Values in Holistic Education

For the Third Annual Conference on Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child at the Roehampton Institute, London; exploring the question, “Whose values are shaping education?”

Values in Holistic Education

The holistic education movement does not have a single source, a predominant

proponent, or a major form of expression. Consequently, it is difficult to define

holistic education. However, there are a number of values and perceptions that most

schools claiming to be holistic would embrace, and today I would like to mention

some of these values and look especially at what gave rise to their popularity. I feel

that what gave rise to their popularity is particularly important because it is a

combination of new perceptions and values which seems to be something like an

international grass roots movement – a movement which rejects many of the

authorities as well as the values and perceptions of the immediate past. “Whose

Values?” for holistic education, is a particularly relevant question.

Today I will put forward the view of many holistic educators: that holistic education

reflects and responds more fully than conventional education to a new and

increasingly accepted view of what it means to be human as well as to much popular

social criticism. For schools to ignore what seems to be a change in humanity’s view

of itself is to risk having schools that try to prepare students for something they don’t

believe in; it is to risk having an educational system that is felt to be meaningless by

the very population it wants to serve. For schools to have values and views of human

nature different to those of its population is like asking a committed pacifist to attend

a military academy. We see just this kind of dissonance frequently expressed in many

of our schools whose populations come largely from some minority groups. These

groups feel the conventional education their children are offered does not reflect their

values and it ignores their views of who they feel they are. The large number of

students presently disaffected with school must challenge us as educators to reflect

whether these students feel a similar dissonance with the values and perspectives our

schools promote.

While some advocates claim that views central to holistic education are not new but

are, in fact, timeless and found in the sense of wholeness in humanity’s religious

impetus; others claim inspiration from Rousseau, Emerson, Pestalozzi, Froebel, and

more recently Krishnamurti, Steiner, Montessori, Jung, Maslow, Rogers, Paul

Goodman, John Holt, Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire. Still others feel that the views central

to holistic education are the result of a cultural paradigm shift that began in the

1960’s. What is clear is that the values and the vision of humanity in the holistic

education movement and which it promotes are increasingly popular. There are now

at least seven thousand five hundred holistic schools1 with more seeming to start

every week. Unfortunately, the insights of this vision are often clouded by misty-eyed

1 A survey of alternative schools found almost 7500 schools but this writer knows of schools that are

not in that list and there are without doubt many others. Jerry Mintz (ed.), The Handbook of Alternative

Education (New York: Macmillan, 1994).

Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


New Ageism, and a great deal that is valuable is dismissed because of this


I will concentrate today on developments in the 1960’s and 1970’s that forced some

of the ideas of holistic education onto centre stage because it was these developments

that made the ideas so popular. The ecological crisis, the prospect of nuclear

annihilation, chemical and radiation pollution, the breakdown of the family, the

disappearance of traditional communities, and the disregard for traditional values and

their institutions (e.g., the church), caused many people to question the direction of

the modern western world and many of its central values. The consumer society was

criticised in a way that seemed to be absent in the first sixty years of this century.2

Even if some societies seemed able to continue their consumption from a local

perspective, the earth’s resources were beginning to be seen as finite; and a small

proportion of the world’s population consuming a disproportionate percentage of the

earth’s resources was seen as unsustainable and destructive – ultimately it becoming a

moral issue.

Mechanistic utilitarian rationality (as scientific thinking was called by its critics) was

acknowledged for its contribution to the creation of clever gadgets but blamed for

uncontrolled economic and technical growth that seemed to swamp other human

capacities. Because scientific thinking on its own lacked the non-rational (as opposed

to irrational) or ‘supra-rational’ capacities of mind such as wisdom, intuition,

appreciation for beauty and insight, it was seen as most commonly used to create

brilliant weaponry or unnecessary consumer goods. The ‘supra-rational’ capacities

were seen as increasingly important in view of what unrestrained mechanical thought

was producing. Small is Beautiful by Schumacher3 and the works of Wendell Berry

seemed to fly in the face of convention, yet made perfect sense to hundreds of


The professional view of human nature was also changing drastically at this time. The

