Still Enlightening after All These Years The continuing value of the Humanist Institute

A typical sales pitch for the Humanist Institute’s graduate study program might go something like this:

Do you want to learn the philosophical and scientific secrets that will put you on the cutting edge of modern thought? Do you long to be one of the privileged few who grasps the wisdom of the ages and can wield it to get ahead of the curve? Are you ready to master—to gain an easy command—of the world’s most innovative ideas? Then sign up right now for your first class at the Humanist Institute! If after only three days of eye-opening, intellectual experience you aren’t already achieving at least one of your life goals and attracting new friends, we will gladly refund your money. And you can keep the veritable library of books that comes with your class—our gift to you just for trying the most powerful humanist program in America!

But the best way to wrap your mind around what the Humanist Institute does and get a handle on its continuing value is by talking at length with a student who has completed the study. My own personal experience—I was a member of the Humanist Institute’s second class, completing the three-year program in 1989—serves as a fine example of surpassed expectation. You may recall a line in the Disney film Pocahontas in which the title character tells (actually, sings to) Captain John Smith that there are things in this world “you never knew you never knew.” Discovering the unknown within humanism was an important part of my Humanist Institute experience.

At first I was skeptical I’d learn very much. After all, I was already a humanist and had read a number of the books assigned in the first year of the course: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, Corliss Lamont’s Philosophy of Humanism, and others. As the course progressed, however, not only was my appreciation of these books enlarged, but so were my skills in presenting and explaining their ideas. Beyond this, the familiar readings served as kickoff points for discussions and explorations that the books themselves had been unable to deliver alone.

My initial doubt also stemmed from the fact that, while the institute exists to train humanist leaders, I already was one, serving as the executive director of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Nonetheless, it didn’t take me long to discover that attending Humanist Institute sessions was like attending an intimate conference at which I was able to talk shop with humanist leaders and future leaders three times a year. In so doing I began forging relationships that would serve me all the years that have followed. And this applied not only to the faculty, and not only to the students in my own class, but to the students in the class before mine and classes after.

Regarding the things I never knew I never knew, upon entering the program my primary knowledge was of the secular humanist tradition. I had no real idea about humanism as perceived, experienced, and expressed from within Unitarian Universalism. To me, UU humanism was just a wishy-washy expression for those not yet out of the church habit. But certain students at the Humanist Institute, some of whom were studying for the UU ministry, allowed me to discover that Unitarian Universalism and related traditions within humanism could offer valuable aesthetic and community dimensions I hadn’t explored.

I also knew next to nothing about Ethical Culture—a deficiency readily cured by the Ethical Culturists in the group and the fact that most of the classes were held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Beyond this, I also had no clue what humanistic Judaism was really about. But faculty member Sherwin Wine and student Miriam Jerris fixed that.

All this religious humanism was a shock to my system at first. My fellow classmate, Beverley Earles, and I staunchly upheld the secular humanist view, working in our way to “keep the Humanist Institute honest.” But this advocacy proved to be a two-way street. Though we influenced our fellow students, many of whom identified as religious humanists, they also influenced us in turn. So we all grew in our humanism together.

But outside of organizational differences among us there were national differences that distinguished Canadian humanists from New Zealander humanists from American humanists, and so on around the globe. And finally there were the socio-political-economic differences. My fellow students included libertarians, socialists, social democrats, liberals, conservatives, and a number who were hard to place.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation for me was that a fair number of the students and supporters of the Humanist Institute had never heard of the AHA or didn’t know much about it. It would take me some time to grasp that there were at least 75,000 self-identified humanists in the Unitarian Universalist Association alone, far more than in all the specifically humanist organizations put together. And it would take me time to understand that members of many of the groups were quite insular, being truly aware (like me) of only their own organization and maybe one other. But the Humanist Institute brought us all together, made us known to each other, and caused us to learn from each other. We would all come away realizing that it’s a big humanist world out there.

In the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, books were in the form of parchment rolls and were created one at a time by hand. There was, however, a system in place for creating multiple copies all at once. It involved a room full of scribes and a speaker at a podium. The speaker would read slowly from a text as the scribes copied down the words on their rolls. This was the standard form of publishing—though books were still extremely expensive and few people had them.

