Humanism (and Other Animals)

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.19.47

One should be humane, after all, when dealing with humanist(ic) approaches to language teaching. Despite some recent maulings of some of the theories associated with such approaches – in particular multiple intelligences and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) – taken broadly, even if we don’t agree with all of them, there’s little to ruffle anyone’s feathers about the core axioms of classroom humanism. These I take to be:

  • that the learner should be at the centre of the learning process, directing his/her learning
  • that one of the teacher’s main roles is to facilitate learner autonomy
  • that communicative competence takes precedence over grammatical accuracy
  • that respect, empathy and authenticity are fundamental to the learning environment
  • that affect is key to successful or unsuccessful language learning

These ideas remain central to ELT today (along with, to a large extent, the pseudoscience that dogs them); they are usually part, to a greater or lesser degree, of institutional introductory training (and to some extent the diplomas), and are further enshrined in a significant amount of published materials (both about and for ELT). And to be fair, or more humane again, some of the less widely-accepted ideas of humanistic teaching – translation, for example – are starting to enjoy more academic support. Yet we rarely say now that we are teaching “humanistically” when we follow some of these axioms, or train others to follow them. These ideas, in certain ELT contexts at least, have become naturalised to the extent that we rarely feel the need to label them – they just feel right. (Conversely, I wonder to what extent we consider ourselves engaging in anti-humanist or dehumanising activities when drowning in the backwash of an exam class? Not much, perhaps, but I do believe that we recognise that things don’t feel quite right, that this isn’t really what teaching or learning should be about.)

But just to put these ideas back into a humanistic context, a bit of linguistic analysis. I created a corpus of the major and short articles from the ever-intriguing Humanising Language Teaching, the webzine whose title my title appropriates, along with Earl Stevick’s Humanism in Language Teaching (1990), Julian Pigott’s “A Humanistic Approach to Language Education in Japan” (on which more later) and some online articles about humanism and ELT. Then, with the fantastic AntConc, I was able to have a root around. (Warning: I am NOT a professional corpus linguist – nor am I trying to offer conclusive evidence for my claims.)

Here’s the wordlist by frequency (most function words excluded):

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.32.46

There is evidently and predictably far more focus on students (and learners) and their learning than on teacher(s) and their teaching in this rough and ready analysis; however, I would also venture that the high frequency of the verbs to use (use language to do/achieve things), to work (not only on your English, as a student, but as a teacher on an approach which “works”), to need (and have these needs met in the classroom environment), to lCaptura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.32.20ike (the centrality of affect), along with the nouns group and people, say something about the concerns of humanistic approaches.

The keyword analysis to the left, which compares my corpus with the Brown academic wordlist, perhaps shows more clearly the higher-than-typical frequency of most of the above-mentioned words in our corpus. Also noteworthy here are ask (students/questions about), give (information/examples), activity (simple, individual, group and even therapeutic) and approach – and of course the word “humanistic” itself (which collocates most frequently, as you’ll imagine, with “approach”). But when one pokes around a little more in the context, things get a little more interesting – not least in the context of “humanistic” itself:

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.06.04

From this roughshod selection a certain unstable distinction between humanist and humanistic – or should I say humanist(ic) – peeps out from its parenthetical burrow. Humanist relates to psychology, to a tradition of thinking we associate with Rogers, Maslow and Moskowitz, and humanistic to teaching approaches –  which accounts for the high recurrence of humanistic compared to all other forms of the word human in the corpus:

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 19.49.53

Why is humanist adequate for psychology and not for teaching? Evidently, humanist psychology’s pursuit of wholeness and self-actualisation is at the heart of humanistic language teaching, or, in the words of the webzine, at the heart of attempts to humanise language teaching:

When this magazine was established in 1999, its first editor, Mario Rinvolucri, and many of the early contributing authors, made very clear their personal identification with this Rogerian humanist tradition. In the first year, major articles were entitled ‘Are we ready for holism?’ and ‘Whole or hole’, and the first major article of all, ‘What is Teacher development?’, by Paul Davis, established a clear link with the Teacher Development Special Interest Group (SIG) of IATEFL and its newsletter, which, for years, had been showing a marked interest in counselling, co-counselling, the role of affect in learning and teaching and other areas associated with Humanist Psychology. (Kerr 2007)

However, as Kerr points out (and this is one of the beauties of HLT – that it has always been open to self-critique),

The honeymoon of humanist(ic) approaches was short-lived. The problem, essentially, was that humanism in ELT had become associated with a constellation of contentious topics such as psychodrama, Gestalt therapy or NLP. More contentious, still, were the attempts by advocates of aromatherapy or shamanism, for example, to hitch themselves to the humanist(ic) bandwagon.

Calling the webzine Humanising Language Teaching, rather than Humanistic Language Teaching, therefore attempts to suspend any pedagogically suspicious identification with the more esoteric aspects that dog it. But the chickenwiring was only partly effective, and with the high frequency of humanistic in the corpus, I can’t help but think that humanistic is the key term, and a term that permits a double reading – at once a claim to resemble humanist yet keep a distance, by means of a suffix which, “if said in the right way”, as Kerr points out, “can add a certain derogatory spice”. In other words, humanistic approaches became, in ELT academia anyway, an object of suspicion. So if humanistic invokes the simulacrum, in the learning environment, of humanist principles, it operates in the same way that realistic offers a simulacrum or the real – almost real, yet never quite enough to outfox us – or at least outfox those wily, cynical academics.

