Developing Human Potential-Selected Baha’i Writings

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Understanding Human Nature and Developing Human Potential

Note: I retired as a professor of education in August of 2012 and have left the USA to serve in a voluntary capacity overseas. I do not plan to post any more blogs in the foreseeable future. For those who are interested, there is plenty to read in the books and papers I have posted on this website. May you all continue to grow in your insight and service. 

Note on last blog: On August 24 and 25 I will be presenting two workshops on “Understanding Human Nature and Developing Human Potential” at the Green Lake Conference in Wisconsin. Below are some ideas I will be presenting. For more information on this topic, see my book, Truth, Love and Justice in “Books and Papers” on my website:

It is important to acknowledge at the outset, that most of our conceptions of human nature and potential have been heavily influenced by popular culture. We are generally unaware of the many erroneous assumptions we have inherited from prevailing thought, which often obscures or shades the truth. History can be viewed as the civilizing of our human natures from a barbarous and degraded form to one that more and more reflects our human potential and maturity. However, some of the acts of the 20th Century exceed those of the past in barbarism and destruction (See Century of Light, commissioned by the Universal House of Justice for more detail and examples.)

Our willingness to fall prey to the ideologies and ideologues of the past century bear witness to our limited grasp of human nature and potential. Indeed, we have been witnessing the rapid decline of our civilization as leaders have sought to undermine the very conception of human nature and structure of society and morality. By human nature, most people generally think of as survival of the fittest—each person seeking his own welfare. We might call this our lower nature. In fact, it can be maintained that it is even lower than animal nature, in which the various animals cooperate, depend on each other and work together for their mutual welfare, even sacrificing themselves to protect their young and their kind.

Just as humans have a physical body that has animal capacities, natures and traits, they also have been endowed with greatly increased moral and spiritual capacities to know, love and choose how we will behave. These capacities distinguish us from animals and make us human; however, if we do not properly and responsibly use these God-given gifts, we become worse than the animals.  It is in the “willing submission of human nature to Divine Law that, in the final analysis, can alone produce the necessary changes in attitude and behavior” (Commissioned by The Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 25) to make us spiritual.

By human nature, I generally am referring to our ways of thinking, feeling and acting that distinguish us from animals. Wikipedia describes human nature as follows:

Human nature refers to the distinguishing characteristics, including ways of thinkingfeeling and acting, that humans tend to have naturally, i.e. independently of the influence of culture. The questions of what these characteristics are, what causes them, and how fixed human nature is, are amongst the oldest and most important questions in western philosophy. These questions have particularly important implications in ethicspolitics and theology. This is partly because human nature can be regarded as both a source of norms of conduct or ways of life, as well as presenting obstacles or constraints on living a good life.

  Where these capacities come from and what their characteristics are important questions in human thought and education. We must explore these questions to better understand the meaning of human life and guide human behavior. More recently, the sciences have been studying humans to gain more knowledge about who we are and the character of our thinking, feeling and being. Unfortunately, much of that research has been guided by a limited materialistic view of humans which has infected the greater culture.

The qualities to know, love and choose are faculties of our minds, hearts and wills. These three capacities and characteristics are given special importance in the Bahá’í writings. Traditionally, religion, art and literature have given expression to these capabilities and what it means to be human. These three capabilities have an immaterial or spiritual nature that some call the soul. The soul is defined as “the complex of human attributes that manifests as consciousness, thought, feeling, and will, regarded as distinct from the physical body” (Encarta Dictionary). In other words, the rational soul is the power behind our minds, hearts and wills to manifest conscious thought, feeling and will. Attending to all three faculties is important in developing potential. We must give “concerted effort to develop character and encourage the emergence of the spiritual qualities latent in human nature” (International Teaching Centre, 1989 Jan 01, Task Force on Education).

Our minds, hearts and will, which are the seat of our thinking, feeling and choosing capacities are best actualized through the powers of truth, love and justice, which are also recognized as foundational virtues in the Bahá’í Faith. Only as we recognize and cultivate these virtues are we able to overcome our animal natures and free ourselves from the debilitating desires and ideologies that constrain our thinking and behavior. These three standards or principles bring out the best of our natures. If our thinking, feeling and will are not guided by the ideals of truth, love and justice, we will not develop and can bring untold harm on others and ourselves. “It is chiefly service to humanity and dedication to the unification of mankind that unlock individual capacity and release creative powers latent in human nature” (International Teaching Centre, 1989 Jan 01,Task Force on Education).

