Though the principles, perspectives, and frameworks of holistic education can be traced far back in recorded history to early philosophical and religious teachings, the contemporary use of the term is rather new. Definitions, methods, philosophies, and descriptions of holistic education have varied somewhat among educators and scholars as it has been viewed from different perspectives, but it is basically concerned with educating the whole person—body, mind, and soul—to develop his or her fullest potential. This entry looks at the field’s historical background and the principles behind its practice.
The terms holism and holistic were coined by Jan Smuts from the Greek words holus, which means “whole,” and holon, which means “entity.” Smuts saw holism as a process of creative evolution in which the tendency of nature is to form wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. He developed a philosophy of holism early in the twentieth century that viewed reality as organic and evolutionary, including both its material and spiritual aspects. These ideas, which were published in his most important book, Holism and Evolution, in 1926, have recently become more accepted, though holistic educators do not generally regard Smuts as an important influence.
The historical philosophical and psychological figures who are considered to have more directly influenced the field of holistic education often include Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner, Carl Jung, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Alfred North Whitehead, and Abraham Maslow. A more recent list of influences on holistic education might include the following individuals: Carl Rogers, Marilyn Ferguson, Fritjof Capra, Joseph Chilton Pearce, David Bohm, Douglas Sloan, Ken Wilber, P. Parker Palmer, and Theodore Roszak. Although none of these individuals identified themselves as holistic educators or would be identified as leaders of holistic education, their ideas and writings have been an influence on the field. John Miller and Ron Miller are current writers who identify with holistic education and are considered leading figures in the field.
From the list of influences above it can be seen that holistic education has some relation to and can to some extent be identified with, but not limited to, traditions of romanticism, transcendentalism, humanism, systems theory, and integralism.
Holistic education has developed largely as a reaction to what its proponents view as the mechanistic, reductionistic, and materialistic conceptions that have come to dominate popular thinking and education in the last century. As they see it, the result of these paradigms has been a fragmented and limited approach to human development and education that has led to a focus on developing physical, behavioral, and intellectual capacities for economic and material benefits while ignoring or discounting social, emotional, psychological, moral, creative, aesthetic, and spiritual natures and capacities. Holistic education has emerged out of a need to address this imbalance and the growing disillusionment in some circles with what are viewed as dysfunctional approaches to further individual and collective human interests and potentialities. As holistic education challenges the dominant worldview and practice in education, it has been marginalized, and its influence in educational, scientific, and political areas limited.
Holistic educators believe that the body, mind, and soul are integral aspects of human nature that should be considered in treating the whole person, and that holistic education is a more defensible, practical, and effective approach to developing well-balanced and healthy people who can be valued contributors to society according to their potentialities and the opportunities available to them. Until all aspects of the human being and the environment are properly treated in education, these educators believe individuals and humanity will suffer from a lack of balance and the denial of part of their reality.
Holistic education views all aspects of life as interconnected, interrelated, and interdependent. As such, it is ecological and global, encouraging an understanding and appreciation of multiple contexts and connections. Proponents hold that when people disconnect or dissociate from reality, and especially from parts of themselves, they are limiting development. Besides considering the whole person—physically, mentally, and spiritually—holistic educators see a need to recognize that people affect their environment and their environment affects them.
Holistic educators are especially concerned with the failure of modern education to consider the emotional, social, and spiritual natures of students. It seeks to develop the full potential of the person in a humanistic fashion that recognizes and honors each individual’s unique talents and capacities. Holistic education sees active positive engagement in relationships with the world and others as one of the most powerful means of authentic education. It believes in the innate goodness of people and that they will develop into happy, healthy, and well-balanced individuals given the right conditions.
Education then is primarily a drawing out or unfolding of the individual’s potentialities, not a dispensing of information or instilling of learning. To do this requires the educators to be well developed themselves and to be sensitive, knowledgeable, and creative in helping their students realize their true natures. Holistic education encourages individual and collective responsibility in an ongoing quest for greater realization, fulfillment, meaning, understanding, and connection. Proponents find traditional education harmful in that it fragments and compartmentalizes knowledge and learning into subjects and discrete unconnected units, encourages competition over compassion and cooperation, and is subject and teacher centered rather than spirit and learner centered. Holistic education sees the whole as greater than the sum of its parts and that the whole-system approach requires moving from the limitations of a rationalistic, linear, and simple approach to a more intuitive, nonlinear, and complex view. It connects and makes a relationship among linearity and intuition; body, mind, and spirit; the individual and the collective; and the many and varied forms of knowing and knowledge. As a result, individuals educated holistically attain a degree of autonomy and authenticity that allows them to be progressive agents in advancing their own and others’ development and welfare.
- Forbes, S. H. (2003). Holistic education: An analysis of its ideas and nature. Brandon, VT: Foundation for Educational Renewal.
- Miller, J. P. (1993). The holistic curriculum. Toronto, ON, Canada: OISE Press.
- Miller, R. (1992). What are schools for? Holistic education in American culture (2nd ed.). Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.
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