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Principles of Holistic Education: Educating the Whole Child


by Katherine Woods


"The term 'holistic' is used to denote that reality is an undivided whole; that it is not fragmented; that the entirety is the fundamental reality.   The holistic vision is based on an integration of knowledge.   Science, art, spirituality, and traditions interface with one another to create a culture of wisdom that overcomes the fragmentation of knowledge   manifested in the academic disciplines."     

-Dr. Ramon Gallegos Nava, socialist, author of "Holistic Education, Pedagogy of Universal Love"

Throughout the 200-year history of public schooling, a widely scattered group of critics have pointed out that the education of young human beings should involve much more than simply molding them into future workers or citizens. the great Indian saint Krishnamurti, the Swiss humanitarian Johann Pestalozzi, the American Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott, the founders of "progressive" education - Francis Parker and John Dewey -- and pioneers such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, among others, all insisted that education should be understood as the art of cultivating the moral, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the developing child.

During the 1970s, an emerging body of literature in science, philosophy and cultural history provided an overarching concept to describe this way of understanding education -- a perspective known as holism. A holistic way of thinking seeks to encompass and integrate multiple layers of meaning and experience rather than defining human possibilities narrowly. Every child is more than a future employee; every person's intelligence and abilities are far more complex than his or her scores on standardized tests.

Holistic education is based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to spiritual values such as compassion and peace.

            "If you establish a relationship with nature then you have relationship with mankind. But if you have no relationship with the living things on this earth you may lose whatever relationship you have with humanity, with human beings. (Krishnamurti 1987)

Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. This is done, not through an academic "curriculum" that condenses the world into instructional packages, but through direct engagement with the environment. Help the person feel part of the wholeness of the universe, and learning will naturally be enchanted and inviting. There is no one best way to accomplish this goal, there are many paths of learning and the holistic educator values them all;   what is appropriate for some children and adults, in some situations, in some historical and social contexts, may not be best for others. The art of holistic education lies in its responsiveness to the diverse learning styles and needs of evolving human beings.


This attitude toward teaching and learning inspires many home-schooling families as well as educators in public and alternative schools. By fostering collaboration rather than competition in classrooms, teachers help young people feel connected. By using real-life experiences, the practical and expressive arts and other lively sources of knowledge in place of textbook information, teachers can kindle the love of learning. By encouraging reflection and questioning rather than passive memorization of "facts," teachers keep alive the "flame of intelligence" that is so much more than abstract problem-solving skill. By accommodating differences and refusing to label children, for example, as "learning disabled" or "hyperactive," teachers bring out the unique gifts contained within each child's spirit.

"The function of education, then, is to help you from childhood not to imitate anybody, but to be yourself all the time. So freedom lies... in understanding what you are from moment to moment. To understand life is to understand ourselves, and that is both the beginning and the   end of education.. (Krishnamurti 1964)

Modern education is so obviously failing to solve the world's problems, is so rightly criticized for not meeting societies' aspirations, and is so clearly unable to prepare people for the fundamental challenges of living. To solve these problems, we seem to need educational insights that marry the most profound learning possible with the everyday; the subtle with the mundane; or to put it another way, the sacred with the secular.

  "If the unity of life and the oneness of its purpose could be clearly taught to the young           in schools, how much brighter would be our hoes for the future!" (Krishnamurti 1912)

In the next window column I will share specific ways that The Mountain School will be applying these holistic principles in our morning pre-school/Kindergarten and in our after-school and summer camp programs.   For more information about The Mountain School please visit our website at