The Alternative Futures of Neohumanism and Neohumanist Education

By Sohail Inayatullah

Is Neohumanist Education a plausible future? The weights are certainly stacked against an alternative future that challenges the status quo of student preparation for global competitive capitalism or national economic development and identity creation. Indeed, that education can successfully prepare students for any future other than the conservatism and standardization of the feudal and industrial templates remains questionable.

Education, as Foucault and many others have argued,i while claiming to prepare for the future is essentially about social control, creating disciplined bodies and ordered minds to reinforce the present. Even where there is change in other aspects of society (such as new technologies), education lags behind. It does so as education has multiple stakeholders attempting to influence its content, process and structure—parents (who remember the good old days when they were students), principals, teachers, ministries, the press and students. As Milojevic argues, summarizing Larry Cuban, schools “are multipurpose, many-layered, labor intensive, relationship-dependent and profoundly conservative”. ii

The context for education, currently—the Global situation—does not look promising either; four areas of concern are pivotal:

(1) environmental catastrophes (mass species extinction; global warming with a possible Ice Age to come; massive pollution and congestion in large global, particularly Asian cities);

(2) instability in international relations, with the relative decline of one hegemon—the USA—and the rise of another—China—with all the ensuing tensions and deep conflicts this is likely to create;

(3) a move to the political Right throughout the world, with the ‘other’ increasingly being the object of fear (the politics of the gaze where those who look different are blamed for social ills); and,

(4) politics moving toward border and boundary protectionism—with the nation–state as fortress.

While neohumanism and neohumanist education seeks openness and expansion; in opposition are four types of protectionism. These are: (1) economic protectionism, the fear of the rise of India and China and thus loss of jobs; (2) social protectionism, the fear of the migrant; (3) spiritual protectionism, the Left’s fear of a post-secular world; and (4) religious protectionism—fear of other religions and the assumption that one’s own is the best.
In contrast, neohumanism seeks to break out of current borders and boundaries creating a softer self (and a dialogue of inner selves) and an ethics of love and devotion for all the inanimate and animate beings of the universe. It seeks to protect only the tender dimension of what it means to be human, to help create a gentler society, in the words of Elise Boulding and Ivana Milojevic.iii Indeed, the founder of neohumanism, Sarkar has argued that love/devotion is not just a sentiment but a way of knowing the world. Neohumanism Education seeks to create a pedagogy of partnership and cooperation in a world where recent memory is “survival of the fittest.”iv A partnership society is certainly a tall order in a world where hyper-masculinity has become more of the norm.

Neohumanist thought thus runs counter to dominant history but certainly not counter to what is required for a successfully meeting the environmental, economic and cultural challenges outlined above. But why has Neohumanist Education yet to be broadly taken up in school/university settings globally?v The reasons are varied but they include:

  1. Educators (in common with other fields) have strong disciplinary boundaries and resist information that they did not help create. Why then would they accept anything as personally challenging as neohumanism (challenging religion, secularism, humanism in favor of spirituality and universalism)?
  2. The future is discounted, and educators are overwhelmed. They seek how-to workbooks not dramatic changes in ethos. And those who do change ethos still have to negotiate the treacheries of governmental bureaucracies and university hierarchies.
  3. Education infrastructure, both physical and in terms of imagined/envisioned development, is still from the nineteenth century. Classes are still designed with the image of teacher as a fountain of information and student as empty glass or as clay to be molded by authority. Mutual co-evolutionary learning, as in neohumanism, is considered too difficult to achieve as it requires inner reflection and expanded responsibility by all learners (students, teachers, administrators and parents).
  4. The digital era may have begun, but our organizing principles are still from the industrial era; which, while a few hundred years old, still remain dominant. Thus, even with digital technologies the structure of the classroom —desks all in a line—remains intact. And even when digital technologies are used the pedagogical culture remains industrial (strong hierarchy, standardized and uniform). If the digital revolution is considered challenging, how will neohumanism find a home (as it is Gaia spirit tech—sustainability, spirituality plus digitalization)?

But let us take some words of inspiration from Fred Polakvi

Many utopian themes, arising in fantasy, find their way to reality. Scientific management, full employment, and social security were all once figments of a utopia-writers’ imagination. So were parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, planning, and the trade union movement. The tremendous concern for child-rearing and universal education …and for garden cities all emanated from the utopia. The utopia stood for the emancipation of women long before the existence of the feminist movement. All the current concepts concerning labor, from the length of the work week to profit-sharing, are found in the utopia. Thanks to the utopianists, the twentieth century did not catch [us] totally unprepared.
Yes, the structure of resistance to change is deep but alternative images beckon.

As Oliver Markleyvii argued many decades ago, we are in the middle of an historical shift where the image of the future leads.

