“Humanistic education” – more than a buzzword?

Simran Luthra

This seems to be the age of buzzwords in educational discourse the world over and ‘humanistic education’ is a popular one. Buzzwords are a little like clichés – they contain some kernel of truth, but become hackneyed because of over-usage. But shying away from a buzzword, just because it is a buzzword would be like throwing away the baby with the bath water!

Humanistic education is often regarded as an add-on; a sprinkle of humanistic education or ‘life-skills education’ makes what schools have to offer more enticing. Aspects related to humanistic education are usually a part of the co-scholastic curriculum. However, anything which begins with ‘co’ as a prefix usually means it isn’t the protagonist of the story. The language we use to describe things is extremely important, and this implicit divide we have between the ‘scholastic’ and ‘co-scholastic’ actually reflects the prioritization of one over the other and should be done away with.

focus-1 The state of Indian schools today – the heavy focus on learning outcomes, on “covering the syllabus”, the gradual disappearance of “value education” and “moral science” (tokenistic as they may have been in the form that they existed), reflect the increasingly consumerist culture taking hold in this country and throughout the world. Teachers are overburdened with the expectation of ensuring students succeed academically. Both government and private school teachers find themselves devoting maximum time to documentation, paperwork, and providing evidence of students learning academic content. There is nothing wrong with that, but the fact that it is being done at the cost of a more human/humane interpersonal student-teacher relationship, is a matter of concern. Parents and teachers would agree that there are sufficient indicators for the need to broaden the mainstream focus from the scholastic to the co-scholastic.

To understand and engage with the idea of humanistic education at a deeper level, gauge to what extent ‘humanistic education’ is a buzzword and where and how it is really being practiced, I spoke to three educators, each of whose work relates in a unique way to ‘life skills education’ or ‘peace education’ or what I have referred to more holistically as ‘humanistic education’. I spoke to my former classmate and friend Rohit Kumar who started his career as a software engineer before he moved into education. He was leading the Service Learning Program (SLP) at the Akanksha Foundation for youth between the ages of 15 and 20 where he worked from 2011-2015. As part of the program, he and his students worked together to develop a sociological understanding of human identities and dynamics of their interactions. They strove to contextualize academic learning in contemporary social and communal realities, and deliberate on the ideas of choice, freedom, and responsibility within these spaces through action and reflection. Issues of gender, sexuality, caste, and class were the mainstay of his classes, not peripheral concerns.

I also spoke to Feruzan Mehta who was the country-head for Seeds of Peace and now runs an initiative called The Peace Project in schools. The project is an innovative programme that introduces issues of peace and social justice in secondary schools (Standards 7 to 9). The principle objectives are two-fold: i) To cause the professional and attitudinal transformation of participant teachers and ii) to address students’ understanding of matters relating to these contentious issues by engaging them in a highly interactive and developmentally appropriate curriculum that gets progressively more involved over the course of the three years.

Finally, I spoke to Dr. Gurveen Kaur who is the Co-founder and Secretary of Centre for Learning, an alternative education centre. She has worked as a teacher for the past 32 years across the spectrum from pre-primary to post-graduation and as a teacher educator, and currently teaches courses in Philosophy of Education at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Centre for Learning supports learners of all ages to connect with themselves, and figure out their values, interests, and direction in life. The aim is to understand the challenges of living meaningful, responsible, and self-regulated lives of inner and outer harmony.

If you’ve noticed from the description of their backgrounds, none of them was or is directly part of ‘mainstream’ school education. While Rohit worked in the NGO space and Gurveen in the alternative schooling space, Feruzan has actually worked with and currently runs her programmes in mainstream schools. But she too is an outsider in a sense. With this issue of context in mind, I asked whether humanistic education is more amenable to the alternative education space.

Gurveen responded by saying:
“Mainstream schools always have at least one or two caring teachers who adopt a humanistic approach – to the extent possible – even though the school does not subscribe to that philosophy.

In the interest of improving the quality of education, it is possible that a mainstream school should adopt a humanistic approach, but it would require that everyone in the chain be prepared for a complete change in the rules of the game. It would be a tough call requiring the commitment of everyone from the top management to every single teacher in the school. The move would entail a shift from their focus upon academic achievement to a concern with the holistic development of every child and a move away from standardized processes to a more individual-centred approach.

However, there are a few tasks that mainstream schools perform that are incompatible with a humanistic approach to education. One task of the mainstream schools is to prepare students for the existing jobs/roles in society. But the good and/or the well-paying jobs are few, so streaming out a large number of students becomes an inevitable task of these schools. This is incompatible with a person-centred education. But that task could be entrusted to other institutions.

But what might be totally unacceptable for the schools is that a shift to humanistic education would require a drastic reduction in class size and that would either make the schools too expensive or unprofitable and therefore unsustainable.

Another important reason that makes such a shift almost impossible is the fact that all mainstream schools are not teacher-run but are managed by people outside the classroom. Be it a private or state-run school, the management can only control through standardized procedures and therefore only understands accountability and efficiency in terms of standardization and this is what stands in the way of humanistic education.”

