Human Scale

What do we mean when we talk about human-scale education?  There are many features of this school that are designed to be human-scale.  We have even looked at an organization going by that name in the United Kingdom.  It promotes small schools, community awareness, parental engagement, good management and humanly-relevant learning.  These are all issues close to my heart, but I am aware of two other concepts relating to human-scale.  One is Classical Humanism.  The other is anthropocentrism, which is taken in a negative sense by environmentalists.  In this post I want to look at these three ideas and try to tease them out.  We will inevitably have to look at the term child-centred, as well.  I don’t have the right answers and welcome your ideas.

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We start looking for smaller models when we feel that big schools are not human-scale.  Something feels wrong about a school that looks like a factory.  One part of this is the sheer size of a modern school.  Another part is the systems that operate on children.  Curriculum models, tests and assessments compare children’s performance according to international standards.  Schools do not work upwards from the unique individual in front of them.  They do not even work up from a unique local culture.  They work down towards the child from an established structure of knowledge.  Self-sufficiency, in all its senses, has become a Romantic dream.  Education aspires to fit students into a global economy. 

Human-scale educators look the other way.  They encourage children to learn traditional craft skills, to gather in village sized communities and to get direct experience of the natural world.  Child-centred educators go a step further and allow learning to arise naturally from the interests of children.  This inevitably leads to pre-industrial activities: play, making and doing. 

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If you feel that the job of education is to prepare children for adult life, you might ask some questions about this.  Who grows or makes things for themselves nowadays?  Almost everyone buys their food at a supermarket and goods in shops.  Why bother having human-scale activities in a school?  You don’t need to know how to make things when you can earn enough money to buy them.  Why have small communities and shared decision-making if that will not be reflected in adult life?  A human-scale education has to defend itself from the charge that it is introducing children to an anachronistic set of values that they will never encounter in the “real” world.

Classical Humanism

Classical Humanism transformed Europe.  It arose with the classical revival of the Italian Renaissance.  At the core of Classical Humanism is the idea of humanitas, a common set of values that come from being human and lead to compassion, benevolence and virtue.    

In the famous image of Vitruvian man by Leonardo, you see a man’s body set within a circle and a square.  At the sides are quotations of measurements and proportions from De architectura, a treatise by the Roman architect Vitruvius.  Leonardo and his contemporaries studied the human form to discover the underlying patterns of the universe.  Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in Florence, for example, is the architectural embodiment of this aesthetic: its proportions are human-scale.  When you are in that space you do not feel awe or wonder; you feel a sense of harmony as the scale of your body is reflected in the space around you.

Humanists believed that human scale and proportion could be extrapolated outwards.  The macrocosm was visible in the microcosm.  Just as beauty and proportion came from the human body, the human mind was sufficient to understand Nature and the Universe.  Humanism was an intellectual movement that had education at its heart.  Its programme of study included grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history and moral philosophy.  The object was to develop virtue- understanding, benevolence, compassion and mercy.  It was a philosophy of education that promoted action in the world, not mere contemplation.

The Abu Dhabi Education Council puts ethics at the forefront of its advice for new schools.  This is reminiscent of Classical Humanist education.  Arab culture had a different trajectory from European.  I don’t mean to suggest that ADEC’s approach is Classical Humanism by another name.  However, it is clear that in the UAE there is a coherently expressed desire for education that fosters the moral understanding that in the West is a part of Classical Humanism.  The West, however, has tacked away from this tradition and headed off on a different path. 

The Decline of Classical Humanism

A Classical Humanist education was an essential training for political and administrative life up to recently.  Oxford and Cambridge only removed the requirement of Latin in 1960.  It lingered in grammar and private schools: I had to study Latin in the seventies.  By then the English Literary canon led by Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Wordsworth and Dickens had pushed the Classics into the background, but the intention was the same.  A good reader would be a better leader.

Other languages were studied so as to be able to read the classic literature in them: Calderón, Cervantes and Lope de Vega in Spanish; Molière and Voltaire in French.  You read the “greats” of a country’s literature in order to understand the roots of its culture.  There was an assumption that people had local cultures that were uniquely understandable through their languages and literature.