The image—at least one image—is more and more about sustainability instead of industrial expansionism; global governance instead of the nation–state; gender partnership instead of male domination; respect for and the rights of nature instead of man over nature; spirituality instead of religion; communication and understanding as central to solving problems instead of the search for the techno-fix; and technology as embedded in nature and evolution instead of as a neutral tool. And most significantly, it is the move from a feudal model of the self to a gestalt holistic model of identity. In the feudal model, the ego is king and other identities are expected to blindly follow. In the gestalt model as developed by Hal and Sidra Stoneviii, there are multiple selves. Some may be mature and developed, while others may be traumatized and hidden. Moving the identities together toward bliss becomes the new identity constellation of the future.

However, our current reality remains feudal and industrial—it is this tension between the aspirational (the future we can almost see) and the unnecessary brutality of what we have that creates our current anxieties and despair.

Thus, while history weighs us down and globalisation, digitalization, geneticization, global demographic shifts push us into the unknown, alternative images of the future fight for our attention. Will global digitalization qua capitalism succeed? Will the current nation–state system, with education for national development and skills to compete, continue its dominance? Will we revert back to the religious protectionism of the Caliphate or the Church, or will neohumanism or other similarly different futures based on spirituality and sustainability transform the world?

The future is uncertain. One way to understand what might be is to consider alternative futures. They can assist in understanding the multiple possibilities and trajectories.

What then are the alternative futures of neohumanism?

Profound change
The first and most hopeful one is that a profound paradigm change leads to neohumanism becoming the norm. Neohumanist Education would thus become desired—the yardstick by which other educational systems are measured.

Visible signs of neohumanism at schools would be that instead of a national flag a Gaian flag would be prominent or there may not even be a flag at the school entrance. Education would not be about identities being so easily captured by the nation-state.

At the systemic level, the school would be electronically linked to other schools. However, instead of separate computer room, communications technology would be invisible, embedded in the culture. Perhaps there would be webcams in the eco-gardens helping monitor the organic vegetables. Technology would not be defining—communication within, between girls and boys, between students and teachers and between students and others around the world would be far more important. Calm dynamism might be a term to describe the school.

The dominant worldview would be spiritual—not ascetic or religious but an understanding that each person has a unique relationship with a deeper dimension of themselves or the transcendent. The spiritual self, however, would not be domineering but guiding the other selves within each person’s gestalt. There may be morning meditations or prayers or perhaps just silent time for reflection. Yoga, tai-chi, martial arts would likely be part of the school as well. As would sports—sports may be traditional but generally they would be far less competitive, games designed that produced individual and collective partnership and excellence. The body, mind and spirit of each person would be the focus.

The underlying myth of the school would be a garden of many individual cultures—with teachers part of the garden, their practices perhaps analogous to nutrients, perhaps to water. Parents too would be part of this garden, as supporters not slayers of innovation. The world economy would be far more cooperative (leaving out the middle man) and far less corporatist or state economy run. Productivity would flourish as individuals would be true stakeholders. Meditation would enhance efficiency as would the green-nature design of buildings.ix The Ministry of Education would only be one node focused on encouraging innovation and creativity not on command-control risk management.

Niche elite school
A second future is that neohumanist education becomes a niche system. Particular communities prefer this type of education, but generally, the state and national levels focus more on broader secular (or religious) education. Education continues business as usual activities in support of the nation–state and global capitalism. Neohumanist education is a niche for the different (intentional spiritual communities) and for the cultural creatives,x those desiring a different softer world. It is expensive and only the select few can manage it. Capitalism continues but there are pockets of different measurement regimes including Triple Bottom Line (profit, social inclusion and environmentalism). The process of change is slow and painful but over time Neohumanist Education filters through to public schools.

A third future is where neohumanist type schools (Steiner, Montessori, Ananda Marga, for example) are considered detrimental to national development. They are seen as promoting values that create a fifth column, that do not train young boys and girls (but especially boys) for the tough world of capitalism and even the tougher world of a planet in strife (terrorism, ecological wars and catastrophes, China-USA wars, for example). Moreover, they challenge the national religion, be it Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or … Alternative education is seen as dangerous. Funding is not denied but systemic blocks are created so that funding is nearly impossible. Realism remains defining; after all it is power that matters most!

Is then neohumanism plausible? Yes. But. Practitioners will need to move from the idealism of neohumanism to the day to day practice of neohumanism. Along with practice, there will need to be a worldview transition from feudal-industrialism to Gaian sustainability.

Fortunately, there is some data that suggests that the profound change alternative future is possible, at least in parts of the world, especially the USA, Northern Europe, Japan and Australia. Focused on values that predict future actions, Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson have noticed a shift away from traditional values (socially and religious conservative) going from 50% in the 1960s to less than 25% now.xi They argue that their – the traditional – ferocity in public debate is based on the loss of numbers. Moderns – those focused on personal success and financial gain – have moved from around 50% to around 40%. Health challenges – climate change, in particular – account for this loss of numbers.

