Humane Education for a Humane World

Every day, millions of children head to schools to learn. They go to read, to do math, to understand science, to know history, to study languages, and, hopefully, to learn how to think critically and creatively. What else do young people learn in school? Most schools also teach the following, often unintentionally:

  • It is acceptable to kill or harm other species in order to learn about them.
  • Meat and dairy products are healthy, even the high fat, highly processed varieties.
  • Soda, expensive athletic shoes, fast food, and many other products are benign, even good.
  • Oil and chemical companies solve environmental problems.

How do schools teach these other lessons? Step into a school and look for the messages young people receive; you may be shocked. From Channel One, the 12-minute “news” broadcast replete with commercials that millions of children are forced to watch daily, to the posters that adorn the cafeteria walls and the foods actually served in the lunchroom, from lesson plans produced by companies such as Exxon, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Proctor & Gamble, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and the National Livestock and Beef Board to the carcasses ready for dissection, schools are providing an education that goes well beyond the traditional 3 Rs, yet fails to teach the other 3 Rs: Responsibility, Respect, and Reverence.

As the humane movement grows and becomes mainstream, it is even more shocking to consider the reality of increasingly corporate-funded schools which promote sweatshop-produced products on purportedly educational classroom television shows, or which turn the food service plan over to Burger King, or which teach lessons from the American Egg Board or Proctor & Gamble.

It is essential that activists in the humane movement commit ourselves to humane education if we ever hope to create a humane and compassionate world. Since our movement will never have enough money to compete with multinational corporations, we must use what we do have: committed people who want to make a difference.

Humane education is growing, and there are more and more people training themselves to become humane educators and then heading into the schools to teach the other 3 Rs. In Canada, students can earn their master’s degrees and Ph.D.s in humane education at the University of Toronto. At the International Institute for Humane Education (IIHE), the organization which I co-founded, students from around the world can become trained and certified in Humane Education through the Humane Education Certification Program (HECP). IIHE also offers the Sowing Seeds Humane Education Workshop and Workbook to help activists learn to become educators. These programs and workshops are becoming increasingly popular, but we have a long way to go. One day, all colleges of education will have humane education degree programs, and school systems will hire humane educators in the same number as math teachers. In order to make this happen, however, activists need to promote humane education, not only for nonhumans, but also for people and the Earth itself. In addition, activists need to become humane educators and go into the schools with alternative messages to the ones of greed, consumerism, exploitation, and violence.

How can you become a humane educator?

  1. The first step in becoming a humane educator is getting an education. You wouldn’t teach math without understanding mathematics, and this is also true with humane education. Humane education is a huge field. Humane Education teaches about our relationships with everyone: human, nonhuman, and the environment. It promotes the 3 R’s of Responsibility, Respect, and Reverence, as well as the 2 Cs: Compassion and Critical thinking. It covers human rights, animal rights, and cultural issues (such as the effect of multinational corporations on education!) as well as environmental concerns. It is not enough to read the AV Magazine and other animal rights magazines and brochures. To be a humane educator one needs to read a range of books by a variety of authors, to learn many sides of many issues, and to be informed about other movements for social change in addition to the animal movement.
  2. Learning the subject is easy compared with step two: learning how to teach about the subject! Humane educators do not proselytize or tell people what to do or think. They are not the purveyors of Truth, but rather the questioners of truth. Humane educators ask their students to think for themselves, creatively and critically, to determine their own beliefs and values and then to live accordingly. It is because step 2 can be so difficult for fire-in-the-belly activists that training in humane education is so important, so that activists can learn how to communicate and teach most effectively. Humane educators need to be able to listen at least as well as they speak.
  3. Get invited to schools, Ys, summer camps, and Sunday schools. This is easier than it sounds. Schools want to be certain that your program is not biased, radical, extreme, upsetting, or too controversial. That means that you have to create a positive, dynamic, and intriguing brochure, make follow-up phone calls to potentially interested hosts, and get to know teachers and community leaders so that they’ll want to invite you to speak. A humane educator spends almost as much time networking with potential hosts as speaking in schools.
  4. Once you’re in the door, make sure that your program is honest, respectful of your audience, non-judgmental, exciting, interesting, interactive, positive, and hopeful. Every presentation should:
    • Inspire compassion and love
    • Stimulate critical thinking
    • Provide factual information
    • Offer positive lifestyle choices

