Freedom of Thought in the US: On the Origin of Humanist Education in the United States

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

The American educational system developed from European education, where humanism affected the establishment of schools (Koopman, 1987). Under the affluence, social and political organization, and increased communication of Western Europe, enlightened education revived interest in the Humanist classics of Greco-Roman cultures, where humanism had been taken for granted.

The revival profoundly impacted the full development of the individual — the hallmark of early American education. Liberal Arts were taught alongside science and theology. Most American elite universities were founded as religious institutions (Coudriet, 2016).

There was a recognition that progress and truth were discoverable with a broad periphery. ‘Periphery,’ as in, the ability to focus on individual development outside of the core aspect of the curricula. ‘Progress,’ at this point, meaning the amalgamation of knowledge.

Early colonial education designed to further religious understanding and to prepare society for life in the New World meant free universal education promoted the virtues of humanism under a Christian lens.

The growth of state and tax funding for educational institutions meant the integrity of education catered to the needs of the local populace, not the elites. Dissemination of humanist ideals for the sake of appeasement created an irreversible impact on the curriculum development of higher education systems.

Over time, waves of reform following the Industrial Revolution impacted the academic environment by emphasizing performance over quality. The importance of humanist ideals were put on the backburner of importance in the quest for scientific advancement and technological mastery. These forces brought untold development in wellbeing and quality of life, while, at the same time, reducing the implementation of humanist values.

The return of humanist rationale may be credited with the publication of Darwin’s material on evolution in 1859, starting with On the Origin of Species, which, in some ways, was a response to Natural Theology (1802) published by William Paley.

Progress took on a new meaning of neutrality and movement towards humanist qualities, especially with the overwhelming support of an irreligious explanation for development, adaptation, and speciation. The Creationist explanation for the origin of life was dispelled.

Without the necessity of a divine artificer to explain life, the educational curricula was freed from the bounds of theistic explanation and theological influence. There was surprise and indignation from the Creationists.

Mankind, as they saw — and thought that they knew — it, was reduced from being the pinnacle of creation to the descendants of lowly pre-humans. We were seen as the evolutionary byproduct of natural forces.

Our survival, and evolutionary success, was from ‘inferior’ species, in contradistinction to the metanarrative from the Holy Bible about the Creation of Man by God — and Fall of Man due to Adam’s and Eve’s sins.

The contribution of evolution by Darwin is both scientific and pedagogical. He contributed scientifically to the fields of biology and medicine, which experts deem as foundational to the curricula.As a result, a serious problem of the source of truth was placed on the establishment of education at the time. Although Darwin’s contribution created initial upheaval, humanist rationale was cemented into the American public education system through John Dewey in the 1920’s (Law of Liberty, n.d.a).

Dewey’s efforts revolutionized America with a return to progressive education. As the founder of the American Humanist Association, Dewey is known as the “father of progressive education and Humanism in America.”

Fast forward to the current educational climate. Although there exists no formal discrimination in education, per se, the undertones in the culture provide the clearest example of the prejudice against humanist values, or humanists as people.

Also, there is modern hysteria from the religious community against humanism, as in humanism equals atheism, and by extension atheism equals communism (Law of Liberty, n.d.b). This is in the same theme of non-believers being shunned by their community with general intolerance of the irreligious, even family and friends. As noted by IHEU beloved Bob Churchill:

I think in more liberal, secular countries it may be easy to forget or not to think about this social discrimination for the mainstream broadly secular population — though not if you’re raised in a ‘conservative’ religious community of course! But across huge parts of the world, criticism of religious beliefs, practices or institutions may be viewed as deeply suspicious, or even as malevolent. To actually assert boldly “I do not believe in this God or his prophet” could mean being thrown out of your own family, losing friends, losing your support network. To supposedly ‘insult’ religion can get you lynched.

(Jacobsen, 2017)

It is also worth noting the struggle between progress and tradition, as seen in the style of educational administrations. Autocratic oriented administrations resist new ideas and sacrifice potential humanist growth for the sake of a smoothly run system (Koopman, 1987, p. 234)

Democratic administrations are more open to recognize and praise outside ideas, and are concerned with growth of individuals, specifically freedom from annoyances of the exposure to preeminent belief systems (Pew Research Center, n.d.).

Secular education reform would resist partisanship, instead pushing dominant belief systems into a foreground of neutrality for student success. That is, it is distinct, but related to, a humanist style of education (Anderson, n.d.).

However, secular education reform would provide the nonpartisan foundation for the education by fighting repressive forces that seek to reduce humanism, or other minority ways of life.

A humanist education would affirm values adjunct to the secular education. Support of objectives such as family-life education, continuing or adult education, and sexual education are critical to promotion of humanism (Koopman, 1987, p. 234).

A secular education is the most reasonable and just response. Keeping the status quo for the sake of efficiency within the system is at the expense of humanist progress. If there is to be just education for every student within the system, disruption of these practices are necessary.

Urging qualitative as opposed to quantitative reforms may, over time, produce a higher priority of humanistic ideals.


Anderson, M. (n.d.). Principles of Humanist Education. Retrieved from

Coudriet, C. (2016, July 19). Top 25 Christian Colleges: The Essential Questions On Religion And Education. Retrieved from

Jacobsen, S.D. (2017, July 8). Conversation on Discrimination Against Non-Believers with Bob Churchill — Session 1. Retrieved from

Koopman, R.G. (1987, Spring). The Thread of Humanism in the History of American Education. Retrieved from

Law of Liberty. (n.d.a). The Threats of Humanism #1. Retrieved

Law of Liberty. (n.d.b). The Threat of Humanism #2. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center. (n.d.). Religious Landscape Survey. Retrieved from

Original Publication in Humanist Voices.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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