Humane Education: Charting a New Course

During the past decade, I have visited hundreds of classrooms and met with tens of thousands of students, offering humane education programs designed to encourage critical thinking and compassionate lifestyle choices. During my initial visit, I often do an activity in which I play an alien named Zenobia who has come from another planet to visit Earth on a fact-finding mission. On the alien’s planet, all beings are treated equally, and she asks the students for honest answers to her questions so that she can understand how to act on Earth. For example, Zenobia wants to know how people of different colors, religions, ages, or abilities should be treated. She wants to know how other species are supposed to be treated, such as dogs, pigs, birds, etc. Zenobia responds in character when the students say that they protect songbirds and treat them with kindness but eat chickens and turkeys.

“What?” Zenobia exclaims. “You eat them?!” Amidst the laughter, the students begin to grapple with the inconsistencies in our cultural assumptions about who is worthy of protection and who is not, and under what circumstances. Why do we eat some birds and not others, some mammals and not others? Why do we punish people who harm a dog or cat in their home, but provide tax dollars to other people who harm them in laboratories?

I’ve discovered how powerful ten minutes with Zenobia can be. Years after visiting a particular group of students, I can pass a former student in the hallway and he’ll say “Hey, aren’t you that alien woman, what’s-her-name, Zenobia?” That a student remembers Zenobia years after a brief interaction testifies to the power of this kind of a critical thinking exercise.

These kinds of experiences in schools have led me to believe that humane education can be incredibly powerful and life-altering. Perhaps a presentation is only the first seed planted, and the sprouts may remain hidden for years, but often a single 40-minute school visit can result in a handful of students becoming vegetarian overnight. From those students interacting with their friends and families the numbers grow, and the potential for a more compassionate, sustainable, and humane society grows as well.

Seeds of Change

Humane education has traditionally been defined as education about “pet” responsibility. For decades, humane societies have been sending their educators into schools to teach young children about spaying and neutering. Since these programs began, about half the states in the United States have passed laws mandating humane education in elementary schools. However, most laws fail to define humane education or to require that teachers be taught how to be humane educators, so, like many laws, they are virtually meaningless.

In the last decade, the definition of humane education has been expanded by the handful of humane educators in the United States and Canada who have considered the subject more comprehensive than discussions solely about companion animals. Humane education has come to encompass all animal issues, as well as environmental and human rights issues. The word “humane” actually means “what are considered the best qualities of human beings.” By definition, humane education is broad and of profound significance to our global actions on this planet.

However, there is no college or university in the United States (that we know of) that offers a degree program in humane studies or humane education. No teacher can receive a master’s degree in humane education. No school board currently hires full-time humane educators at any level. So, in 1997, we launched the first Humane Education Certification Program (HECP) in the United States, to train and certify people in humane education. The program is conducted primarily by correspondence, with students completing reading and assignments at home and participating in monthly mentoring with us and other adjunct faculty by phone, fax, or e-mail. Students also participate in on-site training, which lasts one week, at our beautiful center in coastal Maine.

The program includes five modules: Education, Presentation and Communication Training; Animal Issues; Environmental Issues; Cultural Issues; and Human Rights Issues. Each module includes a collection of articles, essays, and other readings, plus a book list and required videos, with a series of assignments and projects that must be completed before proceeding to the next module. Boxes with activities and program ideas are also included to provide students with innovative and interactive materials needed to offer programs on the subjects they are studying. Students must also complete a thesis or final project to receive their certification.

The on-site time offers students the opportunity to learn and practice communication skills for presenting the range of topics and issues that the program covers. Students not only observe and participate in humane education presentations, they also practice doing them. The on-site week includes a variety of activities, both indoor and outdoor, designed for all ages, and leaves students with a breadth of ideas and possibilities to bring home.

It was not long ago that women’s studies or African-American studies programs did not exist in universities and colleges. In the early years of these programs, many people scoffed at them. We believe that we are in the early stages of humane studies, and that this subject will become part of university course offerings, and that humane education will become part of the school systems before long. It is an exciting place to be, at the beginning of a burgeoning new field, particularly if you believe so strongly in its importance and significance. Such a beginning also demands responsibility. It is our intention that these subjects be taken very seriously, and that the training that potential humane educators must undergo be rigorous and thorough. We want students who complete our program to be extremely well-educated on the issues, as well as engaging, authentic, powerful, and inspiring.

Getting to Work

Applicants and students in the HECP program ask us what the prospects are for paid work in humane education. This is hard to gauge, because although no jobs currently exist within school systems for humane educators, the field is rapidly gaining acceptance and importance. More and more advocacy organizations (be they animal, environmental, or social justice) are hiring full-time educators to further their missions. At the Center for Compassionate Living we now have our own grants program, offered in cooperation with the Komie Foundation, which provides grants to excellent humane educators to offer comprehensive school programs or to utilize other venues (such as media or the arts) for promoting humane education. Still other graduates may decide to offer programs on their own and charge a fee. We currently are seeking accreditation so that the program will provide graduates with a master’s degree, which will lend more credibility and provide more options for employment.

I have no doubt that in the coming decades humane studies will become part of the academic lexicon, and that humane education will become incorporated into the U.S. school systems. It will be an exciting and challenging period, because when it happens, the corporations and vested interests that have so thoroughly infiltrated the schools will have a magnifying glass held up to their products and messages. The school lunch program — with its high fat, meat-centered foods and its dangerously misleading posters covering the cafeteria walls — will be challenged; animal dissections — a mainstay of biology class — will be challenged; Channel 1, the television news program replete with commercials for sweatshop-produced, inhumane, and unhealthy products that millions of students are forced to watch daily, will be challenged; hunter education classes will be challenged; even the content of traditional courses will be challenged! What will we find when young people are taught to think critically at the messages and the media that confront them? Hopefully, we will create a different ethic and attitude among a new generation of people: an ethic of compassion and respect for all beings, and an attitude that honors simplicity, harmony, and connections to others. That is the challenge and promise of humane education.