    A humane educator is, above all, humane. That means humane educators show compassion and respect for everyone, even the obnoxious students who yell out rude or insulting comments, or the science teacher who finds your talk threatening and may be condescending or impolite.

  5. Provide your audience with opportunities to learn more. You might want to offer a series of presentations for teachers, an afterschool program for interested students, a summer camp for young activists, trips to visit stockyards, factory farms, or laboratories (as well as sanctuaries and refuges), books and videos on loan, and additional lesson plans for teachers to use after you leave.
  6. Even if you never set foot in a school, you can still promote humane education. You can provide humane education materials, books, and videos to schools and libraries; donate money to fund humane educators who are well-trained but need the financial support of activists in order to offer free school presentations; or offer community programs that consist of films and discussions.
  7. If you are a trained humane educator and you wish to offer free presentations in your community, contact IIHE and its program the Center for Compassionate Living. In cooperation with the Komie Foundation, IIHE offers grants to excellent humane educators to offer presentations in their region.
  8. If you are a parent, join the PTA and speak out about dissection, the school lunch program, Channel One, and industry-sponsored curricula. Invite humane educators to come to your school and offer presentations, and keep raising awareness about humane issues, whether about classroom pets or corporate curricula.

There are many activists working tirelessly on legislation, media campaigns, and specific issues of animal exploitation, and it is critical that we in the humane movement participate in these many forms of activism. Yet, if our goal is a humane world, a future without exploitation and injustice to anyone, human or nonhuman, then we must begin to commit ourselves to reaching the next generation with a message of compassion and respect. Unless we do, we will find that the status quo of animal and human exploitation, consumerism, and materialism will continue to prevail at the expense of us all, human, nonhuman, and the Earth itself.

All the many forms of activism have paved the way for humane issues to become mainstream. Now that they are, we have the opportunity to reach young people within formerly off-limits school walls. No longer are humane issues considered so radical that schools avoid them, and yet, without trained humane educators to step into the schools with positive, life-affirming presentations, humane education will remain a neglected subject. It is up to those of us who care about a future in which we can all live peacefully to take the next step and promote a new form of education.

What does humane education look like in practice? Imagine a teacher asking students “Who and what do you care about?” The teacher listens to the responses, writes them on the board, asks some more questions, and honors and welcomes each student’s words. How often are students asked what they really care about? And when they respond, how often are they challenged to live accordingly? Every time a teacher asks this question, she or he is bound to hear at least some of the following as a familiar refrain:

  • I care about my family and friends
  • I care about my health
  • I care that the water and air are not polluted
  • I care about my dog
  • I care about endangered species
  • I care about the rainforests
  • I care about animals
  • I care about people starving
  • I care about AIDS
  • I care about poverty

True, the teacher will probably also hear such comments as “I care about the mall,” or “I care about fast food,” but by and large, students will share their deeper concerns and their stronger passions. And what would it mean to live according to these concerns? In many cases, it would mean a change in lifestyle, a change in perspective, a change in habits. Perhaps the mall wouldn’t be the highlight of the weekend for the student who began to understand the connections between consumption of products and the destruction of the Earth. Perhaps the student who cares about animals might not want to dissect, or eat meat, or use certain products once she was taught to make the connections between her choices and other species.

Making connections is what humane education is all about. When we begin to understand how interrelated we all are, and how our daily choices affect ourselves, each other, other species, and the planet, then we can begin to choose wisely and with integrity. When we do, when a generation is raised to learn this simple truth and act accordingly, we will have created a humane world.