Do you want to change the world? Take the first step by learning about humane education and how it could transform education.
In June, approximately three million students will graduate from public U.S. high schools, and even though they will have all passed their No Child Left Behind tests year after year, most will not be ready for what awaits them. While they may be verbally, mathematically, and technologically literate and successful at meeting the requirements of our educational system, even our highest-performing graduates will be unprepared for the important roles they must play in today’s world.
This generation of graduates will be confronted with escalating, interrelated, global problems, such as climate change, growing extinction rates, economic instability, a looming energy crisis, human trafficking, slavery, poverty, institutionalized systems of cruelty toward one trillion animals annually, and the oppression and abuse of women and girls across the globe, to name just some. Yet few will have learned in school how to approach and solve such systemic problems, and even though there are plenty of people already working on these and other issues, the systems in place that perpetuate them are entrenched. We need to create better, sustainable, and restorative systems in a host of arenas from food production and energy to transportation and financial markets.
To change these entrenched systems, we need people to have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious, engaged, and wise choice makers and change makers. Where will such people come from? If we commit to changing just one of our most deeply entrenched systems — schooling — we can set the stage for the unfolding of timely systemic changes throughout a range of other systems. To do this, I believe that we must embrace a new and bigger purpose for education: to graduate a generation of solutionaries. This is the goal of humane education, which is both an approach to teaching and a body of knowledge. Humane education is founded upon the belief that human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection are integral aspects of a just, peaceful, and healthy world and that we are all capable of and responsible for creating such a world.
Unfortunately, this isn’t what schooling is currently for. Our goal continues to be to graduate students with enough verbal, mathematical, and technological literacy and knowledge of certain subjects so that they can find jobs and “compete in the global economy.” While such literacy is, of course, essential, it is simply foundational. It should not be the goal of schooling, because were we to actually succeed at graduating a generation that all passed their No Child Left Behind tests and were all employed, we would find that most of them would perpetuate, and perhaps even escalate, the systemic problems we face.
Education is in the news these days, with feature-length documentaries such as “Waiting for Superman” at theaters alongside “Toy Story III.” Tom Friedman at The New York Times calls the education beat the most exciting one of our time for journalists. Never in my lifetime has education been such a hot topic. Yet, the conversation about education reform is so terribly missing the mark.
The gaping hole in the current debates about education is the failure to assess our ultimate goal. In “Waiting for Superman,” for example, the ultimate purpose of schooling — depicted almost farcically through cartoon images in the movie — is the better filling of each child’s head with information rather than the better cultivation of great critical and creative thinkers. As William Butler Yeats once said, “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” Our current goal is anything but lighting a fire.
Instead of teaching youth about the interconnected global challenges we face and engaging their creativity and intelligence in the unearthing of new ideas and solutions, schools often trample upon their creativity, curiosity, and thirst for meaning with boring textbooks that fail to engage them, timed multiple choice tests on often irrelevant information, memorization of information that in today’s world is a click away, and a curriculum that doesn’t generally draw connections between “the basics” and what these foundational skills could actually achieve in the world. At the same time, our society actually discourages brilliant and inspiring people from becoming educators not only by paying teachers poorly, but also by squelching their own creativity by forcing them to teach to seemingly endless standardized tests in an environment that is becoming ever more hostile to those who are entrusted with perhaps the most noble and important job of all: educating the next generation.
Rather than offer unconnected academic disciplines, imagine if each year of high school covered a single overarching issue, such as sustenance, energy, production, or protection, all essential to our survival. Teachers with expertise in different subjects could provide students with the skills to conduct research into current systems and articulate new viewpoints, understand and use scientific and mathematical equations and methods to solve systemic problems, and draw upon history, politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and geography to analyze, assess, propose, and create new or improved systems. And the arts, relegated to the chopping block because of budget cuts, could find new life as vehicles for expression of visionary ideas.
Imagine if instead of debate teams, in which students are assigned to one side of a fabricated either/or scenario and told to research, argue, and win, we had solutionary teams in which students came up with and presented ideas to solve problems. For example, imagine if rather than endless debates about “jobs v. endangered species,” which have been presented to us by the media and politicians ad nauseam since the Northern Spotted Owl was declared endangered, we had solutionary teams come up with viable ideas about how to protect other species and keep people employed at the same time. Since we love to compete and honor our victors, the winners (those with the really brilliant, practical, and cost-effective ideas) could actually participate in the implementation of their ideas. Such teams could tackle problems in their schools, communities, or countries — perhaps even global challenges — and in so doing so, make a profound and profoundly rewarding contribution.