Skinnerian view of a person as an electro-chemical stimulus-response machine (so

helpful to the needs of governments during the war and so popular with those who

saw conditioning of others as a solution to their own aspirations) was being rejected

as only a very partial view of the mind. Behaviourism seemed more of a tool for

exploiting people than for understanding them in any depth. In the wake of the many

explorations into consciousness of the 1960’s, Freud’s very compartmentalised views

of the mind lost popularity while Jung’s more open ended and mysterious

understandings gained support. Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and R.D. Laing

became almost cult figures, and several new forms of psychology emerged that took

the science of mind further and further away from the strictures of conventional

measurable science. Gestalt therapy with its slogan “the whole is greater than the sum

of its parts” corresponded to the everyday common sense experience that many

people had of themselves. There seemed to be too much of us that is immeasurable

2One commentator on the development of American culture said that “Americans changed from

wanting to do good, to wanting to do well,” but this criticism could equally be levelled at many

modern cultures. The great depression and the two world wars are seen as traumas that produced an

extreme materialism in the survivors.

3E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Blond &

Briggs, 1973).

Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


and non-mechanical, if not ineffable. The view of mind as machine, while

increasingly popular as a model of some thinking, especially that involving

computers,4 was seen as only a part of the mind’s functioning – usually the lesser part.

Traditional nationalism and localism were also being challenged, and were seen as

inadequate to meet the world’s realities. The ecological crisis is not a respecter of

political boundaries. The greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, air and

water pollution, radiation leaks, and the elimination of species and rain forests are

perhaps national or local in origin but they are global in impact. People began to see

that by serving national or local interests these problems could not even be

understood, much less solved. The earth had to be seen as a whole, and Lynn

Margulis’ and James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” found wide and popular support.5

Environmental interest went from being a gentleman/sportsman’s concern for

conservation (usually to maintain hunting) to a critique of modern western thinking.

The epistemology which claims to understand things by breaking them into their

constituent parts was seen as not only unable to meet the problem, it was part of the

problem. Creating locally wanted conditions and looking only locally seemed often to

produce problems elsewhere that eventually became unwanted local conditions.

“Wholism,” “whole earth ideas,” “wholefoods,” and “the whole child” described

things that might not have always been fully examined but which seemed to many

people to make sense. People began to feel they needed to look at the global to see the

local. Years after the Gaia Hypothesis, educators and ecologists like David Orr and

Gregory Cajete suggested that seeing the interconnectedness of all things with nature

as the foundation was the basis of a new mind that the world needed for its survival,

and that the creation of this mind is the first responsibility of education.6

Many people began saying that looking at “wholes” was necessary to understand

other things as well; the economy (which had become global), human interchange

(where satellites and computers had made the global village a reality), and cultures

(which were increasingly international). It is not without reason that some

nationalities like the French speak of cultural imperialism and find difficulty in

countering a movement that is literally coming at them from all directions (even if the

origin seems to be Hollywood). The youth culture is global. The computer culture is

global. Many modern cultural icons (such as media stars and products) are global.

One doesn’t need to see the six foot tall blonde fashion models in Japan, or jeans-clad

Marlboro-smoking teenagers in Mongolia, or Coca Cola drinking farmer’s wives in

Uzbekistan to know this is true; the evidence is constantly before us. Many postmodern

philosophers had been telling us we are socially constructed, but the society

that was seen as constructing us had become an international one, and many of the

values that were imbedded in this construction seemed alien to the places in which

they were being lived. Many cultural institutions (like schools) assumed a local

culture, but the culture of the young was not local, and the conflict between the young

and the institutions that claimed to exist for them was painful for everyone.

4A fascinating study of the way in which computer use has altered the way people see themselves can

be found in the book by Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York:

Simon & Schuster, 1984).

