Approximately three million students will graduate from U.S. high schools at the end of this school year. These students, who have passed their No Child Left Behind tests, are verbally, mathematically and scientifically literate. Yet, for the most part, they are unprepared for the important roles they must play in today’s world.
In the face of escalating global problems, such as climate change, human trafficking, growing extinction rates, a looming energy catastrophe, etc., it no longer makes sense to educate our children to simply find jobs and compete in the global economy. They need to be prepared to create sustainable and restorative systems in a host of arenas, from food production to energy to conflict resolution. Our graduates must have the knowledge, tools and motivation to be conscientious, engaged and wise changemakers; or put more simply, they must be solutionaries.
Instead of teaching youth about global challenges and engaging their creativity and intelligence in the unearthing of solutions, schools often trample upon their creativity, curiosity and thirst for meaning with outmoded textbooks, multiple choice tests on often irrelevant information, and a curriculum that doesn’t draw connections between “the basics” and what these skills could actually achieve.
Rather than offer unconnected disciplines, imagine if each year of high school covered a single overarching issue, such as Sustenance, Energy, Production or Protection. Teachers could provide students with the skills to conduct research into current systems and articulate new viewpoints; to understand and use scientific and mathematical equations and methods to solve systemic problems, and to draw upon history, economics, psychology and geography to analyze, propose and create new or improved systems.
Imagine if instead of debate teams, in which students are assigned either one side or another of an arbitrary scenario and told to research, argue and win, we had solutionary teams in which students came up with and presented ideas to solve problems. We could then implement the most innovative and cost-effective ideas, revamping school buildings for renewable energy sources or transforming cafeterias so that they offer healthy, sustainably- and humanely-produced lunches, as just two examples. Think what the students would learn about chemistry, biology, physics, business, farming and architecture.
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, engineers, designers, etc. 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 because this is what they would have learned in school.
I am a humane educator: someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection and fosters critical thinking and problem-solving for a healthy and just world.
A few years ago, I was the speaker at a high school National Honor Society induction. To illustrate the connections between a mundane choice and the systems in place that need changing, I brought a cotton T-shirt, made in China. I asked the audience the effects, both positive and negative, of this shirt on ourselves, other people, animals and the environment.
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 child slaves are working the cotton fields in Asia; that sweatshop conditions are ubiquitous in many factories; that the dyes, often dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits, are largely toxic and a significant percentage winds up in our waterways.
There are also positive effects. The production and distribution 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 systems.
After the talk, one of the girls who’d just been inducted was angry that she’d never learned about these issues before. “We should have been taught this since kindergarten!” she exclaimed.
Youth yearn for meaningful education. I receive letters after humane education presentations that are full of gratitude. As one 8th grader wrote, “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. I will carry that week with me for a lifetime.”
While this letter sounds positive, I find it poignant. A week-long course with a humane educator shouldn’t be the most inspiring five days of a 13-year-old’s life. Such education should be the basis of schooling.
Whether or not we would have wished this on them, our children must grow up to be solutionaries. 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, we will watch our graduates quickly and inexorably solve the persistent and systemic problems we face.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education. 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 and rescue dogs from an evil vivisector. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at ZoeWeil.
Photo courtesy of spekulator.