If solutionary education became commonplace, students everywhere might revamp their school buildings for renewable energy sources. They might transform their food service systems and cafeterias so that they received healthy lunches produced sustainably and humanely. Think what the students would learn about chemistry, ecology, biology, physics, business, farming, architecture, and construction from just these two projects alone. Imagine how fully the teachers could contribute their knowledge and passion for the subjects they know best. There are already teachers who do such projects with their students within the constraints of the current public school system, but they face perpetual hurdles. When we hear about them, we laud them in the news. But their work shouldn’t be newsworthy; it should be the norm.
What would children offered such an education grow up to do when they graduated? The same things graduates do today. They would be businesspeople, healthcare providers, lawyers and law enforcement officers, architects, engineers, plumbers, beauticians, and politicians. The difference would be that they would perceive themselves as responsible for ensuring that the systems within their professions were humane, healthy, and just for all. They would do this as a matter of course because this is what they would have learned to do in school.
A few years ago, I was the speaker at the National Honor Society induction at our local high school. To illustrate the connections between even the most mundane choices and the systems in place that need changing, I brought with me a cotton T-shirt, made in China. I asked the audience about the effects, both positive and negative, of this shirt on ourselves, other people, the environment, and other species. While we couldn’t know much about this specific T-shirt, there’s a lot we do know about conventional cotton production: that it uses massive amounts of pesticides, that children are being forced into slavery in cotton production in Asia and Africa, that sweatshop conditions are ubiquitous in many overseas factories, and that the dyes are largely toxic and a significant percentage winds up in our waterways. There are also positive effects, of course. The production, distribution, and advertising of the T-shirt employed many people, and its wearer was able to buy it at a reasonable price, but my final question, “Are there alternatives that do more good and less harm?” suggests that we can create better, healthier systems that are more just and humane.
After the talk, one of the girls who’d just been inducted was furious that she’d never learned about these issues before. “We should have been taught this since kindergarten!” she exclaimed. Yes.
Of course, such education must be age-appropriate and positive. Teaching young children about the ills of the world and burdening them with the responsibility of solving problems that generations before them created and perpetuated may set them up for despair and anger rather than empowerment and fortitude, but in my 25 years of offering humane education to students in middle school through college, I have only once had a student tell me he didn’t want to know about the grave problems we face. Most have been truly eager to learn about the issues of our time, and many have become deeply engaged change makers as a result.
I discovered the power of humane education to turn apathy into action during the first humane education course I taught in 1987. It was a week-long summer course for middle school students, and one afternoon I taught the kids about product testing on animals, in which everything from bleach to oven cleaner to soap is dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits and force-fed to animals in quantities that kill. The next morning, one boy in the class walked in with a stack of homemade leaflets that he’d handwritten the night before. During lunch, he handed them out on a Philadelphia street corner. He’d become a change maker overnight.
A couple of years ago, I was giving a talk in New York City and I invited one of the students from that first course I taught. He’d started a Philadelphia-area school group when he was only 14, and now in his mid-30s he was still a change maker, working for the mayor of New York on public health issues, specifically HIV/AIDS. After the talk, I was introducing him to friends as one of the students in my first humane education course, and before I could even finish my sentence he interjected, “That course changed my life!”
More recently, I taught a week-long mini-course in the mornings to a local 8th grade, and I received beautiful letters after it was over. One girl had written:
Spending that week with you was the most inspiring five days of my life so far. You made me realize how much just one person can do to help the world and how much more you can do by educating others about the issues. I have already started teaching my parents…. It really feels good to know that I can take sometimes simple and sometimes complex actions to save a life and our world. Thank you so much for this opportunity! I will carry that week with me for a lifetime.
At first I felt delighted by this letter, but over time it made me feel sad. Five days with me should not be the most inspiring week of a 14-year-old’s life. Humane education should have been infusing her schooling throughout her entire childhood. Her education should have always been inspiring.
Whether or not we would have wished this on them, our children must grow up understanding how to solve pressing challenges. Yet, they are still memorizing names and dates of battles. They’re told to “do their best” at school, but what would be best is if we engaged their loving hearts and brilliant minds so that they yearned to play their important roles in the great tasks ahead. Core competencies in core subjects are simply tools. We must make sure that we’re providing our children with the knowledge, skills, and commitment to participate in the creation of a peaceful, sustainable, and humane world for all. And if we embrace such a vision for the purpose of schooling, we will watch our graduates quickly and inexorably solve the pressing, persistent, and systemic problems we face.
AUTHOR ID: ZOE WEIL is the president of the Institute for Humane Education in Surry, Maine, which offers online graduate programs in humane education through an affiliation with Valparaiso University, online professional development courses, Summer Institutes for teachers, and free, downloadable activities and lesson plans at www.HumaneEducation.org. She is the author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education; Nautilus Silver Medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; and Moonbeam Gold Medal winner for juvenile fiction, Claude and Medea.