5James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

6David Orr, Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Post-modern World (Albany: State

University of New York Press, 1992). Gregory Cajete, Look to the Mountain: an ecology of indigenous

education (Durango, Colorado: Kivaki Press, 1994)

Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


Looking at wholes (or what some scientists came to call the “systems approach”)

began to be seen as necessary for understanding even traditional disciplines.

Respected scientists such as David Bohm, David Peat, Karl Pribram, and Ilya

Prigogine were even insisting that seeing things as systems (or wholes within wholes)

was a better way to understand their traditionally reductionist disciplines as well as

most other things. They said that for the sake of convenience we can look at parts, but

separated parts do not actually exist – there are no discrete bits of reality. Contrary to

the way we had been thinking, we can’t understand the ‘more’ from the ‘less’ – the

‘more’ does not derive from the ‘less’. To understand anything necessarily involves

understanding its relationships to larger wholes – the larger the whole and the more

extensive the relationships that are understood, the truer the understanding. The

extension of this thinking (and it extends by its very nature) to questions about

general human existence resulted in these scholars becoming popular with readers

who knew nothing of their professional disciplines. Many scientists in seeing the

particulars as inseparable from the larger context also felt they could not decontextualize

themselves; they as observers could not be separated from what they

observed. In this many scientists found an interest in Krishnamurti who had for years

been exploring the relationship between the observer and the observed.

Books and conferences linking science with religion appeared and became popular

with people who before had not been interested in either of these subjects. People

were excited by the possibility that two disciplines which had held truths that seemed

mutually exclusive might be converging. Whether people were correct in thinking this

is another question; but people felt new understandings were being reached that went

beyond the partial truths to which each discipline had previously been confined. The

old dichotomies of head and heart, science and religion, beauty and function seemed

to be about fragmentation and we needed to see things in larger wholes. ‘Truth’

needed to be unshackled from the claims of the traditional authorities. If education

was to reflect this, then the traditional division between disciplines had to go, and the

world needed to be understood from the largest possible wholes and not through the


The extended seeing of wholes within wholes brought many to a religiosity that

seemed inherent in the approach, and something that many holistic educators feel is

fundamental to what they do. The largest whole; that which has relationships to

everything; the ultimate ‘more’ from which all the ‘less’ derives was described as the

absolute, the sacred or some form of ultimate order. There is remarkably little conflict

amongst holistic educators on the details of this, itself an extraordinary break with

tradition and something worth noting in view of the problems we have in our pluralist

schools. The physicist David Bohm postulates an implicate order into which

everything is enfolded and from which everything unfolds to be re-enfolded.7 Many

Depth Psychologists postulate a higher self which extends beyond the individual.

While a few holistic educators refer to the soul or atman of traditional religions, most

speak in terms of some universal order, or of common threads running through all

religions, or archetypal mythologies, or what Aldous Huxley called “the perennial

philosophy”.8 These timeless and perennially re-seen insights are said to have been

7David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

8Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London: Chatto and Windus, 1946).

Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


expressed differently in different times and places and so to have given rise to the

different religions. These perennial truths are felt by some to be seen in their most

unadulterated form in the religions of premodern cultures.9 Hence the popularity of

rediscovering indigenous religious traditions as though this was the finding of ancient

lost religious truths. These rediscovered truths echoed the truths found in other areas:

the oneness of all life (which seemed in accord with the Gaia Hypothesis); the

importance of a person understanding his place in the community and the

community’s place in the environment and in ever expanding circles to the

environment’s place in the full order of things (which seemed to be in accord with

systems thinking); and the emphasis on self knowledge (which seemed to be in accord

with all therapeutic psychology).

For many holistic educators, these perennial truths expressed in their general form

rather than a particular cultural form was the key to the spirituality that they felt must

be part of every education. There is little argument in holistic education that there can

not be an education of the whole child if there is no education in what is transcendent.

And there is also little argument that cultural expressions of transcendence have been

a source of millions of deaths in thousands of conflicts in history. The three hundred

years of violence in Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants is just one example.

