This Is What Humanistic Education Looks Like

How a classroom activity with Peter Kaufman sheds light on education in the U.S.

Posted Dec 13, 2018

PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay
Source: PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay

Until recently, the term "humanistic education" was sort of fuzzy to me. I didn't know exactly what it meant, and I didn't give it too much thought. All of that changed on Nov. 8. Here's the story:

On Nov. 6, I was in a pickle related to one of my classes. Two days later, I had a three-hour class slated that was set to be led by one of the students in the class. The topic was education from an evolutionary, big-picture perspective. Unfortunately, my student who was going to lead that class let me know that she had an emergent situation and was not going to be able to participate. I thought to myself that it was fine and that I'd maybe bring in a guest lecturer.

Fortunately, I have many friends who have great experience in the field of education, so I figured I had a good pool of people to draw from for this. Almost immediately, I thought of my long-time friend and colleague, Peter Kaufman. A sociologist with keen interest in education, who happened to also be my bandmate (for 15 years, Peter has been the drummer for the all-professor punk rock band, Questionable Authorities—I play guitar ...), I figured he'd have something to say. Peter (along with NAU's Janine Schipper) also had just published the book Teaching with Compassion. And Peter had been awarded for teaching excellence from the Chancellor of the State University of New York System. How could we go wrong!?

I texted Peter asking if he would come to my class that Thursday. He quickly responded saying that sounded fine. On Thursday, Nov. 8, right on time, Peter walked into my class of 12 eager honors students. Peter came in with a smile, sat down, and got down to business. He had an activity planned.

An Activity to Help Understand what Humanistic Education is All About

So here's the activity: Peter asked all of us to think of our most salient memory from our K-12 education. This was very provocative for me. My memory was probably the most negative out of anyone’s, interestingly!

Anyway, the activity was really well-organized. One of the students volunteered to put notes on the board as we went around describing these memories. Peter provided insightful commentary in a very accessible, humorous, and gentle kind of way. Classic Peter.

Next, Peter asked us to each write down three basic principles that would serve as the foundation of a charter of a school district that we would create if we could. We then shared these charters with one another.

What happened next was amazing, and Peter had anticipated and set the stage for exactly this moment. Peter pointed out the following: Not a single one of us had a memory or a basic principle in our charter that was related to standardized testing, the importance of rote memory, the need for common core, assessment, or anything like that.

Our stories were all human stories. And our charters were focused on the human aspect of education at the core. No exceptions. What is humanistic education? From my experience with that activity, I'd say that humanistic education simply is an approach to education that puts the human experience as front and center—an approach to education that focuses on students as humans first. (I sort of cannot overstate how powerful yet simple this lesson was, by the way)

Peter then encouraged us to ask ourselves a very simple question, which was this: Why in the world do educational administrators and policymakers across the U.S. fail to emphasize these basic humanistic values regarding education that came so naturally to all of us?

This moment was nothing short of profound. The class literally had a shared Aha moment. I was finding myself thinking about John Lennon’s song Imagine applied to education in the U.S. Imagine public education that put students first. Not as numbers, but as people. Imagine public education without red tape. Imagine teachers at all levels being encouraged primarily to develop and inspire their students. Imagine.

After about 90 minutes, the class was ready for a break. We thanked Peter for joining us and said good bye. He left with a gentle smile. Classic Peter.

Bottom Line

What is humanistic education? It's an approach to education that focuses on the fact that all students are, first and foremost, human beings and, thus, they deserve all of the respect and rights that go along with that status. Many of us think that education could use something of an overhaul. After this class period, I've become convinced that the primary  change needed in American public education relates strongly to the basic principles of humanistic education. We need school administrators who create environments and structures that focus on students as humans and not as numbers. We need elected officials who are willing to push for educational reform that changes the focus of education toward a more humanistic and compassionate approach. In other words, we need Peter Kaufman's take on education to spread deeply into the public schools.

The class of mine that Peter met with was a group of honors students. I always tell them that they are the future leaders of this world. No pressure, kids—but hopefully you all can take this special classroom experience and help bring about positive change into the future.

Glenn Geher
Author Glenn Geher (left) and Peter Kaufman (right)
Source: Glenn Geher

Author's Note: Less than two weeks after that class period, Peter lost a valiant battle to lung cancer. He never smoked a thing in his life and he had been a vegetarian for decades. And he regularly rode his bicycle for miles and miles and miles deep in the mountains. Peter was the healthiest person I knew. And losing him has shown me and so many others how unfair life can be.

At the end of the day, as I see it, life is largely about generativity (Kotre, 1984)—leaving this world somehow better because of your having been in it. Taking actions during your lifetime to outlive yourself, so to speak. Peter was the most generative person I knew. Many of his thousands of alumni around the world will quickly agree with this sentiment. So many of us learned so much from him and are better people as a result.

I am so deeply saddened to lose such an amazing friend. And I am truly appreciative that I got to know him over the years. We hiked together. We blogged together. We worked with students together. And, mostly, we made music together.

In my last email exchange with Peter, I said this: “We are 1000 percent with you, PK. Godspeed.”

Learn more from Peter via his recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and his final post for Everyday Sociology

Note: Parts of this essay are adapted from a piece that I contributed for the SUNY New Paltz Liberal Arts and Sciences Newsletter. These sections were used with permission.