Educating for Humanity

Educating for Humanity: Rethinking the Purposes of Education

by Mike Seymour

By all accounts, humankind finds itself at a life-and-death turning point in the twenty-first century. We are on a course of unprecedented environmental destruction in terms of species extinction, global warming, and natural resource depletion. Population and consumption trends predict that humans will overshoot the earth’s carrying capacity in many areas within the next century.

Humanity is at war with itself in escalating numbers of regional, ethnic, and religious conflicts. Moreover, the global economy and institutions of modernism—like education—have fallen prey to shortsightedness and a mostly economic agenda. The result is a growing gap between both rich and poor, loss of cultural diversity, and self-sustaining livelihoods. An unstoppable appetite for economic growth undermines attempts to safeguard the environment and, ultimately, our own lives.

These problems seen in the world at large can be found right here in America. What a great tragedy in this, the richest, most diverse country in the world! Einstein said, basically, the mind that got us into this mess is not the mind that will get us out of it. Humanity needs a change of mind fostered by a change of heart.

This book is about a new frame of mind, or consciousness, and how education can help us get there. I suspect that Einstein, who also said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school,” might raise his eyebrows at my optimism about the possibilities for education.

It seems school hasn’t changed much since Einstein’s time. Daily, we read about low test-scores, parent backlash against new reforms, our continued failure to reach a diverse student body, and persistent school violence. Too many kids sit in boring classes or skip school, adding to the epidemic dropout population. In the public mind, stories of outstanding teachers, engaged classrooms, and memorable student experience seem rather pale stars that are overshadowed by the dim skies under which public education is often pictured. And too often, I believe, education is shown worse than it actually is.

Regrettably, human suffering will likely increase in the coming centuries as we struggle toward a more equitable, sustainable way of life for all living beings. I am firmly convinced that we cannot make this global transformation to a new way of thinking without also making a radical change both in our conception and practice of education. The shift in our thinking that is needed to meet the complex, new realities of both our present and future simply cannot be accomplished within the prevailing mindset and practices of our current schools. But are we up to the task? Is education up to the task? More to the point, is society up to the task?
We live in a time that cultural scholars refer to as the biggest evolutionary change in human history. Growing global interdependence, combined with increasingly intolerable economic and social injustices, world health crises, and the threat of ecological self-destruction are forcing humanity toward the brink of a new age of enlightenment or an age of potentially irreversible darkness. While others speculate on how this will unfold, I believe, unequivocally, that an evolution to a more sustainable and meaningful way of being and thinking will only occur with a parallel change in our concept and the practice of education.

We must not just educate “better,” as we have been trying to do, but educate differently. It’s not a matter simply of finding fault with the current educational system (which, has made positive contributions to individual and social well-being both here and around the world over the last one-hundred years.) We must revisit our essential assumptions, values, and visions about what education is, and ask “what is an educated person” given what we know is most important to people anywhere and given what we know about the state of the world today. Tinkering with school structures and pedagogical practices will have limited success until enough people come to an all-encompassing agreement that addresses what is most important for our children and for humanity’s future. We desperately need a vision that—regardless of social, religious, ethnic, and economic circumstances—serves to bring us into a sustainable, meaningful, and just future. To arrive at such a vision, we must reckon with our current social, economic, ecological, and spiritual realities—locally and globally.

This is a tall order. Achieving this consensus in our pluralistic and deeply divided society is no easy task. It is, nonetheless, one that bears a great moral imperative, given the state of the world and the fact that the United States, as the most powerful nation on Earth, serves as a model (both good and bad) for many nations. To redeem our view of the possibilities in education, we need to explore common ground and allow our differences to recede enough to achieve unity of purpose. It is my firm conviction that noteworthy change will occur if youth, parents, teachers, school boards, and community leaders reach within themselves to find their own deeper understanding of what is really important and then exercise the courage needed to put those convictions into action.

Imagine such a group assembled for a “town hall” meeting to explore a new vision and plan for its school district. Facilitated by a different sort of conversation than the usual one about “success” or “achievement,” participants are asked to sit quietly and reflect on several questions, write down their thoughts, and then share them within a small group. The process culminates with a whole-group discussion.

The questions: What are your highest wish and hope for the lives of your young people, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and any of the young people in your community, including those present? What do you want our young people to become as they mature and take over responsibilities from our generation? What do you want them to care about—what values do you want to guide their lives?

