Why We Need Humane Education In Our Schools


Photo by Shermeee via Flickr Creative Commons

Zoe Weil is the founder of Institute of Humane Education, and she recently gave a TED talk on the importance of redesigning how we educate people. We wanted to find out more about how a humane education could improve the green movement. Zoe was kind enough to talk with us, and explain everything from exactly what a "humane education" is and how teachers can incorporate it into their lesson plans. What exactly is a "humane education"?
Humane education examines the connections between environmental preservation, human rights, and animal protection and provides learners of all ages with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a healthy, sustainable, and just world for all. Put another way, humane education seeks to educate people to be solutionaries who can creatively address entrenched challenges through whatever professions they pursue.

How did you start the Institute of Humane Education, and what are the courses like?
I had been a humane educator for almost a decade reaching about 10,000 students a year through programs I offered in schools. I was dismayed that pressing global issues, such as pollution, global climate change, resource depletion, escalating worldwide slavery, genocide, institutionalized animal cruelty, and so on, weren't routinely addressed in schools, and that it took a visiting presenter to bring these issues to students.

To me, creating a more peaceful, sustainable and humane world ought to be the very purpose of schooling with the basics of verbal, mathematical, and scientific literacy as crucial tools to create meaningful, successful, contributory lives. So, in 1996 I co-founded the Institute for Humane Education to promote this field and to train people to be humane educators who would incorporate humane education into curricula and spread it widely.

We offer a range of programs and resources to people, from free downloadable activities at our website, that educators around the globe can use, to month-long, online courses for teachers, parents, and the general public who want to make a difference, to workshops in communities across the U.S., Canada and overseas, to an M.Ed., M.A. and graduate certificate in humane education - the first programs of their kind in the U.S.

All our courses invite people to use what we call the 3 Is: inquiry, introspection, and integrity. First we must inquire in order to learn about the important issues of our time; then we must self reflect and determine where the confluence of our knowledge and values lies; finally, we put our knowledge and values into practice which is living with integrity. This process is important for everyone - teachers, students, and anyone who wants to live their life intentionally and meaningfully.


Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons
Where do our schools fall short in providing a humane education? Where would you make changes if you could take over the curriculum?
Humane education is neither a required subject nor routinely infused into the existing curricula in schools. I think that both should happen. I think we should have solutionary courses, clubs, and teams, with students learning about both local and global challenges, and bringing their critical and creative thinking abilities to bear on solving problems. At the Institute for Humane Education we believe that quality humane education covers four elements which include:

1) Providing accurate information about the challenges of our time
2) Fostering the 3 Cs of curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking
3) Instilling the 3 Rs of reverence, respect and responsibility
4) Offering positive choices and the tools for problem-solving.

These elements could easily be incorporated into our existing subjects, and they can also comprise the backbone for solutionary courses. We could have overarching topics addressed through the curriculum. One year it might be food and water; another year energy and transportation; another year buildings and structures; another year protection and conflict resolutions, and so on.

We cannot survive without all of these things, and yet our current systems that provide these necessities are often destructive, inefficient, unjust, and inhumane. Imagine if school were a place to explore how we could improve such systems and our children would grow up using their enormous creativity and enthusiasm toward such great ends.


Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr Creative Commons
You teach a course for educators on humane education. How can educators incorporate humane education in their classrooms?
So many of the challenges we face must be evaluated and solved through computation which means that math teachers could be bringing these kinds of problems into the classroom.

Science teachers could have students doing field work to assess pollutants in soil and water and explore science-based solutions to a host of environmental challenges. Language Arts teachers could choose books that inspire heroism and explore relevant issues of our time, like Dave Eggers' Zeitoun. Social studies teachers could use a book like Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and bring historical knowledge to bear on current crises, eliciting students' ingenuity in applying history to present day issues. Art teachers could invite students to create art for change. Foreign language teachers could explore any topics they wanted and still teach their students a new tongue - why not explore local or global issues that need solving? These are just some examples.

There isn't a core competency or subject that could not be taught in a way that brings pressing and relevant issues to students.

You teach humane education courses to people through IHE. What are some of the graduating student success stories?
There are so many! We have graduates incorporating humane education into their curricula in classrooms daily, teaching humane education electives and college courses, mentoring student clubs that are making such a difference that they are gaining media attention for their efforts.

We have others who bring innovative humane education programs into schools that otherwise have nothing of the kind. We have youth action camps and public access humane education TV shows and religious education programs in humane education, all started by our graduates. We have humane educators working for various non-profits, and one of our graduates is about to launch a humane education center.

The sky's the limit for what people can do as humane educators. We just need many more such people.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Zoe Weil
TED Talk: Zoe Weil on Shaping The World Through Our Classrooms
Animal Rights Hall of Fame Inductee Zoe Weil Works Towards a Humane, Sustainable, and Healthy Society (Interview)

Tags: Education | Environmental Footprint | Global Warming Solutions