The Humanist Institute: Higher Education for Humanism

By Carol Wintermute

The Humanist Institute is a graduate-level leadership education and training program. It is the result of visionaries across the spectrum of our movement seeing the need for pooling resources to more effectively promote humanism in the face of declining interest in the late 70’s and 80’s. Paul Beatty, a Unitarian Universalist Humanist Minister initiated the project to create an organization that would have representatives from all our groups in North America. At several International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) World Congresses, Paul met with Sherwin Wine from Humanistic Judaism, Howard Radest from Ethical Culture, Paul Kurtz from the Council of Secular Humanism and Khoren Arisian from Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalist Humanists. With others joining this group, the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) was created as a coordinating committee. Their first order of business? To create a school for training humanist leaders.

In August of 1982, 45 representatives of the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, the American Rationalist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Friends of Religious Humanism (part of the Unitarian Universalist Association), the Humanist Association of Canada, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism met at the University of Chicago to form The Humanist Institute. It was the first graduate program for the education of humanist leaders who serve organizations across the humanist continuum. Sherwin Wine was elected president, Howard Radest became the dean, and the New York Society for Ethical Culture offered their building as the home of the Institute.  In March of 1984, the first class was formed.

To launch this enterprise in less than two years was a surprising feat. Some organizations provided scholarships; others provided classroom space and members of all groups had to be solicited for financial support. Board members, deans, and faculty are all volunteers as they believe strongly in the mission of preparing humanist leaders to be advocates, innovative thinkers, and organizational experts who will advance our movement and its influence in the public arena.

The curriculum is designed to immerse one in humanist history and philosophy, learn about the various forms of humanism in North America, understand our movement in light of other religions and philosophical movements, understand moral and ethical development, delve into the philosophy and practice of effective leadership, examine our underpinnings of reason and science and then apply humanist thought to social, political and economic issues, as well as look at aesthetic aspects of human development.

This graduate-level program can be completed in a three year period involving intensive reading and reflection. Students come to New York City and Washington, D.C. for long weekend seminars in December and April, and for a five-day seminar in August. An independent project and a program of supervised field work are required outside of the class gatherings. In between sessions, students are expected to read further on topics discussed in class or connected to the general session theme. Other assignments include short papers, book or article reports, and oral presentations. Students continue the conversation at home through online discussions.

Interactions among students, mentors and faculty constitute an indispensable element of the learning experience. The bonding that occurs among the students in a class is remarkable and one of the riches elements of the program. The interpersonal factor in the learning environment is an invaluable feature of the program. It is the coming together of representatives for all our groups that enables us to understand each other’s views and work together for the future.

There are over 100 graduates of the Institute.  Sixteen classes have graduated in 27 years.  The newest Class 18 is slated to begin this December. We purposely limit class size to six to ten people, which allows for maximum participation in discussions and a lively exchange of views.

Our graduates are among the leaders, board members and staff of all our constituent groups. Some graduates serve as Ethical Culture Leaders, UU Ministers, and AHA Chapter Presidents. Others are advocates, spokespersons, and activists for humanism in their communities. Some are innovative thinkers who keep our movement alive with their provocative insights and writings. It is apparent that our graduates are making a difference in advancing the causes of the humanist movement.

If you are interested in The Humanist Institute, please visit our web site at to see our brochure and learn more about our curriculum and the studies of past classes.  You may also contact Kristin Wintermute, executive director, at

Carol Wintermute is co-dean of The Humanist Institute.