For today’s pluralist world, arguments about whose expression of ‘truth’ is more

correct are conflictual and might be in contradiction to the very ‘truths’ espoused.

Many holistic educators feel that all expressions of ‘truth’ can only be partial and

remaining with the most general expressions of ‘truth’ not only remains closer to the

original insight but helps people see for themselves beyond what is culturally bound

to what might be timeless.

A sense of transcendence that remains generalised, inclusive, and therefore equally

nurturing to all resonated with another pressing concern of the 1960’s and 1970’s –

social justice. Religions (as particular expressions of transcendence) had frequently

been dominated by particular races, classes, castes, and/or gender as were most other

aspects of most cultures. Particular religions (unless they made deliberate efforts to

promote social justice) were, therefore, seen as preserving the socially unjust social


Some feminist historians and feminist anthropologists wrote convincingly that

inclusiveness and equal nurturing had been characteristic of many cultures and

religions in history and remained characteristic in some current pre-modern

9The widespread assumption that some timeless wisdom can more easily be found in less sophisticated

cultures has led many modern young people to seek meaning in their own lives in the native cultures of

North America, Africa, or Australia; a proposition that on the face of things seems ridiculous – how

can a boy from Huddersfield find meaning in his life from the Arapaho? But this view that humanity

has a common grounding in some universal truths is common and many books and movies with this

theme are popular. For Example, Black Elk Speaks (Kansas: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).

Contrast this with assumptions in “the white man’s burden” of not so very long ago. Even insights into

how to raise our young are being sought from native cultures because of their supposedly superior

wisdom. See Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept (London: Duckworth, 1975) and (London:

Penguin Books, 1986) and Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree (New York: Delacorte Press,


Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


indigenous cultures10, and many feminists spoke of the gender dominance in our

modern cultures as destructive to all of us.

The focus on gender issues was only one of the ways in which relationship structures

in modern society were being questioned in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Increased divorce,

one parent families, and experiments in communal living all had people looking at

what relationship meant. This questioning of relationship based on structures of

meaning rather than structures of tradition was one reason why holistic education

gave a central value to relationship skills. Frequently people are first interested in

holistic education through the perceptions that we need to learn to live together much

better and that our social ills cannot be solved without new community building skills.

In holistic education the classroom is often seen as a community, which is within the

larger community of the school, which is within the larger community of the village,

town, or city, and which is, by extension, within the larger community of humanity.

How life is lived at the smallest level should reflect what is considered to be “right

living” in the largest context.11 For this reason many holistic educators feel that the

claims made by conventional schools to foster freedom and democracy are spurious,

as most conventional schools are based on authoritarian classrooms. They feel that

learning to assume responsibility, to question for oneself what is right, and to stand by

one’s convictions can not be accomplished by a childhood of unquestioningly

obeying rules, conforming to codes of behaviour that seem meaningless, and

believing that the authorities have the answers. Holistic educators feel that schools

must be places where the relationships we want as adults exist for the students as

much as possible – where open, honest and respectful communication is the norm;

where differences between people are appreciated; where interaction is based on

mutual support and not on competition and hierarchy; where the common weal is the

responsibility of each individual; and where the decision making process (if not

engaged in by everyone at some level) is at least accepted by everyone. This emphasis

on co-operation rather than competition often results in holistic schools giving no

grades or rewards. In this view of human nature, people are seen as being more

fulfilled from nurturing and helping one another than from being placed above or

below one another, and competition is seen not as producing excellence but anxiety,

aggression, self-centredness, low self esteem or inflated self images. Relationships

between students, between teachers, and between students and teachers are seen as

both a primary source of education and a topic of education. As a source,

relationships are an excellent mirror in which to see ourselves – we can learn a great

deal about ourselves by seeing how others respond to us.12 As a topic, learning about

healthy mutually sustaining relationships – how to create them and sustain them – is

seen as necessary to solve many of our social and personal ills. Community building

began to be seen in the 1960’s as one of the principal ways of dealing with urban

decay, and it remains one of the most successful approaches to problems in America’s

inner cities.

