I’ve been a humane educator for more than 25 years, teaching about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental stewardship and animal protection,with the goal of providing students with the knowledge, tools and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and changemakers for a just, peaceful and healthy world for all.
Early on in my career, I looked up the word “humane” in the dictionary, and one of the definitions was this: “Having what are considered the best qualities of human beings.”
After reading this definition, I began to see my role as fostering humanity’s best qualities in my students. But I didn’t want to presume to name these best qualities for them, so I began asking my audiences what they thought were humanity’s best qualities. Over and over they generated similar lists. No one ever said greed or violence or hatred. The most common word I heard was compassion, closely followed by honesty, kindness, generosity, courage, perseverance, respect, curiosity, integrity and wisdom. With these lists in hand, I’ve endeavored to help students explore how to put such qualities into practice in their lives.
This sounds a lot like character education, but that was a term I hadn’t yet heard when I became a humane educator in the 1980s. As I learned more about character education, I was thrilled to discover that the goals of humane education and character education were fundamentally the same: to foster humanity’s best qualities and abiding values and help students implement them in their lives. Where humane education and character education diverged was around the focus of these values. While character education programs tend to focus on the proximal practice of core values, humane education generally asks how we can put these best qualities into practice in a globalized world.
We all know what compassion feels like, and what kindness looks like. We know when we experience empathy, and we are aware when we are kind to another person or animal. We also know how kindness feels when we are its recipient. But what does it mean to be kind within a globalized economy? What does it mean to be kind in relation to our food, clothing, product, career, transportation, and dwelling choices, and in relation to the economic, production, agricultural, energy and other systems in society?
The most ostensibly kind teenager in a high school may be complicit in horrendous cruelty and exploitation and shocking levels of environmental degradation when she sits down to eat in the school cafeteria or when she buys a new electronic device or pair of athletic shoes. But how would she know?
Fostering good character in a globalized world necessitates an education that extends the best qualities we seek to foster in our children beyond the classroom walls, beyond the local community, and beyond our nation’s borders.
There are four elements that comprise quality humane education, and they are to:
- provide accurate information about the pressing issues of our time so students have the knowledge to address entrenched and pervasive challenges;
- foster the 3 Cs of curiosity, creativity and critical thinking so students have the skills to address challenges;
- instill the 3 Rs of reverence, respect, and responsibility so students have the will to address challenges;
- offer positive choices and tools for problem-solving so students can become solutionaries who solve challenges.
Imagine a class in which each student chooses an everyday item in their life. It could be an iPhone or computer, an item of clothing, a slice of pepperoni pizza or a hamburger, anything at all. Their assignment is to bring the 3 Is of inquiry, introspection and integrity to their item by asking several questions:
1) What are the effects, both positive and negative, of this item on you, other people, other species, and the environment? (Inquiry)
2) What alternatives to this item do more good and less harm? (Inquiry)
3) What systems perpetuate this item? (Inquiry)
4) Is this item aligned with your values? (Introspection)
5) What different choices could you make that would be more aligned with your values? (Integrity)
6) If no healthy and humane alternatives exist, what systems would need to change and what role could you play? (Integrity)
Imagine a group extending the values they themselves have identified as core components of good character so that those values have legs in the globalized world of which they are a part. This is where I hope character education is heading, toward an expansive view of the practice of good character in today’s society.
There are bullying problems in schools that we see and address, and then there are bullying problems in schools that are hidden. Every child with a cell phone or a computer is indirectly complicit in this hidden bullying. Their electronics are produced in factories in which millions of people (many of them children themselves) toil under inhumane conditions, often under threat should they speak out or seek to unionize.
Unwittingly or not, our dollars, coupled with our desire to buy electronics at a low price, have fed this exploitive system. Putting the values of fairness, compassion, justice and integrity into practice in relation to cell phones and computers is challenging. It means exploring how to shift inhumane and unjust systems so that they become both humane and economically viable. Such challenges are part and parcel of living with good character. We may not be able to easily divest ourselves of all of our complicity in harm, but we can work to transform harmful systems.
Vandalism and graffiti at school are also a problem that we see and address, but virtually every adult and child in the U.S. is indirectly complicit in environmental degradation on a grand scale through our consumer and transportation choices as well as our diets.
While we are right to teach our children to be respectful of their environments by not littering, despoiling, vandalizing, or graffitiing, such lessons need to be contextualized in a much broader and far-reaching sense to have real meaning in today’s world. In the 21st century, half of all species are threatened with extinction; a dead zone grows in the Gulf of Mexico fed by agricultural run off from the Mississippi river; a whirlpool of plastic twice the size of Texas swirls in the Pacific, and the ice caps melt as the temperature warms and seas rise.
Violence and cruelty in school is another problem that we see and address, but every child who eats chicken wings or drinks milk in the cafeteria is indirectly complicit in cruelty. The factories that produce the meat, milk, and eggs for school cafeterias perpetuate animal cruelty as their norm. What is done to chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, and lambs routinely on today’s farms would be illegal if done to these students’ dogs, cats and parakeets. At the same time, the conditions under which slaughterhouse workers labor are considered among the most dangerous and egregious in the U.S. We endeavor to cultivate kindness and compassion among our children at school, yet we generally fail to provide them with foods that are kind and compassionate, even in their own school cafeterias.
Good character that extends beyond the surface, proximal relationships in our schools and communities is exceedingly difficult to cultivate and foster in today’s world, where our products, foods, and energy sources come to us through a web in which we are inextricably connected but about which we are barely cognizant. And yet, this is the exciting opportunity at the core of character education.
Of course, we must still cultivate interpersonal kindness and respect; we must still address bullying, cruelty, and destructiveness in our midst, but this cannot be the end point of character education. A school full of seemingly respectful children who have little awareness of their complicity in suffering removed from sight, and who have little sense of their responsibility to create and support humane and just systems are not, ultimately, the kind of children we should be raising in today’s world, which calls upon us to bring our good character to a much wider field of engagement.
We all seem to agree that compassion and kindness, wisdom and integrity, perseverance and courage, honesty and trustworthiness, generosity and helpfulness, responsibility and respect, and critical and creative thinking are among the best qualities of human beings. Now the great task is to put these qualities into practice meaningfully for a healthy future for all people, all species and the ecosystems upon which we all depend.
This is the kind of character education that will set our schools afire with innovation and relevancy and enthusiastic students and teachers. It will allow our students, who yearn to play a meaningful role in the world, to do so by having good character presented not only as a list of ways to behave at school, but also as an ideal that their good minds and big hearts must work to enact in a complex world. Their teachers will need to be working alongside them, because truly none of us knows the many ways to put good character into practice within such complex systems. But that is the joy and pleasure of the endeavor. We all get to work at it and learn from and with one another collaboratively.
It’s my hope that history will look back on the graduates of the first decades of the 21st century as the solutionary generation; that humane education will offer legs to put character education’s goals into practice in ways that create a vibrant, healthy, restored and secure world for all people, animals and the planet.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of backtrust.