The potentials of a humanist education

Opinion by Mina Shah
Feb. 21, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Two weeks ago, I gave a group policy presentation in a class regarding housing problems in the Bay Area and a potential fix for the gentrification crisis, specifically in Oakland. One of the final suggestions that my group made was that in order to create a longer-term, more sustainable solution to the problem of gentrification, we need to shift the tone of education as a nation. We argued that in order to solve this problem in the long term, our education has to be more of a humanism. That is to say, our educations must be more focused on turning ourselves into humanists.

But what, might you ask, does this mean? Why should we care? And would it really be effective? To begin to answer these questions, I’ll start with a definition. According to Merriam Webster, a humanist is a person who is devoted to the humanities, literary culture, and thinking in an individualistic and critical manner, or a person who thinks a lot about human interests or values, especially a philosophy that stresses all individual’s dignity, worth and capacity for self-realization through reason. Essentially, a humanist cares about other people and thinks about their humanity.

We need to begin to teach humanism in schools, or rather, begin shifting the language and spirit of our education system from capitalism, capitalist sentiments, and a production focus, to thinking about others and considering the humanity of people around the world and in our own communities. If we do this, it will dramatically change the way that people, once they become adults, act in terms of their approach to policymaking. Hopefully, this change will be able to create a better world — a world in which we recognize that every other person that we know (and those that we don’t) all holds the same amount of complexity, depth of emotionality and reflexivity of thought.

Such a change toward a more humanist education and a more humanist way of life would be difficult, certainly. Shifting our mindsets to focus on one another and genuinely caring is no small or easy task. It hurts to hurt with others. But at the same time, the joy that we’d be capable of feeling in sharing the positive emotion relating to the successes of others would be much greater and give much purer happiness than the masturbatory pleasure that we get from pedantically helping “backwards people” and “suffering people” around the world, as our country seems so apt to do.

So why would an education geared toward humanism be important? Speaking specifically to the case of gentrification, we typically think of the most negative impact as displacement. This is because displacement is a huge problem. When you think about the totality of an instance of displacement, there is of course the literal problem of the movement of people, but we also must think about the way in which this movement impacts the emotions and real lives of the people that are doing the moving.  

An applied humanist education can also operate effectively on other situations, though, both domestically and internationally. For example, perhaps we’d find better, more effective ways of interacting with situations like that in Libya and Syria if we had more humanists working to find solutions. Now, decisions that we make may or may not end up looking similar to that which we have chosen to act upon at this moment, but it’s crucial that we think about maximizing the number of lives preserved and maximizing the quality of those lives while making those decisions.

Perhaps this seems like a silly kind of proposal for a solution to our world’s problems. The two professors giving us feedback on the presentations literally laughed at the idea of teaching empathy and human emotion as an effective strategy for solving gentrification. And I’ll admit it may seem like a drastic proposal. The thing is, though, there are a lot of problems that this country and world are facing right now, and drastic problems do call for drastic solutions. It’s not as if small changes addressing the symptoms of problems has been effective up until this point. In some ways, by having us focus on effects rather than causes, these sorts of symptomatic fixes make things worse, and not better.

Though many choose to look the other way when it comes to addressing social problems and the current state of the world, we are living in a state of emergency. We should be much more concerned about making this place better and about one another. And to those of you who think this idea naïve or overly optimistic, the only real chance this would have of failing is if folks, probably much like yourselves, choose not to endorse such a shift and prefer to turn selfishly inward.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’


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