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The way languages are taught these days shows the falling away of Classical Humanist values.  Language learning is functional.  The reading requirement is considerably less than it used to be: readings instead of whole books; fewer classics and more contemporary literature; more prose and less poetry.  Film is given parity of esteem.  It is assumed that young people do not read books and reading books is seen as a leisure activity rather than an essential part of character formation. It is better to learn how to communicate in a business meeting than waste time on old-hat moral exemplars from the past.   The canon of “greats” has been comprehensively undermined by changes in values.

Leonardo’s Vitruvian man shows why Classical Humanism is no longer the basis of education.  The idea that the proportions of the human body are relevant to the universe- that the macrocosm can be seen in the microcosm- won’t help you in your study of Astrophysics.  The universe was much smaller for the humanists, history since Creation was measurable in thousands of years and no one knew about genes or evolution.  Foreign lands and their traditions were distant and poorly-understood.  The world has opened up.  Why not read Confucius and Lao Tzu instead of Plato and Cicero?  And why bother if you are not interested?  Algorithms and social psychology seem to have better predictive value in mass societies than philosophy and poetry.

Humanitas, the prime value of Classical Humanist education, does not translate well to the age of mass education.  It was a training for the leaders of the republic, not for the workers.  The plebeians, the vulgus, were never intended to think themselves capable of the kind of moral decisions that leaders made.  The plebs are consistently ridiculed in classic literature.  A classical education was for rulers. 


Humanitas is the epitome of anthropocentrism and Leonardo’s Vitruvian man might be its emblem.  Critics of anthropocentrism, like #benjaminfreud, suggest we should quickly move away from this way of thinking. 

The environmental crisis in all its aspects seems to be the result of a human-centred way of thinking.  Extinctions, collapsing eco-systems, desertification, degraded forests and industrial farming that creates immense mono-cultures reducing bio-diversity are all symptoms.  Can we point the finger at Classical Humanism?  Is the wisdom of the classical tradition horribly linked to an exploitative attitude to nature and a range of nasty -isms: racism, colonialism, supremacism?

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Anthropocentrism is a paradoxical theory.  It says that Man is the problem because he is at the centre of Creation in his own imagining.  We have to change this way of thinking so that we no longer see the rest of the natural world as resources to be used for our benefit.  Seeing that man-made climate change is our doing, we must re-evaluate our scale of human values; give an equal moral and ethical ontology to the rest of the natural world.  If we don’t do this we are heading for disaster.

It is paradoxical because no other animal is capable of this kind of reflection.  Even by suggesting that humans could move away from the moral centre, it asserts that they are exceptional: we are so exceptional that we should stop seeing ourselves as exceptional.  Furthermore, the emphasis in anti-anthropocentric circles on indigenous communities, nomads, tribes and forgotten ethnicities is deeply Romantic.  It calls to mind the nineteenth century university graduates who wandered around Europe seeking out forgotten languages and cultures.

I am not suggesting this is good or bad.

You may have noticed in the preceding paragraphs how many times I wrote “we have to”, “we should” and “we must.”  That “we” includes humanity as a whole.  Another paradox, because even though you go to an Amazonian tribe to refine your arguments, your feet are still in the halls of power.  You aspire to come back with ideas that will topple the orthodoxy, overturn the establishment and definitively defeat the evil supremacists, racists, colonialists and humanists.  If they persist in holding on to their mistaken beliefs, you will use the superiority of your intellectual arguments to gain the upper hand in universities and advisory bodies.  When the education system is in your hands, you will be able to mould future generations in a better image.

I don’t need to say that this is an authoritarian argument.

Child Scale

A.S. Neill thought that no adult was wise enough to replace a child’s free play with educational programmes of his own devising.  A programmatic education based on the idea that “right-thinking” is the province of adults is wrong-headed.  This goes for militarists and environmentalists equally.

