August and Jesse gave a fluent and helpful account of the current state of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), outlining the success of their experimental program in North California, where a professional organizer was used to massively increase growth of students groups in that area. They also provided sage advice on how to grow student communities, how to deal with difficult transitions of leadership between one year and the next, and how to develop the capacities of young Humanist
The two speakers spoke eloquently about the four prongs of the SSA’s current approach: Activism, Community, Education and Service, but I was left wondering “What about scholarship?” Presumably, this is one of the main reasons young people become students, and yet the potential for the SSA to advance Humanistic scholarship among young thinkers went unmentioned in their presentation. This is particularly important for graduate students, who are often looking for interesting projects to investigate, and reputable journals to submit their work to, and who might be convinced to spend more scholarly effort on Humanism and related topics were they supported in doing so.
To give an example of what I mean, I’m about to head to the Institute for Humane Studies (HIS) for a week-long Seminar called “Scholarship and a Free Society”. The IHS is, essentially, a Libertarian organization which wants smart graduate to become Libertarians too, and then write journal articles, studies and books about Libertarianism. They pay for everything – food, board, the speakers, everything. They will help me with career options, by recommending open faculty positions and keeping me abreast of faculty appointments. In short, they are willing to do a LOT for me, and I am not even a Libertarian!
As far as I know, there are no equivalent organizations that do the same for Humanist scholars. I have not been able to find a single seminar series which invites graduate students to spend a week studying Humanism, even for a modest fee: those organizations which do offer courses in Humanism (some of which were represented at the Conference) tend to charge prices far in excess of what most students can afford, and often do not draw upon well-known and respected academics.
Further, the existing Humanist scholarly publications seem somewhat lackluster and lacking in real intellectual energy and weight. This means that tope young scholars are likely to bypass Humanistic topics for more fertile and exciting intellectual areas. And any movement without a core of top minds leading the charge is unlikely to grow as fast as it otherwise might.
Might the SSA provide something similar, or at least put some resources into furthering Humanist scholarship? In response to my question, August revealed that the SSA has a “secret motto”: “Mobilizing Students for a New Enlightenment”. For some reason, however, this slogan is kept in the background. To my mind, this is an excellent mission, particularly for a certain sector of the graduate community who respect Enlightenment ideas and want to feel part of a movement with real intellectual heft. Imagine the difference in tone that might result among the Humanist Community were this to become the rallying-cry of young Humanists around the USA. It also has the benefit of linking Humanism with a proud tradition of radical thought, allying us with figures like Baron d’Holbach, Hume, Kant, Jefferson, Montesquieu, Locke, Smith and Rousseau.
Further, the concept of “a New Enlightenment” (similar to the Royal Society of Arts’ idea of the “21st Century Enlightenment”) makes clear that the challenge ahead of the Humanist movement is a battle of ideas, as well as a call for political change and a march toward a better, more humane society. Finally, by associating ourselves with one of the great progressive shifts in human history we are reminded that to achieve our goals we need to raise our sights and raise our game. Seems like a win-win to me.