Humanism is an enormous term encompassing various movements in the arts, philosophical stances, and broad applications to disciplines like psychology and education. You can boil down the term to a philosophy that asserts the worth of the individual, the human, essentially. Each human is gifted with the ability to think (rationality) and to make rational determinations, like differentiating bad from good, so that each person may become a more moral self. “Moral” in this sense is not used to preference one set of religious beliefs but refers to a more universal concept of morality that allows for the belief that all people have an intrinsic worth.
You see the ideas of humanism as expressed by the Greek philosophers. In particular Plato’s Socrates advocates the unfolding of the human to a better self, and does so through the Socratic method, questioning people intensively to help them understand how they think and to promote greater capacity for wisdom and rationality. These philosophies were picked up by Aristotle, and in conjunction, the rediscovery of these Greek works in the 14th century CE define the humanist movement we often refer to as the Renaissance.
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It’s important to note that even under this concept of self-worth, not every human got a fair deal. Though the middle ages was ending, and more people were learning to read, learning to rationalize and get their own ideas about the self, religion, and the like, there were many who were ignored and many who were illiterate: serfs and many of the tradesmen. Similarly in Greek teachings, Plato and Aristotle often miss the abuses of the common man, the slaves or servants, and speak to a particular class of people — for the most part, those who had access to education.
Although the Humanist movement of the Renaissance could not cure all ills of society, it certainly began to provoke debate about how society dealt with its people. Large organizations that had controlled the flow of education, particularly the Church, began to be increasingly criticized. From the humanist movement, we get the rise of interest in an individual interpretation of God and a rejection of corruptions in the church that did not serve the individual.
What tends to be rejected most is belief without a reason. Instead of turning to mysticism and faith, people turned to their own ability to reason. This could lead to the individual who concludes a God exists, or who rejects God altogether. Christian humanists paid particular attention to Christ, as expressing many of the thoughts in common with the humanist. In particular, Christ asserts the importance of the individual in many key places in the New Testament books.
Humanism in education can refer to specific “humanist” teachings designed to train the rational mind, or it can be a philosophy, as is more current, asserting the right for all to learn, and to a degree direct their own learning, such as in Montessori schools. Traditional humanist education trained the mind by studying a variety of disciplines: languages, literature and art, mathematics, history and geography.
In psychology some principles of humanism were adopted in the 1950s, which are now still reflected in many modern “counseling settings.” The goal of therapy was to create a strong self, sometimes called “self-actualized.” Humanism rejected the ideas of behaviorism in preference to talk therapy. Today many therapists use a combination of humanist approach, and also some behavioral therapy called cognitive behavioral, which integrates the reasoning process with evaluation of behavior.
In all, many people may find the term humanism large and unwieldy because of its numerous definitions and huge numbers of practical applications. It continues to affect our thinking process and world view today in a lot of unseen currents. It is interesting to go back to the Greek classic philosophers to see how humanism has affected history, been variously applied through a number of disciplines, and how it has seeped into many of society’s modern systems.