Because of our varying personalities and backgrounds, we socially, psychologically, emotionally and morally respond to and interpret different things and situations in diverse ways that heavily influence how and what we think, feel, choose and do. In addition, we make our choices on how we see, feel and choose according to varying circumstances, motivations and inclinations. We are affected by our inherited physical characteristics, our innate spiritual capacities and our acquired development of them through training, experience and education (Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 212-214).

Education is seen by Bahá’ís as important in developing our nature and potential and is a continuous and creative process. Its aim is to develop the capacities latent in human nature and to coordinate their expression for the enrichment and progress of society. At certain moments in history, Bahá’ís believe education may also act as a powerful instrument for profound societal transformation. Within this creative process, it is possible to achieve an essential harmony between faith and reason through an approach to education that encourages the free investigation of all reality and trains minds to recognize truth, irrespective of its origin (International Teaching Centre, 1989 Jan 01, Task Force on Education).

Our various cognitive, affective, moral, social, spiritual and motivational frameworks combine in powerful, unconscious and still little understood and studied ways to determine what we think, feel, choose and do. Most of these processes happen automatically and unconsciously until we exercise our endowments to become conscious, thinking, feeling and choosing beings taking charge of our lives and development. The Bahá’í writings guide and inspire us in this process, helping us to correct our limited and often erroneous notions of who we are and how we should be. Science is also beginning to help us become aware of how our thinking and feelings are often erroneous (Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011).

As our capacities, based on many interconnected and complex factors influenced by the interaction of our physical and spiritual natures and our environments are investigated with new scientific methodologies and technologies and combined with divine wisdom, we can expect great progress. As Baha’u’llah states

Through the Teachings of this Day Star of Truth every man will advance and develop until he attaineth the station at which he can manifest all the potential forces with which his inmost true self hath been endowed. It is for this very purpose that in every age and dispensation the Prophets of God and His chosen Ones have appeared amongst men, and have evinced such power as is born of God and such might as only the Eternal can reveal. (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 1971, p.68)

The realization of our potential is synonymous with spiritual growth. As we learn to respond appropriately to our environment according to divine guidance we advance in our purpose of life—to know and become our true selves, which is the same as coming to know and draw nearer to God. As we seek meaning and purpose in life and adjust our physical needs and longings to our spiritual we develop a healthy relationship to the world, others, ourselves and the infinite unknown.

The Bahá’í teachings differ from previous religious understandings in that they do not view the material as bad and the spiritual as good. All are created by God and considered good. It is only in our use or misuse of these forces that they can be regarded as good or evil. We are all on our individual paths toward acquiring more
God-like attributes, depending on our varying capacities and conditions. An essential truth of human nature is that the body is to serve as a vehicle for the developing of the soul. In this understanding, our society has it all wrong with its focus on material pleasures and self interests. If we do not discipline our physical desires in service of our spiritual purpose, both we will suffer individually and collectively.

If you wish to attain to your full happiness and potential, you will need to align your life with spiritual values. The tension between our physical and spiritual natures is the best vehicle for that development on this earth. It is because we have physical needs and desires that we can develop the spiritual capacities so essential for our wellbeing both here and in the life to come. In the end, Baha’u’llah assures us—“Success or failure, gain or loss, must, therefore, depend upon man’s own exertions. The more he striveth, the greater will be his progress” (Gleanings, pp. 81-82).

In summary, we can say that we have both physical and spiritual natures. We are to use our knowing, loving and willing capacities of our minds, hearts and wills to think, feel and act in accordance with our purpose to know, love and obey God. In this way we develop our true selves and manifest the potentialities with which we have been endowed.

Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things, and would gain a true knowledge of your own selves—a knowledge which is the same as the comprehension of Mine own Being. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, pp. 326-327)

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Educational Standards and Assessment Factors

Note: This blog entry is the last in a series that looked at learning principles and factors from both a scientific (APA Learner-Centered Principles) and religious (Baha’i) perspective.

Knowledge is like wings for development or a ladder for the ascent of the individual and society. Students should show the results of their learning through their lives, deeds and actions. All should be encouraged to reach the highest levels of achievement according to their capacity, and taught to self assess their progress on a daily basis.

Many educational standards and assessments are not based on truth, love or justice, and therefore, are discriminatory and harmful. As discussed earlier, the standard of truth can be determined through our senses, reason, tradition and intuition. Each of these assessments is prone to error, but used together can serve as a more reliable source of truth. True science and religion considered together also offer a balanced source and standard for assessing truth.

