An expanded vision of what it means to be a human being, is the starting point for reconstructing the educational system.

by Marcus Bussey

"You have noticed that truth comes into this world with two faces. One sad with suffering, and the other laughs; but it is the same face, laughing or weeping. When people are already in despair, maybe the laughing face is better for them; and when they feel too good and are too sure of being safe, maybe the weeping face is better for them to see." [1] --Black Elk


It seems to me that education is about truth. It is about helping people to gain the necessary attitudes, values, principles for action and knowledge to judge for themselves what things in life will bring them closer to truth. Of course this is a very different kind of truth to that pursued by those with a positivist world view. This is truth which occupies the spaces that pulsate within us all. It is a truth that underscores all that we do and feel with a meaning we cannot really grasp yet intuit with the hope that runs in our viens and makes us human.

 "Truth lies in between all regimes of truth." [2] It is elusive and alluring, it is part of the 'Big Picture' that contextualizes our existences. Black Elk, the Sioux shaman, saw it as the necessary corrective to any excess. The Sufic tradition speaks of truth as the sense of transitoriness which will make the happy sad and the sad happy; 'Today will not last for ever'. Sarkar saw it as the sense of purpose that lies at the heart of our humanity. For him truth represented, paradoxically, both the substance and goal of human existence. In this sense truth is Truth, the divine metaphysic which unifies us all, whether we know it or not.

And education is about equipping us for our struggle to come to some meaningful relationship with this Truth. People may think that what I am advocating is a religious education. But a rigorous quest for truth is going to lead to trouble in religious institutions, they are too embedded in current social and bureaucratic practices. The kind of world view required is a Neo-Humanistic one.[3] A vision which is integrative and reverential. This does not deny the need for solid curriculum; it just acknowledges that the primacy of the disciplines is misplaced and that what counts in education is not so much what you learn in the academic sphere but how we are taught to utilise the power of our learning.

The Current State of Play

In recent years, state education systems have sought to get value for money from their education systems. They have developed, or are developing, detailed and rigorous curriculum documents that will 'ensure' best practice on the part of teachers and best outcomes on the part of students. This move has been welcomed by some quarters of society who see schooling as largely a utilitarian institution that produces skilled citizens that are committed to the current value structures of capitalist society.

 Many educators, who as humanists often do not share the narrow political vision of those at the helm of State education departments, have broadened the educational discourse to allow attention to be given equally to the individual, social and academic dimensions of students. Their language is often strongly humanistic and they pay a lot of attention to the ecological sensitivities that have emerged over the past decades. Their goal is to produce happy, sound individuals who are socially and environmentally conscientous. Such people they assume will be good planetary citizens.

 Here we see an expansion of the concept of what it is to be human. A broadening of the truth of what it is to be human. We move from the utilitarian, economic view of the human as consumer and worker to that of the humanistic view of human as a balanced individual and social agent. A lot more education is required to succeed in the latter, and it is becoming increasingly clear that teachers on their own cannot succeed in this. Broader social forces are at work to undermine the best intentions of both parents and teachers. Materialism and the focus of humanism itself, that of the individual, have both gained a dominance in Western culture which is undermining the best efforts of those seeking to offer a closer representaion of the truth of being human.

 Ben Okri has noted that "We began before words, and we will end beyond them." [4] Anyone entering a classroom might be forgiven for thinking, however, that we are constituted as beings purely through language. There is so much talk and there is very little real silence, when pens stop scratching on paper (except pens no longer scratch). Of course social scientists will point out that a lot of socialisation is occurring and that this has more to do with mores than words, yet the focus in our culture is the word.

 It is the primacy of the word that has lead us to dismantle, and thus control, so much around us. It is the symbol of our supremacy over all we see, and a good deal of what we don't. The word is the sword of the enlightenment. It has, through unyeilding logic and reason, sheared off mystery and shadow from our existences. All is revealed in words and what cannot be revealed seems of little count.

 Humanism's failure to overthrow economic rationalism is because the word, first given prominence by the work of humanists themselves, is now being used more effectively by their opponents. The reductive, totalizing logic of language in the hands of materialists is coercive in the extreme. The word has been linked in this new discourse with desire, the individual's need to have their desire filled. The force of the argument is clear and simple: the capacity of individuals to achieve their desire is gained through success in meritocratic learning systems.

To succeed in the face of such opposition really requires an epistemic break that places power beyond the word and redifines desire within a much broader holistic environment where Truth, and our pursuit of it, become the relevant motives for education.

Neo-Humanism - A New Episteme

In making such a break we move from the utilitarian view of the human as a cog in the economy, beyond the humanist sense of the human as potent individual to a Neo-humanist view of the human being as an interactive agent embedded in a world of mystery and power. This sense of individuality is very potent as it draws on our interconnectedness for power rather than on our ability to dominate and control.

 This means a lot when we start thinking about education. If education is about realising our potential, and our potential is defined and measured by our sense of the truth of what it is to be human, then by acknowledging and celebrating our interconnectedness with the world we inhabit - the world that is a threefold phenomenon being material, psychic and spiritual - we are greatly expanding the domain of education and its function in our society.

 Teachers are practical idealists. They always ask about implementation and have often discounted a good idea because it doesn't fit with their concept of what it means to teach. This shift of epistemes to Neo-Humanism of course greatly expands the frontier of a teacher's responsibility. It will certainly intimidate the most hardy and adventurous teacher. But it also shifts the responsibility away from just teachers, the utilitarian and humanist episteme by promoting the individual would of course not do this, but the holistic nature of Neo-Humanist education will break down such a false separation and allow teachers to work in ways undreamt of. This must happen because for us to redefine what it means to educate really requires us to totally reconceptualise what it means to teach and to learn. Schools as they are currently constituted will become dinosaurs and be relegated to museums. The richness that is Neo-Humanism cannot be contained in them.

 Teachers, as those who only impart traditional academic learning, if they exist at all, will only be one part of the educational process. They will work along side a wide array of people such as tradesmen and poets, engineers and mystics in creating new educational spaces to assist in the realisation of a greater range of now recognised human potential.

A teacher may however chose to break with their own tradition and begin to integrate into their own style some or all of the above and be tradesman, poet, engineer and mystic, or any other permutation they may choose. What is essential though, is their developed sense of the Truth of their being human. Their sense of embeddedness in a universal drama that is so rich and open to interpretation and meaning as to allow all races, cultures and expressions equal pride of place. Thus education becomes open and infinitely varied.

 So, as education is a quest for truth, the way leads us to a purposeful stepping out from the culturally prescribed boundaries that currently constrain our vision of education, to a form of teaching which is integrative and reverential. Neo-Humanism is the key to this as it embraces a vastly expanded vision of what it is to be human and thus frees us from the limitations of current educational practice.



  1. Neihardt J.G., Black Elk Speaks Linclon and London; University of Nebraska Press, 1979. p 204-205

  2. Trinh T. Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics New York, Routledge,1991. p30

  3. P.R.Sarkar, The Liberation of Intellect: Neo-Humanism. Ananda Marga Publications, 1982.

  4. B.Okri, Birds of Heaven London; Phoenix Publications, 1996. p1

Marcus Bussey is a teacher who has been working in alternative educational sites for nearly ten years. He has spent five years at Ananda Palli School Stanthorpe, Australia; helped set up the Ananda Marga River School, Maleny, Australia; and is currently employed by Pine Community School, Brisbane, Australia. He is a post-graduate student at the Queensland University of Technology where he is studying individuals' experiences of change in alternative schools.

This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.6 No.3