During the second week of January, I taught a humane education course to 8th graders at a local school. My goal for the course was to inspire the students to identify and embrace the best qualities of human beings and put these qualities into practice in concrete ways that create a healthy, just and compassionate world for all people, animals and the environment. The week focused on changemakers – individuals who’ve worked to change unjust and inhumane systems – and in the process of learning about these people, the students also learned about some of the atrocities and problems in the world that need transformation.
A few days ago, I received a packet of thank you letters. Here are excerpts from a couple:
“I cannot thank you enough for coming to our class. I have learned so much. I will carry what you have taught for as long as I can, and I will try to make a difference to the best of my ability. I have this desire to help now, and I owe that to you.”
“… Our week with you has been an eye-opener for everyone, and I am excited to carry your message into the world, as you have done, and fully embody the three I’s [inquiry, introspection, and integrity]. The things we watched were always amazing, and sometimes horrific, but were necessary for the class and myself to realize the wrongdoing in the world, and what we can do about it. I truly admire your bravery, intelligence, kindness and contagious hope that the atrocities in the world can be changed. Thank you for taking your time to teach and talk with us.”
“… I’m glad that now I know what is happening in the world and what we need to do to fix it.”
It really doesn’t take much to ignite a passion for good among youth and adults alike. A week of morning classes turned an eighth grade that, on Monday, did not feel particularly moved to action or responsible for helping to create a more just and humane world, into a deeply caring group that eagerly embraced a project to make a difference by Friday. I witnessed this transformation as each day brought out even more of the compassion and kindness they had identified on day one as qualities that were most important to them.
What is harder than sparking concern, care, and commitment is sustaining and nurturing this energy; providing the breadth and depth of accurate information about entrenched and pervasive challenges; and teaching them critical and creative thinking skills so that they remain the bedrock of each individual’s approach to healthy, positive, wise changemaking for all.
The issues that humane education addresses are complex, covering human rights, animal protection and environmental preservation. The solutions to the interconnected – and sometimes conflicting – problems in the world aren’t easy to determine or implement. A week-long humane education course may seem life-changing, but for many that change may fade unless it is fostered and nourished.
The eighth graders I taught will go to high school next year. Will their passions and commitment be met in their new school? Will their teachers educate them about global ethical issues and continue to inspire them to make a difference? Will the curriculum foster their critical and creative thinking skills in a manner that allows them to utilize the foundational tools that underpin subject categories so that they can focus some of their attention on solutions that better the world?
These are the questions I believe we ought to be asking about schooling and education. Our answers will determine the curricula we teach and the approach we take. It will guide our educational purpose so that we set goals worthy of our children and meaningful for both their lives and the lives of all they will affect in the future.
I believe that humane education should not be peripheral to our schooling goals but rather the centerpiece. Not a side dish, but the main course, the very core of our educational endeavor, so that our graduates will have the knowledge, tools and motivation to meet the challenges they will face and create a peaceful and humane world no matter what professions they pursue.
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 soot+chalk via Creative Commons.