In view of justice and equity, all should be given an education according to their needs and capacities using a universal curriculum and standard. Justice and equity are basic in discussing standards and assessment. True justice depends on altruistic love, fair mindedness and goodwill. Equity is a fundamental virtue and the evaluation of all things depends upon it. The root of wrongdoing is ignorance; therefore, all should receive an education of the highest quality possible.

Most people today tend to be superficial in their thinking, feeling and doing. Part of this is the result of the low standards in our society. Education is a necessity; it is the foundation of human excellence, prosperity, joy and glory. In a loving spirit, we should train students for excellence in whatever worthwhile endeavors they choose. Each person can be excellent at something and everyone can provide some service to the community. We should all strive for excellence and promote learning and knowledge. Excellence should be the standard for whatever we are developing. Excellence will have both a group and an individual meaning and different methods of assessment.

Teachers themselves should exemplify excellence in teaching and high standards in their lives. They should be well educated and refined, well grounded in psychology and pedagogy and dedicated to excellence and education. Education should be systematic and organized to facilitate this learning. Like medical doctors, teachers should first diagnose the problem then prescribe and apply the remedy using the highest scientific and ethical principles. Learners need to make ongoing assessments of and adjustments to their learning, just as they should do with their health and wellbeing.

The human being is the highest value in our world—all other values are secondary. Children must be trained to be excellent in knowing, loving and willing. When society recognizes and abides by these principles, supported by standards that can be assessed relative to truth, unity, and service, we can demonstrate and assess the degree to which our people and civilization have developed.

There is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad. The right things should be taught and encouraged; the wrongs discouraged. However, as we understand them, good and bad are relative terms. Good is the moving toward the developing of truth, love and justice, and bad is what hinders their development. All individuals, schools and teachers should strive for the standard of being the source of good and responsibly assess and be accountable for their progress.  This assessment should be honest, compassionate and fair. It should also be systematic and transparent if learning is to progress towards ever-higher standards.

Standards and assessments relate to the discussion on goals earlier. The high and noble principles of truth, love and justice should guide our goals. Some practical ideas related to standards and goals are to set specific targets that are measurable so we know when we have achieved them and can reward ourselves. If a standard or goal is too general, hard or long term, we may lose sight of it or feel it is too difficult to achieve.

It is good to have general and long-term goals, but it is helpful to break them down into several specific short-term accomplishable tasks. Decide what you need to do next to move closer to your higher future level. For example, you may have a broad lifetime goal to be a truthful, loving and fair person. Set a daily goal to be truthful, loving or fair and bring yourself to account each day or whenever you fall short. Be prepared to alter or adjust your standards and goals as you grow and gain a better perspective. Establish standards and goals for success, not failure, as this encourages accomplishment.

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Individual Differences Factors

Each person has unique endowments, powers, responsibilities, talents, interests and capabilities based on innate, inherited and acquired characteristics. Inherited characteristics come from our genetic makeup and acquired characteristics come from education as our genetic endowments interacting with the environment. Innate capacities and characteristics are those inborn qualities that make us unique even from those who had the same parents and similar environmental influences.

The combination and interaction of these three characteristics determines individual differences. We cannot change the innate and inherited qualities since they are given to us at birth, but the degree to which we are trained educated will determine how we will develop and realize our innate and inherited potentialities. The differences education and experience can cause are very great. As this is the only area we can significantly influence, we should do our best to see that each person is equipped to fully develop their minds, wills and hearts.

Educators can help learners to understand, develop and use their unique talents, interest, capabilities, environments and limitations to their and others’ benefit. Teachers can help their students know themselves, accept themselves, trust themselves and develop themselves by helping them know, accept, trust and develop their capacities. The ultimate authority and responsibility to accomplish these goals lies with the individual. As part of that process, we begin to recognize our abilities and build our capacity for loving, knowing and willing. We can help others understand, accept and work with their unique resources and provide the means, material and methods to develop them.

Our similarities are greater than our differences, but we are each unique. Science confirms the essential oneness and unity of the human race, but also that no two people are exactly alike, even identical twins. We are alike in that knowing, loving and willing are part of our natures and purpose, but each person has unique endowments, experiences and heredity. Our capacities, subjective realities and experiences are unique.

We each bring special talents, abilities, personalities and interests to learning. We need not make our differences a source of disunity, conflict or competition. As in the physical world, the richness, health, well-being and beauty of an individual or group depends upon the principle of unity in diversity. One of the operating principles and goals of the new paradigm of education is unity in diversity. Schools and teachers should always work to appreciate diversity while maintaining unity. Diversity and the differences around us are powerful forces for developing truth, love and justice.

