Interview with Carol Wintermute

carolwintermute.jpgCo-Dean of the Humanist Institute.

Carol Wintermute’s undergraduate work was at Denison University in Ohio where she received a Bachelor or Fine Arts degree. She did post-graduate work in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Her graduate studies were in family social science at Minnesota where she completed the course work for a MA and Ph.D. degree. She is also a graduate of the Humanist Institute.

Her passions are philosophy, psychology, art and literature. Over the years, she has been a visual aids librarian at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian, teacher of human sexuality courses, research assistant in an experimental drug education program, an intern in a county family services agency, coordinator of an early childhood program for a school system, and instructor in family social science at the University of Minnesota, a branch manager of the Red Cross, Director of Religious Education at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, Executive Director of the International Association of Humanist Educators, Counselors and Leaders, President of the Humanist Institute, and now the Co-Dean of the Institute.


Q. Carol, thank you for this interview. Please tell our readers a little about your personal journey toward Humanism, and how you came to be affiliated with the Humanist Institute.

My father was a fallen away Methodist while my mother was a devout Catholic. When they married, they compromised. and became Hicksite Quakers, the liberal branch of this faith. When we moved away from that group, my life became one of wandering into various religious halls with my neighborhood friends as guides. I even developed a rating system—Catholics, best costumes; Lutherans, best Bible pictures; Methodists, most ferocious and scary; Jews, most sad and serious. By age eleven I was finished with this odyssey and became an A-theist. In college I heard about Unitarians. When I married and had children, I headed for the nearest Unitarian church, for what I hoped would be a comparative religious education for my children and a like-minded community. I wasn’t disappointed as we found a humanist congregation that was a great fit for our family. I became a Sunday school teacher, and after moving to Minnesota I took on the responsibility for directing the children and adult education programs. I wrote a humanist curriculum that covers early childhood through adult years.

Khoren Arisian was our minister at the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis. Through him I heard of the Humanist Institute, and was invited to apply, becoming a student in the first class. After graduating, I joined the board of directors, eventually became president, and I am currently Co-Dean of the Institute with Kendyl Gibbons, the current minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

Q. What is the history of the Institute? For example, how did it begin, and how has it sustained itself through the years?

Khoren Arisian was active in the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). It was at these meetings in Europe that Khoren met with other leaders from North America to talk about creating an organization to more effectively promote the humanist movement. The driving personality behind this endeavor was the late Paul Beattie, a humanist UU minister. Three other leaders involved in the conversations were the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine from Humanistic Judaism, Howard Radest from Ethical Culture, and Paul Kurtz from The Council for Secular Humanism.

In 1982 these five leaders, along with 40 others of us, met at the University of Chicago to form the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH), with Sherwin Wine as President. The group immediately defined the mission for the new organization as leadership education. The Humanist Institute (THI) was the result. Howard Radest became the Dean and the New York Society for Ethical Culture offered its meeting house as the home of the Humanist Institute. In March 1984 the first class of the Institute was launched. Students were from the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Society for Humanistic Judaism, and the Council for Secular Humanism. It was the first graduate program for the education of humanist leaders who serve organizations across the humanist spectrum.

To launch this enterprise in less the two years was a surprising feat. Some organizations provided scholarships; other provided classroom space and members of all groups had to be solicited for financial support.

Howard Radest retired as Dean in 1992 and was succeeded by Robert Tapp who served until 2004. During Bob’s deanship more faculty members were selected for mentoring in the classroom and others were selected to join as contributors to a “think tank.” These faculty colloquia were organized around issues pertinent to humanists. As a result we have published 16 volumes of Humanism Today.

In 1990 it was decided that NACH’s ambition to be the coalition organization for all humanist groups was not being fulfilled. What was being done well was the leadership training. Therefore NACH/THI became one entity. In 2004 Kendyl Gibbons and I became the co-deans.