What is most astonishing about this is that, in our own age of printing presses and mass distribution—not to mention electronic transmission via the Internet, e-books, mass-market videos, cell-phone texting, television, and radio—people still follow this ancient classical tradition. That is, students in our colleges and universities still sit in chairs taking notes as professors drone on. And at scientific and other scholarly gatherings, academics still present their papers by reading them aloud to their colleagues. It seems inconceivable that, centuries after the technological need for rooms full of scribes has passed, many academics behave in these outdated ways.

Not so at the Humanist Institute. The process there recognizes the separate strengths of the written and spoken words and plays to those strengths while avoiding the weaknesses.

The printed word is ideally suited for transmitting information and ideas. It communicates facts and details in ways that can be studied, pondered over, reviewed, memorized, and referenced. And though the printed word can also engage, inspire, and persuade, there are other and often better ways of doing such things.

This brings us to the spoken word. Although the spoken word lacks the convenience of text when it comes to transmitting ideas, it excels at transmitting emotions. Public oratory has been and remains one of the most effective ways of engaging an audience, inspiring people, persuading them, and moving them to action. This is why congregants do less reading in church than they do listening. The spoken word, combined with music and ceremony, transmits feelings.

And so Humanist Institute students are given a heavy load of books to read between the thrice-annual face-to-face sessions. This activity serves to transmit the information and ideas. But when the students meet together they don’t read, they don’t listen to lectures that substitute for reading—they discuss. Class mentors guide the discussion by means of Socratic dialogue, a superior humanistic technique for inducing students to think for themselves as they actually try out the ideas in their readings. Socratic dialogue is one of the best methods ever devised for giving students more than a mere familiarity with ideas but an intense experience with them. You don’t come away from the Humanist Institute merely conversant in humanism; you come away with a deep understanding of and facility with the philosophy, its applications, and its ramifications.

This is why the Humanist Institute uses the printed word and the spoken word primarily for what each does best. And it’s all supplemented by e-mail discussions and explorations between classes, thus maintaining the momentum from the face-to-face sessions and driving the reading.

Beyond the mere transmission of knowledge and understanding, the Humanist Institute ultimately aims to impart a more philosophical attitude—one that includes a tolerance for and comfort with uncertainty in the realm of ideas. With this comes the ability to adjust to a changing world.

The philosophical attitude isn’t about cloistered thinking, where one sits in isolation and weaves pet theories. Philosophy done right requires dialogue with other individuals and interaction with other ideas in order for false notions to be jettisoned and correct ones to be honed. Beliefs and values need to be subjected to scrutiny by thinking people, whose challenges should be carefully considered in a pursuit of truth rather than summarily dismissed or opposed in a spirit of defensiveness. This is what the Socratic dialogue of the Humanist Institute accomplishes.

And the result is the graduation of students who fit the description of the “truly philosophical person” as described by Julian Baggini in his 2002 book, Making Sense: Philosophy behind the Headlines. Baggini writes that truly philosophical people treat

their own views with as much skepticism as those of the people they read about. They are always ready to subject any belief to rational scrutiny, not as a game, but in order to understand more. Their broad outlook and openness to new arguments gives their life a kind of freedom and space. They learn a sense of perspective and of humility. They also learn when thinking is appropriate and what kinds of reasoning are suited to different purposes. They do not always expect final answers, but follow Aristotle’s advice to expect only that degree of precision which each subject matter allows.

Graduates of the Humanist Institute program haven’t merely learned philosophy but have acquired a philosophical outlook. They haven’t just been taught philosophy but have done philosophy: discussing, exploring, debating, and actually applying and using ideas in a wide range of areas. That’s the ultimate message of the program: thinking is doing.

Fred Edwords, a former executive director of the American Humanist Association and editor of the Humanist, is now national director of the United Coalition of Reason and a member of the Humanist Institute’s adjunct faculty.

The Humanist Institute: A History
By: Carol Wintermute