Some falsely fear that diversity will lead to disunity and think unity requires uniformity. Justice, love and truth help create unity in diversity. We can change our ignorance to knowledge, hate to love, injustice to justice, conflict to unity, and violence to peace as move toward truth, love and justice from our various perspectives. We can positively create unity in diversity in our communities, curricula and classrooms, and in the process, make this a better world for all of us.

We should teach according to each individual’s capacity, needs and interests and help learners become aware of their similarities and uniqueness, finding ways they can best develop their unique potentialities. The individual is like a mine filled with rich gems and minerals which educators can help uncover and polish. Just as there are basic principles of mining and learning, each must be applied according to the individual circumstances of the mine or person involved. Mines have different gems or minerals and require different methods to discover and bring forth these resources. Likewise, we can adapt our best approaches to find, refine and polish each individual’s virtues.

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Developmental Factors

Developmental factors play and important role in learning. Development is the process of potentiality becoming actuality. The basic human capacities of loving, knowing and willing seek expression in life. At conception, unique genetic potentialities are endowed upon each person. In nine months that person goes through millions of years of evolutionary development, from a microscopic cell to a fully developed infant capable of living outside the womb. For its development to continue, it must leave the womb and enter this world where it can continue its growth and development process. As educators, we can assist children to develop properly by helping them realize their capacities using the accumulated wisdom of the ages. As young people grow in competence, they are able to take increasing responsibility for their own process of development and becoming.

Differentiation, integration and generalization are the processes of learning and development, whether it is physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially or spiritually. This process starts at the moment of conception and continues throughout life. Learning in early life becomes the foundation for and affects later stages of development. In whatever way a tree is bent, it will grow. Therefore, early growth, development and education are vital to future well-being and it is important that parents and society provide the best opportunities for infants and young children to realize their potentials.

All living things go through different stages or degrees of maturity. At each new stage, new powers and capacities are evident. A plant reaches maturity when it bears fruit, an animal when it is grown and functioning, and a human when the capacities of truth, love and justice are sufficiently developed. The different stages that individuals, groups and humanity collectively go through are analogous to one another. The developmental stages most commonly accepted are infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. If we understand these developmental stages, we can better assist others to develop to their level and to move toward the next.

Infants should receive love, knowledge, rights and responsibilities according to their powers and capacities. As they grow and develop, entering into childhood, further training and education according to their maturity level are needed. In puberty and youth, the limitations of childhood give way to new energies and abilities, calling for new conditions, requirements and education. In adulthood, we continue our growth and development utilizing our maturing powers. It is toward this autonomous, conscious and responsible use and development of potentialities that parents and educators are to be directing young people.

Teachers need to know when, what and how to help students develop their faculties. Educators need to be like doctors diagnosing and prescribing what is needed for each stage of development. If children are not properly developed, have some bad traits or are lacking in some quality, they should be patiently trained, healed and remedied, not oppressed, criticized and censured. Encourage children to make the greatest progress in the shortest time. Growth and development are somewhat dependent on age, but the powers and efforts of the person can facilitate their expression. The more we persevere and strive, the greater the progress and development. An environment where individuals are realizing their potential by developing their capacities is dynamic and energized, thus engendering the ongoing developmental process.

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Moral and Spiritual Factors

(Note: I took a hiatus from the blog for three weeks as I was finishing up my work at my university. Thursday was my last day of work, after almost 24 years at NMU and 38 years in education. I leave on September 4 for my next field of service in Haifa, Israel. I plan to have this series finished by then and will see what happens next.)

Of all the factors I am discussing in this section, the only one not identified by the American Psychological Association is this one—moral and spiritual factors. Because of its centrality to the new paradigm of truth, love and justice I am proposing, and its intimate connection with all the other factors of learning, it is important to be consider here along with all the other principles noted by the APA for learning.

The essential and fundamental crisis and challenge of the age and education is the lack moral and spiritual qualities needed to move humanity out of its present moribund condition. Spirituality can act as a leaven to affect positively the character of our culture, communities and institutions, but its influence is limited in education because of its association with established religions. The full and proper development of capacities is achieved through spirituality or spiritual growth. Moral understanding and behavior furthers the advance of that process. Education according to this view is a spiritual and moral process leading to a virtuous life. The highest forms of knowing, loving and willing and the ultimate goals of education should be the knowledge of God, love of God and obedience of God.

