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June/July 2006
Inspiring Education
The Satya Interview with Zoe Weil

How can we be inspired in a world where it is nearly impossible to eat, wear, watch, read or do practically anything without having to worry about the ethical, political, economic and cultural ramifications? Inspiration takes a back seat to agonizing about how and out of what our shoes were made or how much forest was clear-cut to make our toilet paper.

Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the International Institute for Humane Education (IIHE), believes humane education is the answer. Humane education embraces the endless list of challenges facing the world and helps us create positive solutions. The basic tenets of humane education are providing accurate information, fostering curiosity, creativity and critical thinking, instilling respect, reverence and responsibility, and offering positive choices that benefit oneself, other people, the Earth and animals. With this program, people are inspired to “care deeply, assess critically, create freely and choose wisely.”

The author of Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times and The Power and Promise of Humane Education (both from New Society Publishers), and the soon to be released Most Good, Least Harm: The Key to a Better Life and a Better World, Zoe is creating positive change. From beautiful rural Maine, Zoe Weil took a moment to speak with Maureen C. Wyse about the inspiration of humane education.

How did you become involved with humane education?
In 1987, I taught summer classes at the University of Pennsylvania to seventh and eighth graders. My course on animal issues was the second most popular course offered. Many students actually became activists. One day I talked about product testing on animals and that night a student made homemade leaflets. The next day during lunch break, he stood out on a Philadelphia street corner handing them out. Some other students went on to form a Philadelphia area student activist group, and they invited me into their schools to speak. It was at that point I realized I’d found my life’s work. I had stumbled upon what I consider the most effective way to create change. I had done the typical forms of activism—letter writing, protesting, leafleting—but nothing had ever been so profoundly effective as when I taught a group of young people.

What inspired you to found the International Institute for Humane Education?
I was doing humane education in the Philadelphia area for many years when I created the program called Animalearn. We went into schools in the greater Philadelphia area to discuss environmental and animal issues. Then we hired instructors to go to schools in other cities. We were reaching about 10,000 students annually, but there were very few of us doing this work. So I created a certificate program to train other people how to be humane educators and eventually became affiliated with Cambridge College to offer a Master of Education program—the only one of its kind in the U.S. It’s a way of making change that people hadn’t thought of.

What’s the message? How do you motivate people to analyze their everyday decisions?
Basically humane education assumes that everybody has the capacity to live according to a deep set of values and to make positive choices in their lives. Young people can make positive choices and can grow up to be people who live with integrity, honesty and compassion. That’s the premise humane education is built upon. The humane educator basically believes that the way to do this is to give people information, critical thinking tools, a big dose of reverence, respect and responsibility, and the ability to problem solve and make positive choices. Humane educators never tell anybody what they should do, but rather inspire them to live according to their own values—to make conscious choices about who they are going to be and what they are going to do in the world.

Your mission and that of the Institute embodies all realms of being: social, diet, clothing, environment, animal, etc. How do you make these connections to students?
The bottom line for IIHE is that human rights, animal protection, environmental preservation, media literacy, and careful and compassionate globalization are all connected. For example, we might look at a product like a can of Coke or a cheeseburger and analyze what its effects are on ourselves, other people, other species and on the environment. And then try to determine what choices we can make that are the most humane and most positive. Students begin to become very creative and global thinkers. They learn to do the most good and least harm to everybody while not seeing any specific issue in isolation from the others. It’s a very exciting and different approach than we are used to getting in our society.

How do you educate kids with little access to the more humane choices that you advocate in the classroom? For example, when you ask kids to investigate their Nikes what other options do you equip them with?
That’s a really good question. In one of the activities we do, “Choices,” we have cards that have a choice on either side. One side might say a pair of Nike sneakers and the other side might say a pair of fair trade sneakers. But those aren’t the only two choices, so you might have another card that says hand-me-down sneakers and another that might say thrift shop sneakers. The idea being that if we want to live lives that are humane and conscientious, we have to look at all of our choices. Those with money have different choices than those without, while those concerned with certain issues might make choices more conscientiously about those issues than others they may not care much about. The idea is to provide a variety of choices and then to elicit from students—in age appropriate ways—their own ideas about how they can solve them. A student might say, “Hey, I want a pair of Nikes, I like them best of all,” but he may also write a letter to the CEO of Nike expressing how he feels. That’s a whole other way of being engaged, not just how we spend our money, but how we use our voices.