I am aware that I am falling into the trap of talking in broad general terms.  That won’t do.  The argument for freedom comes from a set of responses to situations and readings.  I can be more or less aware of them, but can never get to the bottom of them.  You never really understand why you do a thing.  When you fully accept that, you are open to a more generous interpretation of the world.

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Let me give you an example of one of these situations.  My nephew, Luke is 9 years old.  He likes inventing catapults, swings, parachutes and zip-lines for his toys.  He is constantly making things and carries around a notebook where he writes lists and letters to imaginary people.  At the back of his grandmother’s garden, he has made a series of bug hotels.  This project started with a box for his “pet” snail, who he named and adopted.  Now he spends a lot of time kneeling or lying on the ground watching, looking and talking.  He talks a lot.

This is Luke’s free activity.  He stopped going to play tennis with his dad because he wanted to do his own thing.  He wasn’t affected by the idea that sport is a Good Thing.  I have the feeling that school pretty much exhausts his tolerance for being improved.  His uncle says he is an annoying child.  “He just has to learn to shut up and do what he is told,” he says.

That is certainly the opinion of the school he goes to.  Every week they give him spellings for homework, telling him to “Look.  Cover.  Write. Check.”  They say, “On this paper you have five columns.  Do your spellings once a day.”  I catch him copying out the whole page in one go to get it out of the way.  It’s not that he wants to do badly in the spelling test.  It’s just that his interest is somewhere else.  At 9 years old he already sees the adult world as a powerful opponent to his own interests.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that he rejects its demands, subverts them and, sadly, internalizes them.

He is naughty at school and the teacher asked his mum to stay and talk to her after class.  “He doesn’t pay attention, distracts other children and talks too much.”  Brother, can he talk!  The teacher said she was putting him on report and his mum went home flustered.  They sat around the kitchen table trying to get to the bottom of it.  Luke was grinning at being the centre of attention.  At this point his brother, Jack, said, “You have to take this seriously, Luke.  They put me on report when I was at primary and that went with me all the way to secondary.  It’s not just now.  They won’t forget.”

Human-scale, Humanist, Anthropocentric, Child-scale

I started by writing about human-scale education, referring to HSE in the UK.  I said that I can’t think of the words human scale without thinking of the Classical Humanist tradition I was brought up in.  This tradition has faded away in the West, replaced by the dominance of science and technology and the needs of mass education.  Abu Dhabi seems to be trying to maintain something of the moral and ethical focus that underlies humanitas, albeit with different roots.

Just as the Classical Humanist tradition was on its last legs, its fiercest critics appeared.  The concept of anthropocentrism was invented.  No one calls themselves anthropocentric; it is something of a strawman.  Environmentalists, however, insist that the dominant Western culture is the root of anthropocentric evils and that we have to move away from that model.  Indigenous and marginalized cultures are often invoked as having better ways of relating to the natural world.  These small-scale communities might see themselves reflected in HSE.

Human-scale education seems to demand that we think of child-centred education.  Teachers trying to make an education relevant to children is not really child-centred.  If schools allow themselves to be dominated by the formal curriculum, they squeeze out the child’s interests.  I told the story of Luke to show how a child who is acting exactly the way a 9 year old might be expected to act can be penalised by schooling.  There are no right answers.  Does he have to shut up and get on with his school work?  Should he bow his stubborn neck to the yoke of discipline?  If he doesn’t, what will happen to him?  He is comprehensively deprived of his voice in his school and there is no prospect that this situation will change within the institutional settings he is likely to encounter.

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I believe that you should design a school from the bottom up.  Yes, there are structures of knowledge.  And, yes, teachers should be competent in teaching the formal curriculum to children.  Freedom, however, is a core value at MBAT.  That freedom does not exist to promote our world-view, but to give children free choice of action in a community where their voice can be heard.  It is not freedom to do absolutely whatever they like.  They learn to live with the consequences of their actions; they learn the difference between freedom and license.

But any school that cannot recognise the value of Luke’s free learning fails by any standard.

Published by Jason Preater

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