10Raine Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987).

11Krishnamurti, Education and the Significance of Life (London: Victor Gollancz, 1955).

12Most of the problems of learning about oneself in relationship in a school community are explored

extensively by Krishnamurti in a book of discussions he had with the students of the school he founded

at Brockwood Park in England. See Krishnamurti, Beginnings of Learning (London: Victor Gollancz,

1975) or (London: Penguin Books, 1978).

Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


The commitment to school as community, and community as arena for participation,

assuming responsibility, and self-determination, does not usually accept that schools

should be directed by governments. Most holistic schools are not. National

governments, even where democratically elected, can be unresponsive to the evolving

needs of individual schools each with its unique and changing population. In the

1960’s and 1970’s governments were being questioned, and government directed

educational programs began to be seen as more responsive to political expedience

than to the needs of the individual child; and it is individual children and not

undifferentiated masses (e.g., “the student body”) that educators and parents feel are

being educated.

Most political, economic, or social movements that claimed to be wholistic were

decentralised, democratic, grassroots, and co-operative, and whatever the

shortcomings13, this was seen as a more natural human society and a more accurate

reflection of human nature. These movements not only reflected values that seemed to

go back to our most distant past, these movements claimed to be forums for the

development and refining of wholistic values. People felt they would become more

decent human beings by working in a non-hierarchical way with each other and

caring for each other. The hidden power structures in schooling and the implications

of that structure are powerfully described by Paulo Freire. In his “liberation

education” he described that changing the traditional structure of authority and

submission in schools, and eliminating the training in uncritical acceptance normally

found in schools is essential to addressing the social injustices that plague the

undeveloped nations and the underclasses in the developed countries.14

The respect for the individual inherent in such decentralised democracy, where people

are not seen as part of a social or economic system, was linked to the religiosity

mentioned before. In most holistic schools every child was seen as an expression of,

an arena for, or an entity containing the transcendent, and must be recognised and

treated as such.15 Many holistic educators expressed that the sacredness inherent in

each child was not just something for the educator to be aware of, it was something

that each child should discover. This led many to feel that education was only partly a

process of instilling or pouring in – it needed to be mostly a process of unfolding, a

leading out or bringing out. If education is a process of discovery and uncovering, and

every child is unique; how could the traditional educational judging of children be

anything other than inherently wrong? How could a child be a slow learner if he was

learning at a pace that was right for her/him? How could a child be disruptive if (s)he

13Many failures at instituting social change by the holistic education groups and the green parties in

different countries are seen as resulting from not having centralised structures. Many green parties,

alternative schools and co-operatives have disintegrated for lack of understanding the fine line between

participation by everyone in decision making and anarchy. Nevertheless, despite the failures and

drawbacks, this view of how people should live in groups seems not just to continue, but to grow.

14Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Continuum, 1973).

15“The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know,

what he shall do. It is chosen and fore ordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret…” Ralph

Waldo Emerson, from an essay ‘Education’ 1864, published in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo

Emerson (New York: New American Library, 1965).

“The child is the spiritual builder of humankind, and obstacles to his free development are the stones in

the wall by which the soul of humanity has become imprisoned”. Maria Montessori, The Absorbent

Mind (Madras: Kalakshetra Publications, 1973).

Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


was doing what (s)he was interested in rather than what others wanted her/him to do,

or were those others not in fact disrupting the child? If a child doesn’t learn through

words and numbers, is that child unintelligent or can that child be learning through

other intelligences? In this, the work of Howard Gardner gave form and legitimacy to

what many educators felt – that some children who are poor at words and numbers are

nevertheless geniuses and terribly short changed, if not brutalised, by traditional

education.16 Gardner demonstrated that learning takes place in many capacities of the

child, not just the verbal-numerical capacities; and that this learning process is

different for everyone – echoing two themes in holistic education and the holistic view

of human nature. Many people felt it was not just a matter of valuing everyone, it was

also important to value the different capacities that we all have; to do otherwise is to

denigrate some individuals and to denigrate some aspects of each one of us.