In completing our April “Food For Thought” issue, I felt as if there was nothing I could eat due to the hidden realities of food production. Do you ever get a sense of futility, especially in teaching young people being raised in a materialistic, wasteful and, in a lot of ways, a compassion-less society?
I get frustrated at times, but it is pretty rare for me now. Nobody can be perfect. There is simply no way to eat the perfect diet or live the perfect lifestyle—it doesn’t exist. There is no one answer. It will always vary from person to person, place to place. So the question is, “How can we choose what will do the most good and the least harm based on our life experiences, where we live and what our resources are?” I think the goal is to do the best you can as an individual and not let anybody or any group prevent you from doing that.
How can people be effective agents for change? How do you open the eyes of someone not in a classroom?
Probably the biggest inspiration for me is a quote. Gandhi was asked by a reporter, “What is your message?” He responded, “My life is my message.” And when I read that, I was floored by the truth of that statement and how universal it is. If Gandhi’s life was his message, that meant my life was my message, your life is your message, and everybody who reads this interview, their life is their message. We are all potential humane educators in how we live our lives. That also means that what we say and what we do must be aligned. One of the things that distresses me is how ineffective blaming, judgmental and angry activism is, especially when one is hoping to influence positive change. While Gandhi was critical of institutions and behaviors, he did not judge individuals. He was always trying to set an example, and communicate positively in a nonviolent way.

Where do you envision humane education to be in the future?

My goal is for there to be the same number of humane educators in schools as math teachers, and that humane education will be taught as its own subject just like science and language arts. My other big goal is that every teacher will be, in effect, a humane educator. Whatever the subject, teachers will incorporate meaningful education about how we can be good local citizens, good global citizens and good people.

You’d think the humane switch would be an easy one to make, with people just tweaking things slightly and incorporating more humane education methods.
It is that simple. Right now, unfortunately, there are serious challenges to the education system on many levels. School isn’t currently designed to develop contributing citizens for a better world. But there are people creating schools to solve some of these challenges and make education more meaningful.

It seems like sometimes you find yourself at a point of contention, in that your views and those within humane education go full circle compared with those who simply cannot reconcile different issues, i.e. animal rights activists who ignore sweatshop labor, environmentalists who aren’t vegetarian. How do you reach out to people in seemingly disparate movements?
My goal is to build bridges between movements and help people realize connections. We are all drawn to particular passions and interests. And when we have a strong concern for a particular issue, it becomes even more difficult to be aware of all the other issues, even those that connect to the ones about which we are passionate. But that is beginning to change. Animal activists are seeing the connections to environmental and human rights issues. Satya is a perfect example—a magazine that drew connections between all of these issues before anyone else was doing so. You know, I am looking forward to the day when Satya is a major publication with a huge distribution and people are picking it up the way they pick up Time magazine.

What is most inspiring to you?
I am constantly inspired when anybody acts generously or kindly. Most recently Joey Cheek, the speed skater who won the Olympic gold medal and then donated everything, the entire award, to help Sudanese refugees in Darfur. That sort of thing inspires me all the time. That’s when I tear up and feel like the world is good. That’s when I feel like all of us together can change everything.

To learn more about humane education, contact www.IIHEd.org or (207) 667-1025. Zoe Weil’s new children’s book, Claude and Medea Book 1: The Hellburn Dogs, about 12 year-old activists who rescue dogs from a laboratory, is currently being posted, chapter by chapter at www.lanternbooks.com. The book will be available in print after the web series is complete.

 

 


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