Rohit shared more about the purpose and intent of education:
“Education by itself is humanistic in nature. The degree to which it is so depends on what purpose it is being designed for. Humanistic, social, purely economical – all concepts of philosophy of education can be fit into these three categories. Whether I like it or not, I am catering to all three things. For instance, it may be thought that coaching centres have a purely economical focus, but at the same time because they are enabling people they are also humanistic. But say, a Krishnamurthy school which was founded on the premise of education having a humanistic approach is qualitatively very different. It’s like if it is intentional – what is the intent that would define the degree of it happening?

Rohit’s response asks all of us who have undergone training in education to return to the question of the ‘aims’ or ‘goals’ of education – something we have all encountered in our philosophy of education component, but we stop engaging with it actively once we start teaching or working in schools. It would in fact be a valuable exercise to try to uncover the aims of education that the schools we work in are working towards. As Rohit Dhankar, (the renowned educational philosopher and founder of the NGO Digantar which works extensively on educational research in India) writes: “This demands a serious theoretical understanding of the same, boring and age-old questions: Why teach? What to teach? And, how to teach?” This could also be a discomfiting exercise, because if we are honest about it, we may discover that the bulk of schools these days are products of the ‘commodification’ of education.

Increasingly, schools treat education as something that has an exchange value – you pay for schooling which is an investment, which in turn pays its dividends in the future in terms of a job or the ability to gain admission into foreign universities of repute leading to the commodification of education. Rohit argues that instead, education should be something that is of use to the child in the present. We need to grant students personhood while they are still children and allow them to grow up into their own unique people, without the baggage of the future on them. We need to do this while also engaging them with aspects of social justice and raise the collective consciousness of the future generations towards a more humane and just world.

focus-2 This commodification of education has also led to the subsequent lowering of the teacher’s status. The teacher has become a cog in the wheel. The nature of the teacher’s engagement, rather than involving full immersion in the humanistic paradigm of education of the chance to engage with the students in a broader capacity, is merely lip worship. Feruzan shares:
“Have you ever been to a workshop, where the participants get inspired enough to translate all they have learned into action? I’m not saying that stand-alone workshops are entirely without value. But after the initial high, the effect usually gets diluted and other matters (mostly academic) take priority. More often than not, it becomes an exercise in attending the workshop to add to the list of what the teacher or school can show. At the end of the day, do we really see much change on the ground? Is the teacher or the school truly transformed? The point is that these inputs are not sustained enough. You need to be part of a continuous process in order to really internalize what you have learned.”

Her model of The Peace Project doesn’t view the teacher as a means to an end. In going through the modules that teachers have to conduct with students. Feruzan first takes the teachers through the activities themselves. Feruzan has shared that what she wants is for the teacher – the person – to be as engaged with the issues and content, because humanistic values are of relevance to all of us, all the time. Feruzan is currently piloting The Peace Project and hopes for it to become a part of teacher education.

“As of now there are a couple of colleges – this sort of combination of teacher training and curriculum development where my focus is to first effect a change in the teachers themselves.”

It is clear from what these educators say that it is not a lack of clarity about the way forward, but more a question of will. It ultimately becomes a political choice, and a very potent one at that, when one chooses whether or not to have the humanistic paradigm at the core of education in educational institutions. Gurveen articulates the dilemma felt by many educators:
“At times it does seem as if there is a political hidden agenda in keeping schools the way they are. By which I mean schools are cleverly manufactured machines for churning out tame, standardized, obedient, non-political citizens who unquestioningly accept their position in life/society (based upon their success or failure in schools) and buy into the present framework of development/progress and, in turn, into the present definition of a good-life and success.”

Seemingly apolitical, there is little that is as political as education. Governments the world over understand this and shape curriculum and history books to their advantage. India is no exception to this phenomenon – the ‘saffronization’ of the curriculum and tampering with history has happened and is still happening. Adopting a humanist approach that has human rights, discussions around equality, discrimination, social justice, standing up against injustice as part of the curriculum and hidden curriculum of schools, is the only way we can effect a change in the way that education holds the power of doing. Realizing the power that we as teachers and educators have is the first step in this direction.

What is required then is a mammoth commitment and effort on the part of educators and society alike to truly believe in the ideals of equality and social justice, and bravely take forward the project of educating the youth without the fear of disturbing the status quo. The current scenario is such that we are afraid to do anything that seems to jeopardize the privilege of the already privileged. That risk must be taken.

Teachers, school leaders, and educators should be in this together. We need to understand the nuances of how social realities are interlinked – education and schools are not located in a vacuum, but are a part of the same socio-economic-political-cultural nexus that the rest of the world is part of. What does not go into the curriculum is as important as what goes into it. Why are the scholastic and the co-scholastic not more intertwined? These are questions that we as teachers and educators would benefit from asking.

The author is based in Pune and works with an organization that is working towards personalization of learning in Indian schools. The author has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and a Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai. She has taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship and is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights and gender in particular. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.