Holistic teachers took pride in developing new methods that reflected their new views

of what a child is. Research with individual learning styles, co-operative learning,

critical thinking, cross disciplinary curricula and multiple intelligence theory have

inspired many new initiatives in holistic classrooms. The teacher became less of an

authority who directed and controlled and was more of a friend, a mentor, a

facilitator, or an experienced travelling companion. Psychology talked of the dyadic

response of infant learning and the importance of empathy in learning relationships,

and the relevance of these seemed to extend into adulthood. Goethe’s quote, “You

only learn from someone you love,” became almost a slogan.

Classes in holistic schools are often small, mixed-ability, mixed-age, and extremely

flexible. If it becomes appropriate for a child to move to a different class, (s)he moves

– regardless of the time of year or the subjects (s)he has been studying. Rigid

categorisation by age and progression in large groups up some educational ladder was

seen as a reflection of the manufacturing thinking of the industrial revolution when

public schooling began, and not as a reflection of new thinking about human nature.

The 1970’s saw some very surprising institutions proclaim respect for the uniqueness

of each individual, encouraging non-conformist thinking, and decrying hierarchy.

These institutions were large businesses. Several multinational corporations came to

understand that traditional authoritarian structures were inhibiting the productivity of

their members. They created “flat management structures” (as opposed to the pyramid

management structures of the past) in order to foster healthier, happier, more

responsive and successful organisations. They spoke of decentralising, encouraging

the uniqueness and growth of all their members, and needing dialogue amongst all

levels and departments of their enterprises. Peter Senge from MIT became famous for

demonstrating to businesses the need to be “learning organisations” in which personal

growth is defined in terms any holistic educator would applaud. This was seen as

essential, not for philosophical reasons, but for purely pragmatic ones; it produced

16Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (London: William

Heinemann, 1984).

Values in Holistic Education

Scott H. Forbes


better business results.17 The bottom line in business was confirming what holistic

education had advocated but had failed to satisfactorily prove.18

That humanity’s view of itself and the world has changed over the last twenty five

years seems incontestable. Indeed it would seem strange if it hadn’t. What is in

question is whether conventional schools reflect those new views and values, or

whether, like many large institutions, they have a life of their own and lag behind the

population they wish to serve. What does seem clear is that our traditional ways of

understanding and preparing people for life have not solved our personal, social,

national and international problems. If the modern western world is changing as

rapidly as some people say it is, it may be instructive to look at eastern Europe where

the last seven years has seen a more obvious “paradigm shift.” There the

understanding of what it means to be human, the understanding of the relationship

between the individual and society, the understanding of the nature of society and of

their society’s role in the world, have gone through a complete upheaval. The total

inadequacy of most eastern European schools which still reflect old paradigms to

meet people’s new needs and aspirations is painfully obvious to all those involved. As

one traditional Russian school principal told a friend of mine, “I have been in

education all my life, but I don’t know how to educate anyone for today’s world. I

only know how to indoctrinate into the old.” Whether conventional western schools

are similarly inadequate is the question posed by holistic education.

Scott Forbes June 28, 1996

17Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York:

Doubleday, 1990).

18This might be because assessment in the two areas is so different. In business the assessment is

highly abstracted from many of the processes involved; a new product, a new solution to a vexing

problem, or better service come about from highly complex behaviours and interactions with often no

single person or process able to take the credit. Co-operative discovery or learning through dialogue

describes what most participants in these new business arrangements seem to feel occurred, and this

seems to need what some in holistic education started calling ‘authentic assessment’ – looking for the

evidence of learning or intelligence in application; in demonstrations of learning about real things in

the real world. By comparison, educational testing that focuses on right and wrong answers, memory,

solving rehearsed problems, and the assumption that there must be some common criteria by which

everyone – with all of their differences and different ways of understanding – can be measured, is felt to

greatly restrict learning. Many holistic educators feel that assessment is the single largest obstacle to

meaningful change in education.


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