Now suppose we gather these answers and analyze the results, looking for common themes. It is likely that we would see a surprising degree of similarity—regardless of political stripe or religious affiliation—in what most people think and feel is important for young people. I imagine that the slips of paper would read:

• I want our children to be happy.
• I want our children to accept themselves.
• I want our children to feel like they are going somewhere in life.
• I want our children to be honest, respectful, and responsible.
• I want our children to experience happy, loving relationships
and family lives.
• I want our children to have good jobs and enough money
• I want our children to be kind and caring to others.
• I want our children to care about the world, not just themselves,
and work to make the world and their communities a better place
in which to live.
• I want our children to be kind to animals and nature
• I want our children to succeed in life and achieve their dreams.
• I want our children to know their lives count for something

Were this scenario to take place in a typical school district, one wonders how this group would translate this list into workable values and practices in schools. It would be a troublesome process. The vision of our hypothetical group would be hard to reconcile with the aims and practices common in most schools. Meeting these aims would require giving young people and their teachers far more say in what goes on at school than what they currently enjoy. So much of what goes on in schools today is mandated from “on high”—limiting teachers’ and students’ freedom of choice. Our imaginary group has said that human qualities such as happiness, self-fulfillment, and sense of purpose are of primary importance. But such a person-centered idea of education stands little chance against the policies and practices that strongly emphasize academic achievement and tend to either thwart human development or leave it to chance.

Educating for personal development—not for just what students can know and do—would be impossible if we taught as if children were empty vessels to be filled with socially useful knowledge. We aspire for our young to be in healthy relationships, parts of happy families, to be communally active, and to care about others and social equality. However, while social values are acknowledged as important in education, social and emotional learning are rarely pursued as educational ends in themselves. More often, they are only hoped-for byproducts of defined “academic” purposes of education.

We may value nature, but few schools have a truly comprehensive understanding of ecological literacy and how to impart it to young people. As for helping youth find meaning in experience, that is left mostly to chance or to the occasional social studies or English teacher who is gifted in helping students find themselves by probing big life questions raised – in well-selected curriculum materials.

What currently survives the list of hopes for our children are those items that are the easiest to negotiate. In our materialistic, consumerist society, the educational path (of least resistance) settles for enabling kids to support themselves with decent work. This economic agenda is the “bottom line” that directs many private and most public schools.

Rather than educating for humanity, we school for the skills and knowledge needed to work and function at an “economically sound” level in society. By educating primarily for economic being, as opposed to human being and belonging, our system of education has relegated the development of a child’s sense of self, his or her ability to make meaning of life and to love and respect others to family and/or civil society. -Thus, education has played its role in the appalling losses we witness when we survey the landscape of shallowness, moral ambiguity, commercialism, and meaninglessness that pervade society today.

How can we expect children to become the type of adults we want them to be when one-third of their waking lives (their most formative years) is spent in forced schooling that does not honor their humanity? From classical times to the early 1900s, education has been as much about ethics and character as it has been about content. In fact, reading, writing, history, and the humanities were not viewed as ends in themselves, but as means to cultivate a person of knowledge, decency, moral character, and higher purpose. We must realize anew that we only affirm a division between ourselves and society when we give school the job of the three Rs without requiring that it partner with family and civil society in nurturing the heart, character, and deeper thinking of our young. It does take a whole village to raise a child, including its schools. Fractious as our villages may be, our knowledge that a people divided cannot stand must impel us to conjoin education, family and civil purpose for the sake of our children and also to enable a human future.

Family, civil society, and school represent three sources influencing the mind of America. Renewing harmony of purpose among these disparate spheres first requires healing the disharmony within ourselves. Embedded in the very paradigm of Western thought is a division between mind and body, spirit and matter, who we are and what we do, our ideals and reality, and “talk” versus “walk.” All fissures in society stem from these fractures within ourselves. This is the illness of our times—of all times.

Out of this divided self, our “town hall” community agrees that even as the humanity of our children is most important, we do not attend to humanity in the one-third of their life which is lived at school.

As we look closely at the alternative vision of education presented throughout this book, we’ll see that this divided self is the root for most, if not all, of our personal, interpersonal, national, global, ecological, and spiritual crises.

The divided self shows up in our society’s epidemic spiritual malaise, experienced as life lived without deeper (or any) meaning. Rather than working to integrate the needs and desires of our superficial selves with those of our deeper selves, we try to ameliorate any inner void with work, financial success, social recognition, love or lust relationships, or intoxicants—all of which become more frenzied and less satisfying with each attempt and through each successive generation.

