If we were to design an educational system from scratch what would we design it for? What aims and purposes would we have? What might we hope to ‘draw out’ in the young? What kind of person would we seek to create?

When thinking of education, I think it is important to keep in mind that educational systems are not just our formal places of learning, but our whole culture. Culture, shares the same stem as, ‘cultivate’, is designed to make or shape the groups and individuals within it. We are growing and learning not just in schools and universities but through all our activities: work, leisure, family, art, sport etc. Sadly, our formal places of learning are often those areas where learning stops and compliance and obedience begin. Growth and development is often stunted or curbed through contact with formal structures, while some of our most important learning comes through informal education, socialising, relationships, autodidactic activity, travel etc.

Questioning the aims of education is questioning the very meaning of life itself. What does it mean to live? What is all of our effort, our seeking and striving in service of?

The primary goal of all education should be to enable young people to make sense of their lives. We are the meaning-making animal and the loss of meaning that is so characteristic of modern society and culture leads to a kind of inner death, a spiritual crisis which is perhaps at the root of the larger crisis that humanity is currently facing on planet earth.

Yet schools and universities rarely, if ever, touch on these more fundamental questions of meaning. Who am I? What should I do with my life? What do I care about? What am I passionate about? These should be the guiding questions on which all education is based. When education curricula no longer speaks to the real needs of people it becomes alienated – hoops that we jump through in the hope of reward (typically materialistic), down the line.

Education systems must move away from didactic outside-in approaches of coercive learning and curriculum delivery, and move towards trusting the inner process of the human being. All education must stem from the natural process of growth within the organism, the natural yearning we all have to expand, evolve, to become, in our own unique way, that which we were meant to be. To do this we simply need to create rich and stimulating facilitative environments which nurture and strengthen children’s natural proclivity and capacity to explore and learn, to be curious and creative. It is this precious inner fire of passion that must be kept alive, cultivated, and allowed to grow through creating an atmosphere of affirmation, support and appreciation.

Children need to begin to understand not just the world around them but the world within. They need access to a wide range of activities to see what clicks, what resonates, what holds meaning for them. Self-determination theory holds that we have three basic needs: For autonomy, competence and relatedness. Children long to try things, to assert their selfhood and become independent in order to master themselves and their environment, and to find satisfaction in reciprocal and mutually enhancing relationships. In experimenting with different activities, they begin to discover what they are good at – their natural talents, competencies and intelligences; What they are interested in and passionate about; and what they value, or what areas of life hold most meaning for them. In interacting with the world, they begin to feel what they care about, what causes they connect with, what problems they wish to solve, ultimately how they wish to serve the larger whole that is the community of the earth.

When this inner need is combined with an outer need, we have the seed of purpose or vocation. The crowning achievement of a humanistic education would be to equip young people with a strong sense of identity and purpose. Knowing who you are, what you stand for, and what difference you want to make in the world is the most solid foundation for a life well lived. This would lead to the fulfilment of potential, the maximisation of the creative energy of the individual that leads not just to the flourishing of the individual but also change within society and the enhancement of planetary health and well-being.