Yet speaking of the real, humanism of course speaks of the human, and we have already encountered the verb to humanise, to make more human, as if there is something unhuman, inhuman or inhumane about anything that human beings might do. Human beings suffer the contradiction of struggling to be human, to recognise the humanity of others and to treat those other humans with respect. If we are more human and more humane – “towards our fellow humans and animals” (Pigott n.d.) – we might achieve some of that self-actualisation or wholeness we mentioned above.

But as humans who may not always be human we might look in the eyes of the concept “human” itself and wonder at this difference. As we are wondering, thoughts of our fellow animals may wander in. A cat once walked in on Jacques Derrida while he was naked – “a real cat”, Derrida claimed, not a fictional or representative one – and looked at him. Derrida felt an immediate sense of shame, until he realised that the cat was naked too. It led him to ponder that perhaps one of the few credible distinctions between humans and animals is that “the property unique to animals and that which in the final analysis distinguishes them from man is their being naked without knowing it […] No animal has ever thought to dress itself” (Derrida 2002).

To put it another way, man is the animal that dresses itself, that knows it’s naked when it’s naked and feels shame under the gaze of another animal. Which animal? Human animals and others, even cats. More others? There are always other “animals”, the term catches all:

Confined within this catch-all concept, within this vast encampment of the animal […] as in a virgin forest, a zoo, a hunting or fishing ground, a paddock or an abattoir, a space of domestication, are all the living things that man does not recognise as his fellows, his neighbours or his brothers. And that is so despite the infinite space that separates the lizard from the dog, the protozoon from the dolphin, the shark from the lamb, the parrot from the chimpanzee, the camel from the eagle, the squirrel from the tiger or the elephant from the cat, the ant from the silkworm or the hedgehog from the echidna. I interrupt my nomenclature to call Noah to help insure that no one gets left on the ark.

If being human or more human calls on us to respect our fellow humans and animals the recognition of such fellowship permits at once the definition and dismantling of the term human, founded as it is on such a shaky yet irreducible distinction from “animals”. This explains in some part the title of this blog. To animalise ELT is to renounce to a certain extent, or at least question some of the founding myths of what I’ve called classroom humanism – in particular to see the concept of the autonomous, whole, self-actualised human at the heart of language learning in its alterity – to look with other eyes at those student and teacher humans, the learning and teaching animals.

After all, of course, we wouldn’t want to dehumanise language teaching – humans have enough of a struggle to be human – this would be wanton cruelty. Yet within the history of humanistic ELT we find outmoded yet fascinating and still influential methodologies like Gattegno’s Silent Way – in which the teacher is reduced to grunts – and Lozanov’s Suggestopedia, in which more recognisably humanist concepts nestle alongside a certain robotic caricature of the teacher, with “absolute confidence in the method”, displaying “fastidious conduct in manners and dress” and somehow maintaining both “solemn composure” and “modest enthusiasm” (Lozanov 1978). In other words, to enable students to be more human, teachers may have to sacrifice some of their humanity.

There was something else not quite human stalking through my corpus.

Captura de pantalla 2014-09-07 a la(s) 20.11.09

There may be others, I am also waiting on a call from Noah. But I think humanistic teaching in the Rinvolucri mould is already to an extent animalised, albeit at the margins – it tends to recognise its own territorial limits, it’s aware somehow of the problem of culture which later came to overtake it in terms of academic ELT interests (see for example Rinvolucri 2001). But this doesn’t account for the appearance of our menagerie in the corpus. What does is an acknowledgement of the theatrical animal that classroom humanism can be – that is, we have not only the animals that we, as humans, observe, describe, draw, narrate, confirming thereby their otherness, their lack of naked shame before us, and in so doing our humanity – but the ones we – or more precisely our students – are sometimes asked to imagine ourselves to be. After all, what could be more typical of humanistic discussion questions than this: If you were an animal, what animal would you be? 

If I were an animal, that which I already am, I would try to be (a) human.

In the next post I will try to look further at the ideas of autonomy and wholeness in relation to teaching and learning subjects. I feel that bringing in the concepts of ideology and misrecognition may allow a more radical animalisation or transformation of humanistic ELT, as well as help me offer an explanation as to why those humanistic ideas now decried as pseudoscience continue to enjoy a hold over teachers, a hold that scientific language itself cannot account for.


Derrida, Jacques. 2002. “The animal that therefore I am (more to follow)”. Critical Inquiry 28:2

Kerr, Philip. 2007. “‘Humanising’ – what’s in a word?”. HLT 9:3

Lozanov, Georgi. 1978. Suggestology and outlines of suggestopedy. London: Gordon and Breach.

Pigott, n.d. “A humanistic approach to foreign language education in Japan”.

Rinvolucri, Mario. 2001. “The limits of humanistic practice”. HLT 3:4