The group gaining momentum are the cultural creatives, who have gone from a few percent in the 1970s to the mid twenties in the 1990s to over 40% by 2008 in the USA.xii


Year Cultural Creatives Moderns Traditionals Total
1995 24,0% 47,0% 29,0% 100%
1999 27,0% 4,0% 25,0% 100%
2008 44,9% 39,7% 15,4% 100%


Writes Ray,xiii “Their [cultural creatives] most important values include: ecological sustainability and concern for the planet (not just environmentalism); liking what is foreign and exotic in other cultures; what are often called ‘women’s issues’ by politicians and the media (i.e., concern about the condition of women and children both at home and around the world, concern for better health care and education, desire to rebuild neighbourhoods and community, desire to improve caring relationships and family life); social conscience, a demand for authenticity in social life and a guarded social optimism; and giving importance to altruism, self-actualization and spirituality as a single complex of values.”

Also important is their link to new technologies: Writes Ray, xiv “The other major influence on their growth has been the growing information saturation of the world since the 1950s. In fact the Cultural Creatives are simply the best informed people. They take in more of every kind of information through all the media, and are more discriminating about it as a result. Many successfully blend their personal experience with new views about how the world works, and why—their new values and commitments have rather organically grown out of their synthesis of all the information.”

And: two key dimensions of values are more important to Cultural Creatives than to others: (1) having green and socially responsible values, and (2) personal development values, including spirituality and new lifestyles

Hardin Tibbs in his interpretation of Ray’s data suggests that there could be a shift in values by around 2020 as cultural creatives become the majority in certain parts of the world.xv

If Ray and others are correct, then this demographic shift could lead to a politics wherein Neohumanist Education moves suddenly from being marginal to centre stage. By 2020 the backlash would have diminished in intensity as the numbers of who support the traditional would have declined.

Neohumanist Education is thus a driver of this alternative future and it is dependent on a broader shift in the world as we know it.

Neohumanism succeeds as it offers a way forward but not based on a particular ‘ism’, but rather as it provides a new narrative that can meeting the challenges the world is facing.


Sohail Inayatullah is Professor at the Graduate Institute of Futures Studies, Tamkang University, Taiwan and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of the Sunshine Coast. He co-teaches a one week residential course in Futures Thinking and Strategy Development at the Mt Eliza Centre for Executive Education. In 1999, he was Unesco Chair at the Centre for European Studies, University of Trier and Tamkang Chair, Tamkang University. He is co-editor of the Journal of Futures Studies and the author/editor of 30 books/ CDROMs and journal special issues including a trilogy on the founder of Neohumanist Education, PR Sarkar. He has worked with hundreds of organizations including the Australia federal police, the US state justice institutes, the world federation of occupational therapists and educational, health, and science ministries throughout the world. For more information and publications go to:

i See Ivana Milojevic, Educational Futures: dominant and contesting visions, London, Routledge, 2005, 10. See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, New York, Pantheon, 1980.

ii Milojevic, op cit., 10. L. Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the classroom, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2001.

iii See Ivana Milojevic & Sohail Inayatullah, ‘Feminist critiques and visions of the future’,: Also in Futures Research Quarterly, 14(1), 1998, 35-46.

iv See the works of David Loye and his re-reading of Darwin. Accessed 29 September 2010.

v Jenny Gidley, Debra Bateman & Caroline Smith, Futures in Education: Principles, Practice and Potential, Melbourne, Swinburne University, 2004 /

vi Fred Polak, The Image of the Future (Trans. Elise Boulding), San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1973, 137-138. For more on utopianism and futures studies, see Milojevic, op cit.

vii O.W. Markley, ‘Changing Images of Man, Part I and II’, Renaissance Universal Journal, 1(3 & 4), 1976.

viii Hal and Sidra Stone, Embracing our selves, Novata, CA, New World Library, 1989.

ix It is estimated that gains from worker productivity in green buildings will be up to 160 billion dollars. Robert Ries, Melissa Bilec, Nuri M.Gokhan,Needy Mehmet, and Kim LaScola Engineering Economist Fall, 2006

x see Paul Ray & Sherry Anderson, The Cultural Creatives, New York, Three Rivers Press, 2000.

xi Paul Ray, The Cultural Creatives: The Potential for a New, Emerging Culture in the U.S, 200, 8. Retrieved 19 August 2010.Also: Paul Ray & Sherry Anderson, The Cultural Creatives, New York, Three Rivers Press, 2000.

xii Hardin Tibbs, Changing Cultural Values and the Transition to Sustainability. Journal of Futures Studies (Forthcoming, February-March), 2011.

xiii Ray, p. 7.

xiv Ray, p. 8

xv Hardin Tibbs, Changing Cultural Values and the Transition to Sustainability., Journal of Futures Studies (Forthcoming, February-March), 2011.