Q. What has been your experience as a dean of the Institute? Tell our readers something about the typical experience of a student who enrolls in the Institute. What kind of interaction will they have with fellow humanists and what kinds of transformative effects have you seen occurring with those who complete the course work?

Kendyl Gibbons immediately volunteered to be the mentor for class 14 and I agreed to take on the major dean duties while she guided this class for the next three years. Kendyl and I designed a new curriculum using the best of our previous program and updating it to serve the current needs of our future leaders. This graduate-level program is completed in a three-year period, involving intensive reading and reflection. Students come to New York City or Washington D.C. for long-weekend seminars in December and April, and for 5-day seminars in August. An individually designed independent project and a program of supervised field work are required outside of the three yearly class gatherings. In between sessions, students are expected to read further on topics discussed in class and continue the discussion on-line. There may be other assignments as well, such as short papers, book or article reports and oral presentations.

The curriculum begins with the philosophy, history and institutional structures of humanism, and moves on to examining what it means be an ethical human, and then we examine the variety of humanist ideas in world religions. The second year starts with a look at what constitutes humanist leadership, and moves to the humanist tools, critical thinking, and the methods and uses of science. The final year deals with issues in contemporary culture, aesthetics, and humanist celebrations.

Interactions among students, mentors, and faculty constitute an indispensible element of the learning experience. The bonding that occurs among the students in a class is remarkable and one of the richest elements of the program. The interpersonal factor in the learning environment is an invaluable feature of the program. It is the coming together of representatives of all our groups that enables us to understand each others’ views and to work together for the future. I know that some of the people I met during my class experience are still good friends after 22 years. For me, the Humanist Institute was the most stimulating graduate experience I ever had, including my graduate work on moral development and family social science. Our graduations, honoring of Institute retirees, and our recent 25th anniversary celebration, are moving testimonials to the experience of being part of one big humanist family.

Q. Currently, the Humanist Institute web site describes the organization as a means “to equip humanists to become effective leaders.” How many humanists have graduated from the Institute? Are they now in leadership roles?

There are 106 graduates of the Institute. We have graduated 13 classes over 25 years. Currently, classes 14 and 15 are in session with class 16 slated to begin in December. We purposely limit the number of students in a class to 6-10 people. This allows maximum participation in discussions and makes it possible for a lively exchange of views.

Our graduates are leaders, board members and staff of all our constituent organizations such as the American Ethical Union, the American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance International, Center For Free Inquiry/Council for Secular Humanism, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Humanist Association of Canada, the Society for Secular Judaism, the Joseph Campbell Foundation, the Secular Coalition for America, and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Some of our graduates serve as Ethical Culture Leaders, UU Ministers, and AHA Chapter heads. Others are advocates, spokespersons, and activists for humanism in their communities. Some are innovative thinkers who keep our movement alive with their provocative insights and writings. It is apparent that our graduates are making a difference in advancing the causes of the humanist movement.

Q. I recall that you distributed a survey, on-line, about the course work that the Institute should enhance or develop. Can you tell us something about the results?

Our survey showed that to be effective leaders and spokespersons in our movement that our students need knowledge of humanist history, ideas and philosophy, and training in leadership skills, public speaking, effective writing and organizational acumen. It was deemed very important for leaders and activists to also know about moral development, ethics, values, and theories of human behavior. Critical thinking and science is essential, and an understanding of world religions, contemporary culture and social, economic and political issues is necessary. In other words, the survey confirms that our current curriculum is on target and is viable and valuable.

The survey also indicates that our cooperative venture with the Institute for Humanist Studies, which creates on-line courses, is very important to the overall humanist educational endeavor. Respondents indicated that short courses structured to be given at national and regional conferences are highly desired. At the moment we are working on developing a course on humanism for Elderhostel. A model program for seniors was developed by the Humanist Society of Phoenix and can be used at community colleges and universities. Many respondents indicated that CEU credits or university credits for our programs would be highly desirable. We are continuing to explore this possibility.