This divided self is apparent in nearly all of our life experiences. We see it in the conflict between our concern for the environment and our attachment to ecologically destructive lifestyles. Though we think that increasing specialization and more data makes us smart, we recognize that we are being “dumbed-down” and are blinded to the larger picture. We espouse racial equality, yet resist seeing our own biases. When we meet people who are different from ourselves, we focus on the differences rather than celebrating inclusiveness of spirit and the common ground we share. We act as divided when we try to solve problems but fail to include all stakeholders, which leads to yet more complex problems. At the level of state politics, nationalism, which works for the good of a people, has increasingly negative consequences for that same people, the more the well-being and destinies of all nations become intertwined, as they have become in our time.

How do we bridge these troubled waters of a deeply divided self? It will certainly take the whole village, including its schoolhouse, to raise generations of hearts that understand the unity in all things and minds that think systemically. When I write, in this book about educating for humanity, I am envisioning how we can think, live, parent, and teach in ways conducive to the emergence of an integral, deeper, more inclusive, and systemic mind. In this sense, we empower our children to have a whole experience of life. To realize this dream, our generation must strive to close the split within ourselves, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and nature, and between ourselves and some form of higher meaning and common spirit which serves to bind us together.

Signs of an emerging integral mind can be seen everywhere in society, including in education. In education, for instance, integrated curriculum, community in school, inquiry-based and student-centered learning, social and emotional learning, teacher renewal and presence, holistic education practices, whole language, systems learning, and ecological school design are examples of a larger social movement throughout the world to make connections and find deeper meaning. But this movement in education has a tenuous foothold in the larger culture that is dualistic and at odds with the emerging, unified view of life and its accompanying values.

Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History describes our times well:

[W]hen civilizations have reached a peak of vitality, they tend to lose their steam and decline . . . social structures and behavior patterns become so rigid that the society can no longer adapt to changing situations. . . Whereas growing civilizations display endless variety and versatility, those in the process of disintegration show uniformity and lack of inventiveness. . . The dominant social institutions will refuse to hand over their leading roles to the new cultural forces, but they will inevitably go on to decline and disintegrate, and the creative minorities may be able to transform some of the old elements into a new configuration. (1974, 9)

These kind of tectonic shifts in society today are marked by conflict and greater imposition of control as the dominant forces sense a threat to their ways of life. This reactive control is reflected in education in the current top-down, standards-based reform that has been building steadily since the Reagan years (the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind being the latest “act” in this drama) and before that, to the early 1900s. In this scenario, the integral view emerges amidst conflict and confusion, in piecemeal fashion, like small islands in schools, only to be washed away by staff turnover or budget cuts. Thus, many integral-type reform efforts, as far back as John Dewey’s time, have proved hard to sustain within the larger dualistic, predominantly three Rs system that is fighting for its life.

We’re witnessing the struggle between two civilizations and their attending values, with people gravitating to one or another paradigm, or way of thinking, as part of making sense of life. The dominant civilization we all grew up in is dualistic, scientific, and looking at the world in terms of separate objects. We would call this the “techno-scientific” mind that divides, categorizes, and analyzes, believing this will lead to greater truth—which, in a way, it does, but at the cost of the seeing the whole. The emerging civilization, which I’ll call integral, is searching for meaning in a larger whole, perceiving the interconnection between all things.

Thomas Berry describes the shift to an integral world in his chapter, Ethics and Ecology (this volume): “Indeed, we must say that the universe is a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.”

There’s no past-bashing here. All the dynamics of the technoscientific civilization that we need to leave behind have served humanity well but have now outlived much of their usefulness. Who could deny the gains from democracy, respect for individual freedom, a better material life, and technology made possible by the movements that had their origin in the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Age of Reason? But neither can we deny the tremendous costs to all of life and life’s very meaning, having now reached the decaying end of the technoscientific way of seeing and being.

I cannot stress enough the importance in this new paradigm of respecting the whole of reality. Merely railing against the dominant technoscientific civilization creates counterproductive resistance, unless we are able to recognize the good along with the bad. True power comes from compassionately embracing all views. The great challenge of our day is to find in our humanity the common, sacred ground on which we are all revealed to stand with noble purpose: finding a common vision for our children that will bring us together.

My quest for a common ground relative to education started several years ago, as the inner ruminations of many years in continuing education for teachers came to the surface. On a flight home to Seattle, I was working on a new philosophy statement for the Heritage Institute, which I direct and which has a legacy of place-based environmental and community learning for teachers from holistic and progressive perspectives. Out of my search for the meaning of education came “Educating for Humanity,” which I hastily scribbled on the rear jacket cover of the book I was reading.

I understood humanity in its fullest dimensions, in my own case, shaped by having been a family therapist, student of Jung and process-oriented psychology, and my lifelong quest for spiritual meaning. I mused that educating for the humanity of one child benefits all of humanity. Each child, opened to the fullness of their own being, brings blessing to whomever and whatever they touch. To be fully human, in my understanding, means feeling and acting as part of a larger whole. Much like the indigenous perspective, an integral and human way of thinking and being would connect first with self and, through that, connect to others, the natural world, and to something larger that gives life it’s meaning.

