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November 2002
Begin with Children

By Zoe Weil


If we are to reach real peace in this world and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with children; and if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle, we won’t have to pass fruitless idle resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace, until at last all the corners of the world are covered with that peace and love for which consciously or unconsciously the whole world is hungering.—Mohandas Gandhi

In the summer of 1987 I taught several week-long humane education courses to secondary school students. I told the students about the hidden realities of factory farms, took them on field trips to critically examine zoos, brought them to a drugstore to scope out animal testing in various products, let them meet shelter dogs and cats sentenced to die for lack of homes, and introduced them to people working to improve the world. I watched in delight and amazement as these twelve and thirteen year old students were utterly transformed. Some became vegetarians overnight; a few became activists by mid-week, and several are still working today to bring peace, restoration and justice to the world. After the summer was over I realized that I couldn’t think of anything more powerful, more effective, more necessary (or more personally rewarding) than inspiring young people to be humane. Since that summer, I’ve made humane education my career, and I’ve become convinced that Gandhi was right. To truly create a peaceful world, we must begin with children.

Humane education has become a holistic and comprehensive movement that draws connections between human rights, animal protection and environmental preservation. It is a field of study and method of teaching that examines what is happening on our planet, from human slavery to animal exploitation; from globalization to ecological degradation; from media monopolies to cultural ideologies. It explores how we might live with compassion and respect for everyone: not just our friends, neighbors and classmates, but all people; not just our companion dogs and cats, but all animals; not just our school and home environment, but also the earth itself, our ultimate home. It invites students to envision creative solutions and to take individual action, so that their life choices can improve the world.

Humane education is one of the most important reform movements of our time. It is a movement that has as its goal the complete transformation of our world, from one that is still rife with violence and suffering to one that has as its foundation peaceful coexistence for all. It is a movement that promises to raise and educate children with an ethic of compassion, respect, integrity and wisdom so that the next generation may set a new course toward humane and sustainable living.

There are four elements that come into play in humane education’s pedagogy. They include: providing information, teaching critical and creative thinking, instilling the 3 Rs of “Reverence, Respect & Responsibility,” and offering positive, healthy, and sustainable choices. Through its non-judgmental and open approach, humane education inspires young people to listen to and learn from one another, to put compassion into action, and to feel empowered to make a difference through their own choices and behaviors.

Providing Information
When young people learn about what is happening in the world; when they find out that some of the products they use are tested on animals, some of their clothes are produced in sweatshops, and some of their choices are seriously damaging the environment, most of them are shocked. They don’t want their choices to contribute to suffering, nor do they want their lives to be expressions of apathy. But until they’re exposed to the behind-the-scenes information about the products and choices of their lives, they are ignorant about their effects. Humane education provides the information that is otherwise hidden from view so that young people will have the knowledge to make kinder choices.

Teaching Critical and Creative Thinking
“Don’t believe me!” I often say as I begin a humane education class because I want students to be critical and creative thinkers, not vessels for my truth. It’s not enough to simply expose young people to new knowledge. They must learn how to ascertain whether it is accurate and true, as well as explore causes and solutions. Critical and creative thinking can solve the problems of our time and create a more humane world. Sometimes there are no simple answers to intractable problems and widespread exploitation and suffering, so humane education teaches young people how to think deeply in order to grapple with complexity and arrive at methods and paths toward peace.

Instilling the 3 Rs
If the 3 Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic are the skills we want our children to master academically, then the 3 Rs of reverence, respect and responsibility are what they need to master for the sake of their souls and the world. Instilling reverence may be as simple as taking young people outdoors and awakening their senses, their awe and their wonder. It might mean telling the story of Koko the gorilla and her beloved kitten, which inspires a child’s deep love and appreciation for other species, or it might mean showing students a video about young activists working to stop sweatshop labor, thereby igniting a reverence for virtue. Respect and responsibility follow naturally on the heels of reverence. What we revere, we tend to protect and care for. Once young people’s hearts and souls are full of reverence, humane education then inspires them to bring an attitude of respect toward others as well as responsible actions to right the wrongs that they have learned about.

Offering Positive Choices
“Which harms less and helps more? A tofu pup or a hot dog? A bike ride or a car ride? Volunteering at a homeless shelter or spending the day at the mall?” By asking these questions to young people, they discover that what they do matters. How they spend their money and their time has an effect on others. By providing positive choices, humane education not only promotes actual change in the world, it also staves off despair. If young people learn about the suffering and destruction in the world, but are not given concrete suggestions for actions they can take to help, they may begin to feel impotent and apathetic. If instead they are allowed to explore options that actually improve the world and solve problems, they know that their lives can make a difference. Choice-making, offered in age-appropriate ways, allows young people to recognize the power of their individual lives to create a humane world.

When all schools have humane education programs integrated into the curricula, we will be on the path toward a peaceful world, and Gandhi’s prediction will come true. We can all work toward this goal. As more activists are inspired to become humane educators, and more teachers are inspired to incorporate humane education into their curricula, and more parents request humane education for their children, we will see the humane education movement grow rapidly, and its potential will be realized.

Zoe Weil is President of the International Institute for Humane Education (IIHE) whose mission is to create a world where respect and compassion are the guiding principles in all relationships. IIHE works to achieve this goal through the advancement of comprehensive humane education that inspires people to make deliberate and thoughtful choices which benefit the earth, other species, and all people. Please join us at our upcoming “Sowing Seeds Humane Education Workshop” in New York City, April 26-27, 2003. Visit, e-mail, or call (207) 667-1025 for further information.


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