Q. Humanists have typically been dedicated to Unitarian Universalism. Do you see that relationship between the two organizations continuing, in a healthy and equal correspondence?

Humanists have been involved in UU congregations for over 80 years, ever since John Dietrich, Curtis Reese, and Francis Potter coined the term religious humanism. At present the relationship between humanists and the current UUA administration is somewhat strained. I say “somewhat” in that there are some humanist ministers and congregants who work very well with the UUA while others feel marginalized within UU circles. The UUHumanists are still active and have some 800 members. The UU Infidels, a few years ago, did represent agnostics, atheists, and secularists within the UU tradition. They were disturbed with the direction the denomination was taking, in moving toward theism and traditional religious trappings. I think this concern is healthy in that all nontheists should stick up for their place in a denomination that is home to them as well as to those on the theistic and liberal Christian end of the spectrum. What a sad day it would be for UU humanists to find it necessary to leave the organization that made it possible for them to develop their humanistic life stance. Let us hope that wise leadership in the near future pays better attention to those of us who live on the left end of the continuum.

Q. What role can humanism play in the transformation of American society? It seems we are in a desperate situation economically and politically. How can humanists help to renew our culture?

For humanists the main issue is always a matter of ethics. At the Institute we spend considerable time in grounding our students in ethics, which is the science of morals and human conduct. With that understanding and background, we then take a look at contemporary social, economic and political issues. We are aware that we may not be the holders of the “right” answers, but are continually searching for the ones that work best to affirm the dignity, respect and rights of others. As a nontheist every humanist must answer life’s questions for him or herself, always with an eye for the consequences of one’s position. It is not enough to develop a “good” argument for one’s point of view. Humanists are responsible for taking their moral imperatives into the public arena, advocating, promoting and pressing their causes. If the outcome is negative, we need to re-examine our cause and present better solutions.

In today’s political climate it is imperative that humanists speak out about the abominable distortion of “facts.” The net is filled with false accusations, unsubstantiated rumors and other forms of character assassination. Those who want to “believe”, take it all as gospel. Humanists have a duty to expose these non facts and demand that the public take responsibility for finding proper evidence for their conclusions.

The humanist role in transforming American society is to always question, think critically, examine the evidence, listen attentively, be open to new ways of thinking and come to conclusions that are based on reason, science and humaneness. The final step is to make those convictions known widely and work to actualize them.

Q. What can humanists do to help the Institute?

Send money, send students and come yourself. The Humanist Institute operates with volunteer deans, board members and faculty. We are dependent on contributions from like minded people to keep us afloat. It would be wonderful if we had the money to pay our professionals, to build a permanent home for our school and to take advantage of the many opportunities we see to educate and train effective leaders for the advancement of our movement. Not enough people know about our program. Advertising is expensive. When people do find out about us there is always great interest. Do think about attending yourself or contacting those who might benefit from this experience.

We are dedicated to fostering leadership that is:

* Ethically grounded
* Wise and well informed
* Fluent in institutional dynamics
* Committed to meeting the real needs of people

We strive to prepare humanist leaders to be:

* Advocates who are persuasive articulators of the humanist world view in the public sphere,

* Innovative thinkers who keep our movement alive with their provocative insights and writings,

* Experts who have the skills to help organizations function and help people achieve their goals.

The Institute is an independent graduate level program that works in cooperation with existing humanist organizations. It provides a unique opportunity to bring together a diverse faculty and student body of those who take a non-theistic, naturalistic, approach to humanism whether interpreted in secular or religious terms.

If you are interested in being a humanist:

* Community leader,

* UU Minister,

* Chapter leader,

* Ethical Culture leader,

* National non profit leader,

* Educator, counselor, leader in a serving profession.

Contact The Humanist Institute, c/o Kristin Wintermute, PMB #220, 8014 Olson Memorial Highway, Golden Valley, MN 55427-4712.

Also check our web site: to see our brochure and to learn more about our curriculum and the studies of past classes.

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