This is the first week of the fall semester at Saybrook University and we launched it with the residential conference in San Francisco. We are a distance learning institution, but the sense of community and connection that I have with colleagues and students is deep and real.
At commencement on Friday, the room was filled with the overflowing sense of gratitude that graduates expressed to their faculty, fellow students, family, and friends. The stories shared were testimony to the transformative learning journey that their education entailed.
I have always seen learning as a powerful, lifelong process. Collaborative learning—especially when it is connected to issues of care and concern for learners—has the power to catalyze change. This is the kind of learning that I have experienced here at Saybrook. We call it humanistic education.
For me, humanistic education is about learning for life. That is, meaningful learning that is relevant and enabling for each human being to become who they truly want and need to become. It is learning that celebrates life—learning that nourishes the human spirit in ways that make it possible to love and care for each other, for all living systems, and for the planet as a whole.
Humanistic education has very little to do with transmission of established knowledge from an expert to a novice. It is not so much about “teaching others” but more about “learning with others.” Humanistic education is about partnering in learning and engaging in dialogue guided by questions that lead to deeper understanding and new possibilities. It involves critical reflection and creativity to both consider the limitations of a current situation and envision new horizons.
A learner-centered approach is the hallmark of humanistic education. But there is more. For me, a truly humanistic education for the 21st century develops a new generation of leaders with fresh ideas—leaders who are able to devise systemic solutions to the complex problems that afflict our societies.
When I speak of leaders, I do not refer to the small, but powerful elite group of individuals with authority who make decisions for others, either through political influence, economic advantage, or brute force. Rather, I mean everyday citizens who are leaders of their own lives; shapers of their collective destinies; conscious participants of society. These leaders are people from all walks of life—parents, teachers, community activists, business people—acting at all levels within all types of institutions. They respond to the call to participate in the most important task of our times: to innovate a future of peace and abundance in partnership with all the living and life support systems of Earth. From this perspective, leadership is not a privilege; it is a responsibility to serve the well-being of the whole. Because if we are successful, humanistic education will help us understand that we are not separate, but rather that we are all members of one planetary family. Instinctively, we know this to be true, but in this technological age of distraction, we must learn to remember.
There are myriad indications that our institutions are not viable. The economic, political, educational, health, and environmental crises are manifestations of an outdated and fragmented view of the world. The first step in the task of creating a different future is to remember our interconnectedness and our humanity. In this century, humanistic education is more needed than ever. As Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein penned in their famous Pugwash Manifesto of 1957: “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”