As we looked at cognitive, social, emotional, moral and motivational factors and intelligences above, we will very briefly look at the literature on spiritual factors and intelligence here. Spirituality addresses meaning, motivation, vision and value involving existential questioning and the awareness of divine presence. Some qualities of spiritual intelligence are self-awareness, spontaneity, being vision and value led, holism, compassion, celebration of diversity, field independence, humility, tendency to ask why, ability to reframe, positive use of adversity and sense of vocation (Zohar & Marshall, 2001). The core spiritual abilities and capacities are transcendent awareness, heightened spiritual states of consciousness, sanctifying daily experiences, spiritual problem-solving and virtuous behavior (Emmon, 2000). As we recognize and reflect upon the nonmaterial and transcendent aspects of our lives existence, new meaning and consciousness develop.

Only as we find higher meaning and purpose and seek to live in accord with moral and spiritual principles will we find true contentment and peace, both inwardly and outwardly. The modern day worship of greed, pride, fame, conspicuous consumption and individualism are contrary to the virtues of truth, love and justice. By focusing on higher purposes and capabilities, the ability to take initiative in a creative and a disciplined way, sustain effort in the face of obstacles and behave responsibly should be enhanced. Developing a spiritual practice of prayer, meditation, study and service should enable us to better transcend selfishness and self-centeredness and help develop a healthy and happy life. Morality and spirituality have been endorsed in all of the great religions and been validated throughout history. We should act with kindness, forgiveness and mercy to one another, focusing on the qualities of truth, love and justice.

Teachers should do their best to see that the rights of all in their classrooms are protected and that all students are allowed an opportunity to develop their potentials. In this spirit, reward and punishment should be wisely employed to establish security and justice, needed for unity and peace to exist. Love and justice help children develop their potentials and discourage unhealthy or wrongful acts. This moral process of education and socialization and must be done with care and wisdom. The children need to be so educated that they would not commit a crime or wrong to another and that they would not betray the love and trust of the community. The institutions and communities should try to prevent any wrongdoing, but if it occurs, act to prevent its re-occurrence.

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Social Factors in Learning

Learning is greatly influenced by our interactions with significant others and begins immediately at birth. Our first and most primary relationship is with our parents, especially our mothers, and then with our families. Our interactions with others involve the basic human capacities of knowing, loving and willing and spur growth. Relating with others helps validate or modify our view of reality and of ourselves, and helps others do the same for themselves.

It is primarily in social groups that love and will are exercised and our capacity for unity, service and justice developed. Relationships that are caring, complementary, collaborative and cooperative are productive. Competitive relationships may be destructive in that they are divisive and unjust: they are based on limited views of love, truth and justice. They result in mistrust and alienation. If students are compared to one another and believe they are better or less than other people, their progress can be hindered. They should be encouraged according to their own capability to strive for their highest degree of excellence, not to be superior to the next person, but to improve so that they may better serve others.

Social interaction with others is also an effective method for investigating reality and gaining insight and understanding. Investigating truth with others helps create greater love, fellowship, unity, illumination, happiness, awareness, certainty, awakening and well-being. Having learners ask one another questions and help each other find the answers can further and accelerate learning. Peers can often explain things to one another in a manner that can be more easily understood and accepted and in the process acquire a deeper knowledge themselves. Children can learn many things in play and social activity.

Recognizing each individual’s intrinsic worth can help eliminate harmful social structures. Not all social influences are productive or good. Teachers can encourage and create healthy social environments in their classrooms and schools where the virtues of discipline, order, patience, forbearance, understanding, detachment, service, compassion, tolerance, love, kindness, fellowship, righteousness and other interpersonal skills are taught.

To improve the social climate, we can teach human relations skills, conflict resolution and consultation as ways of solving problems and dealing with differences. As we expand our loyalty and identity to include all humanity, make and enforce rules that preserve and enrich the dignity of all peoples and encourage positive interaction among people who are different from one another, we create the social conditions in which we can flourish. By creating prejudice-free environments that do not allow “put-downs” of others’ identities, we encourage all people to flourish and realize their potentials. By empathizing with others and helping build healthy self-concepts without developing a sense of superiority, we help develop characters that can improve our communities and institutions.

We can all follow and promote the golden rule and create positive united learning communities characterized by safety, stability, trust, caring, self-respect and a sense of belonging. As we learn to celebrate the uniqueness of each person, we will encourage self-acceptance, reflection and flexibility in thinking—all vital factors in developing a positive social learning climate. Our social skills involve developing moral competence and perspective taking using our thinking, feeling and willing capacities.

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