The Humanist Institute, featured in this month’s The Humanist magazine, is another place to learn even more about humanism for those seeking graduate-level leadership education and training. Visionaries across the humanist spectrum, who make up the North American Committee of Humanism (NACH), founded the Institution in 1982, to help educate professional and volunteer leadership. The students come from all over the United States and the world, as well as from various humanist organizations. The students who finish the three-year course often move on to work in various humanist organizations as ministers, counselors, Ethical Culture Leaders, association executives, and elected organizational officers, as well as other humanistic positions.
According to Fred Edwords, the former executive of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and editor of The Humanist, who attended the second class, the Institute introduces students to even more types of humanism than I discussed here on the God Discussion.
I will briefly note I am providing other people's knowledge of the institute, because the closest I came to attending the school was through their free online courses on the COHE website, which I wrote about before. However, those courses are affiliated with the Institute of Humanists Studies (IHS). While located in the same area, the two institutions are separate organizations.
When Edwords attended The Humanist Institute, he thought he already knew about humanism from what he read and given that he read the books in the first session already. He soon found out there was a lot more to it then what he thought.
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.
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.
He and another classmate wanted to keep The Humanist Institute honest about humanism and staunchly attempted to uphold the Secular Humanist view. However, the religious humanists also influenced the Secularists and both groups grew into their humanism together.
Edwords also learned that besides organizational differences in humanism, there are national, as well as socio-political-economical, differences too.
… [O]utside 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.
Many of the students, including Edwords, only knew of their own circle of humanists and maybe one other group. The institute brought all the groups together from around the U.S. and the world, causing the students to learn about all the varieties of humanism, some of which even I probably never heard of before, despite all my research concerning humanism.
[T]he 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.
The other thing that appeared to impress Edwords was the Institute’s use of both spoken and written communication, using the advantages of both, supposedly without the weaknesses. The Institute uses the written word to transmit information and ideas, while the spoken word used for Socratic dialogue.
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.
Edwords stated that the Institute aims to impart a more philosophical attitude that is tolerant and comfortable with the 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.
As a result, students graduate fitting the description of a “truly philosophical person”, “as described by Julian Baggini in his 2002 book, Making Sense: Philosophy behind the Headlines”. They graduate with a philosophical outlook and do not just know philosophy.
Edwords is now a member of The Humanist Institute’s adjunct faculty and the national director of the United Coalition of Reason.
As an added feature to Edwords’ story, Carol Wintermute gave a history of the Humanist Institute in the latest addition of The Humanist. She described the NACH formation as a combination of various leaders from various humanist organizations.
Paul Beattie, a Unitarian Universalist humanist minister, initiated the project to create an organization representing all humanist groups in North America. At several International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) World Congresses, Beatty met with Sherwin Wine (Society for Humanistic Judaism); Howard Radest (Ethical Culture); Paul Kurtz (Council of Secular Humanism); and Khoren Arisian (representing Ethical Culture and Unitarian Universalist humanists). With others they created the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) whose first order of business was to create a school for training future humanist leaders.
In 1982, forty-five members of the American Ethical Union (AEU), the AHA, 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. They formed the first graduate program for humanist leaders who serve across the spectrum of humanist organizations.
This intense three-year curriculum is structured to immerse students in humanist history, philosophy, its various forms, and contextualize it in light of other religious and philosophical movements.
The program explores moral and ethical development, delves into the philosophy and practice of effective leadership, examines the underpinnings of reason and science, and then applies humanist thought to social, political, and economic issues, as well as to aesthetic aspects of human development.
The seminars take place in Washington D.C. and New York City, in which students attend during a weekend in both April and December. In August, they attend a seminar for five days. The class size is six to ten students for maximum participation and outside of class, an independent, supervised, project and program of fieldwork is required. In between sessions, several books are required reading, as well as papers, a report, and an oral presentation. Oral discussions in class continue online at home.
Since the program started twenty-seven years ago, sixteen classes graduated with over hundred students total, who are now leaders, advocates, spokespersons, or a variety of positions in various humanist organizations or communities. The eighteenth class starts in December of 2011.