From these reflections emerged the concept of an ecology of learning with four interdependent domains: self, community, Earth, and spirit. Our lives unfold in circles beginning with ourselves and our inner aliveness, moving next to the life we have in those we are connected to, rooted in the earth which is our home and, finally, encompassed altogether in spirit—or that which gives meaning, coherence, and energy to everything. This ecology of learning renders us fully human. It does so by helping us to connect with our callings in life, to others in the local and global community, to Earth and ecological responsibility, and to a common sacred ground of being in which our unique religious and spiritual expressions are felt to have one heart with many-limbed expressions.

It is important to understand that this family of purposes does not fully come to life unless they operate together. Without connecting to self, our connection to others is impaired. Can we commune with others, nature, or spirit without having deepened communion with our own soul? The reverse is also true. Without connecting to other people, the earth, and a spiritual meaning, we cannot realize the most expansive aspects of self, but get stuck in self-centeredness and its destructive projections onto others.

This ecology of learning says that self and world are one whole. “We are the world,” as the song goes—the microcosm in which the universe meets itself. Being human means being in harmony with all. The deeper we reach within our own soul and its many potentialities, the more we realize our essential harmony with others, nature, our home, and the cosmos. The more we contemplate truth in the world about us, the more we find a deeper, truer self reflected in what we see. Essentially, we and everything else are stardust and the ground from which the universe arose. A deep and open heart allows us to walk in the shoes of all that is. In those shoes, we feel into the being of all we encounter.

Are we ready for this kind of thinking in our communities and schools? We know from our “town hall” meeting that the network of values represented in self, community, Earth, and spirit are important. The question is whether we dare to make these the core purposes of education—and whether we can grasp how education must be related to the most significant dimensions of life in order for school to really work.

This leads to a related question—whether we can wake up from our cultural trance and understand that who we are is vastly bigger and more important than “what we can know and do,” which is the current standards-based refrain in most states. Can we realize that skills and knowledge, while important, mean little in a soul-deprived person?

We must see that we are so much more than we ever imagined, that we feel compelled to respond to our own magnificence in the way we educate. The question becomes one of trust that there is something so good and unique in each child that we feel morally obligated to dedicate the adventure of learning to its discovery—as opposed to paving over that gift with a technocrat’s dream-become-nightmare that exacts conformity and expects what it never can get, namely, a zest for life and learning.

Putting the moral urgings of such “town hall” conversations into practice will not be an easy process. It will call upon us to step over our fears into the bigger person we suspect ourselves to be, but may have lacked the courage to realize. We will land right in the middle of those chilling existential issues we may have avoided—questions like: Who am I? Where am I going? Am I doing what I want in life? Does my life have meaning? And What in me am I resisting that would make me a bigger person? This kind of thorny inquiry can wound our self-confidence and send chills down our solar plexus, causing us to shrink and live divided lives, as Parker Palmer is known to say. Or, this bold look in the mirror could bring a wonderful new life. Our individual and collective futures will be made at this threshold where we turn toward life or turn away in fear.

It remains to be seen how our public schools will unfold, but I am happy to say that there are people of courage all over America who have asked those deep existential questions in their own way, and who have voted for life. We see some of whose words fill the pages of this book with hope, stories, and exhortations.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are growing numbers of public and private schools with a whole variety of educational models to learn from that engage the whole child and embody a meaningful, communal, just, and ecological approach to education.

To purchase this book visit


Mike Seymour
is President of The Heritage Institute (, a progressive program of continuing education for K-12 teachers, in the Northwest, offering place-based earth and social history programs – and leading edge educational curriculum – through field studies, workshops, distance courses and foreign travel programs that reach educators in the Northwest, around the US and the world. THI programs are informed by a mission to “Educate for Humanity & The World we Want”-a commitment to promote a vision of education that furthers a world that works for all. Previously, Mike was a family therapist treating children, couple and individuals, as well as an organizational consultant to schools and small businesses. Mike is author of the recently published book Educating for Humanity: Rethinking the Purposes of Education with contributions from well-known educators, and has produced a video of progressive schools which he presents a national conferences. Mike is founder and President of the Board of Youth for a New World with a mission to Inspire young people globally to contribute to a world that works for all, and he is also its acting Director. He initiated its first program the AfricaAmericaExchange, linking students in Burundi, Central Africa and the USA.

~ by indigolifecenter on March 9, 2008.

2 Responses to “Educating for Humanity”

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