Know Thyself: The Importance of Humanism in Education

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Current and past reforms have attempted to address the challenges of the educational world. There are undoubtedly reasons for concern as illiteracy and high school dropout rates are still haunting figures in the United States (Institute of Education Sciences, 2010; National Assessment of Literacy, 2010). Thus, the need for improvement in the U.S. educational system is undeniable. However, education without true appreciation for the uniqueness of each and every individual is an empty endeavor. An important lesson can be learned from international experiences and the classical tradition of humanism.

INTRODUCTION

A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, and Race to the Top have become familiar terminology in the United States' education field. Students in this country seem to struggle academically in many different ways. All these initiatives have the declared intent to "fix" whatever is wrong with education. Unfortunately, the issues in this field are hard to define and often become the center of heated debates and controversial proposals. Furthermore, deciding which educational practices are best suited to promote stronger academic performances is not easy. There are many approaches to education and infinite nuances within each approach. It appears that a common, general approach to support failing schools is to provide detailed, step-by-step, prescriptive instruction. Nevertheless, I contend that only a learner-centered, humanistic approach can provide an ideal learning environment for each and every student.

VIEWS ON LEARNING AND TEACHING

A basic assumption derived from the current literature and data is that students do not learn what they need to learn in school. Based on the statistics, illiteracy and high school dropout rates in the United States are alarming (Institute of Education Sciences, 2010; National Assessment of Literacy, 2010). Thus, there is a perceived need for instruction that is carefully planned with a very systematic structure and scripted lessons to ensure quality control. However, this approach, after almost a decade of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), has not produced the desired results. In fact, some data seem to suggest that such an approach may be counterproductive (Meier & Wood, 2004). By trying to simplify education and engineer it into a highly structured, mistake-proof endeavor, learners, as well as teachers, are denied their uniqueness and their own complexity as human beings.

Palmer (1997) maintains that teaching has three facets that cannot be overlooked. Of these three, the most relevant is that students are defined and shaped by their own complexity (p. 1). Of course, the complexity of the subject matter and the complexity of the teachers and mentors only add further richness to the overall picture. In Palmer's words, good teachers, the "weavers," do not follow the same instructional approaches (1997); on the contrary, they often vary significantly in everything that defines their teaching methods. More specifically, "the methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem-solving, creative chaos" (p. 3); all of the good teachers, however, share a common trait: they display a "capacity for connectedness" (Palmer, 1997).

Drawing upon my personal experiences as a student in the Italian school system, I remember experiencing this connectedness firsthand when my high school Latin teacher spent an extensive amount of time during his breaks to discuss Hemingway's prose with me. Although as a high school first-year student, I had not been exposed to much literary criticism, there I was engaged in academic dialogue with an adult about a subject that had nothing to do with the day's topic or the school curriculum. I have since forgotten many of my high school lessons, but I will never forget those conversations. Later on, as a teacher, I realized that I could truly teach the students only when I was able to relate to them as people. …