or because you think it’s impossible; for example, you can’t travel in space because it takes too long
  • materialism – We need to try to liberate our minds from being obsessed with objects. Seeing consciousness in everything then becomes much easier.
  • egoistic intellect – Every profession has its own vocabulary to make everyone else feel inferior. PR Sarkar referred to this as intellectual extravaganza: the pride of knowing things that you are not going to share with anyone else.

Freeing the mind has to be applied to every lesson in school.

What is Progress?—Expanding the Heart to embrace all animate and so-called inanimate.

  • Widening your circle of love and inclusion
  • Cultivating experiences that grow our compassion and connection
  • Placing value on developing inner resources
  • Emphasizing progress in terms that go beyond physical and academic

When we give progress reports – so much emphasis is on intellectual and physical progress. If you try to say something about the child’s development as a human being, there is resistance from the parents. One reason for this is that we haven’t made our case for real progress to the public. We need to help the world change its focus when it comes to progress.

What is my story? — Engaging in Society with a spirit of service and sense of justice.

How do I engage in society? What is the story for my life? This is the story that I would like to transmit to my students:
“With a moral code to advise me, I have a mission to uplift myself, those around me, society and all things to a more just and fulfilling existence.”
This can be accomplished through:

  • Service
  • Teaching a moral code
  • Volunteerism
  • Promoting social justice
  • Applying learning to real world problems

Neohumanist Education Principles Applied in daily classroom practice

Freeing the Mind, Expanding the Heart, Engaging in Society can be applied to every academic and artistic discipline at school. The result is that over time the child becomes more neohumanistic. They become a better version of themselves. Their good tendencies get nurtured; their bad tendencies get discouraged and reduced.

At Progressive School, these three principles of NHE are applied to our curriculum and our methods. Following is an example of how they are applied within one specific topic in science.