Humane Education for a Humane World

Humane Education for a Humane World

Animal CollageHumane education examines the challenges facing our planet, from human oppression and animal exploitation to materialism and ecological degradation.  It explores how we might live with compassion and respect for everyone.

by Zoe Weil

In 1987, I offered several courses in a summer program for middle school students at the University of Pennsylvania.  The courses met from 9-5 and lasted 5 days.  One of the classes I offered was on our treatment of animals and another was on the environment.  In each course, we went on field trips.  In the class on the environment, we visited a recycling center, a wildlife rehabilitation center, and held a Council of All Beings on a protected beach.  In the course on animals, we visited an animal shelter, a farmed animal sanctuary and conducted a critical review of conditions for animals at the zoo.  We watched videos about what was happening to animals and the environment, wrote letters to elected officials and CEOs of polluting companies, and created campaign, slogan and T-shirt ideas for activism.

When the two weeks were over, I was astounded by what had taken place.

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The kids in those classes were different on Friday than theyíd been when theyíd come to class Monday morning.  Some had become vegetarians; some had become environmentalists.  One boy, whoíd learned about product testing on animals on Wednesday, came to class on Thursday with leaflets that heíd made the night before.  At lunch, he stood on the street corner in Philadelphia handing them out to passersby.  Some of the students in these classes went on to be highly effective activists who are working on animal, environmental and human rights issues to this day.

After these courses were over, I realized that I’d found my life’s work, and that it had a name: humane education.  Humane education doesnít so much differ from environmental education — it encompasses it.  In fact, humane education is the umbrella that encompasses many educational reform movements including sustainability education, animal protection education, social justice education, media literacy and character education.

Humane education examines the challenges facing our planet, from human oppression and animal exploitation to materialism and ecological degradation.  It explores how we might live with compassion and respect for everyone ó not just our friends and neighbors but all people; not just our dogs and cats but all animals; not just our own homes but the earth itself, our ultimate home.

Humane education inspires students to act with kindness and integrity and provides an antidote to the despair many feel in the face of entrenched and pervasive global problems.  Humane educators cultivate an appreciation for the ways in which even the smallest decisions we make in our daily lives can have far-reaching consequences.  By giving people the insight they need to make truly informed choices, humane education paves the way for them to live according to abiding values that can lend meaning to their own lives while improving the world at the same time.

Quality humane education includes several elements including:

Providing accurate information — so students understand the consequences of their decisions as consumers and citizens
Fostering the 3 Cs: Curiosity, Creativity and Critical Thinking – so students can evaluate information and solve problems on their own
Instilling the 3 Rs: Reverence, Respect and Responsibility — so students will act with kindness and integrity
Offering positive choices that benefit oneself, other people, the earth and animals — so students feel empowered to help bring about a better world.

Humane education programs accomplish the above through interactive and engaging teaching techniques that model compassion, respect and openness.

Humane education offers real hope for creating a humane world.  When young people are taught to be aware of the effects of their choices, are inspired to think critically and creatively about solutions to problems, and learn to make connections between all forms of exploitation and destruction, they discover ways to actually build a better, more sustainable and more compassionate society.  It’s that simple — and that challenging!

In the face of more and more standardized tests coming from both state and federal agencies and scarce educational funds limiting what schools and teachers may offer, it’s difficult for such a positive, progressive educational reform movement to take hold, no matter how great its promise.  Few schools have budgets to hire humane educators let alone the will to make room for another subject while there are government tests to pass to maintain school funds.  Yet, despite these obstacles, the humane education movement is growing day by day.  Humane educators are finding opportunities to teach humane education courses, and several humane education charter schools will be opening in 2005 and 2006.

What does humane education look like in practice?  In the sidebar on this page is one of the activities I use in humane education programs (excerpted from my book, The Power and Promise of Humane Education, New Society Publishers, 2004).
This activity is meant to illustrate the range and variety of issues that humane education addresses and the connections between our personal choices and the world that we create and perpetuate.

Imagine if all students were to be offered humane education in age appropriate ways.  Young children would be steeped in reverence building activities, while older students would learn to become critical and creative thinkers who are encouraged to be problem-solvers, not just test-takers.  A generation would grow to be media literate and aware, and to understand the connections between human wellbeing, environmental health, and the compassionate treatment of other animals.  Instead of learning about problems in isolation, they would learn about the interconnections between forms of oppression and exploitation and grapple with finding ways to create justice and peace for everyone, especially when conflicts ensue.  Such a generation would no longer think in black and white terms, nor consider destructive choices like war as a first (or even second, third or fourth) response, but rather would think in innovative, visionary ways that seek creative answers to problems and conflicts.  This is the generation we need to raise, and humane education is the tool to achieve such a conscious, compassion-literature society.

Activity: Cast Your Vote

Grades: 6 and up
Time: 20-40 minutes
Materials: Pretend money, containers for common products (see below), cans with product name labels
Relevant Subjects: Social Studies, Current Events, Economics, and Language Arts

Hand out pretend money to students, giving each person the same amount.  Explain that although students cannot vote in elections until they are 18, they vote every time they spend their money.  Every dollar they spend is a vote that says “Do it again!”
Place containers for common products on your desk, such as:
• A box for a name brand athletic shoe
• The container for fast food hamburger
• The wrapping of a common chocolate bar

Ask the students if they recognize these items, and if any of them have used, eaten, or purchased any similar items.

Ask a student to come up and open the box for the athletic shoe.  The student will find the following words written inside: “Ingredients: When you buy this item, in addition to the shoes themselves, jobs for people, and economic growth, you may also be contributing to sweatshop labor, pollution, and animal suffering.” Have the student read these words aloud, and ask other students to come and read the ìingredients inside the other containers as well.  For the hamburger, they might read: “When you buy this item, in addition to a tasty, convenient meal, jobs for people, and economic growth, you may also be contributing to rainforest destruction, species extinction, the suffering of cows, pesticide use, water waste, pollution, increases in heart disease, cancer, and obesity, and strip mall development.”  For the chocolate bar they might read: “When you buy this item, in addition to a delicious dessert, jobs for people, economic development, and world trade, you may also be contributing to child labor.”
Once the “hidden ingredients” in the products are read aloud, explain the connections between the produces and the suffering or destruction they may be causing and ask students to think of similar products that might not come with as many hidden ingredients that cause harm (e.g. shoes produced by people paid a living wage, an organic veggie burger, fair trade chocolate).

Place cans that name product choices on a large shelf or desk.  Include several choices for each product category, such as:

• Secondhand athletic shoes
• New, name brand athletic shoes
• New, Fair trade athletic shoes
• Fast food hamburger
• Hamburger made from organic, local beef
• Veggie burger
• Common brand of chocolate bar
• Chocolate bar with ”fair trade” and “organic” written on the label
• Piece of fruit

You can use your imagination and produce many cans for many other items, especially if you have discussed other products in other humane education activities (e.g. T-shirts, personal care products, etc.)  Always include at least three choices for each item, for example:

• Conventional T-shirt
• Organic cotton T-shirt
• Thrift shop T-shirt

Put accurate price tags on each item.

Ask students to use their pretend money to “buy” what they would like by coming up and putting their money in the cans they want to “vote” for.
Analyze the votes.  Which products did students vote for with their dollars, and which ones did they withhold their money from?  Why?  Which products did they buy despite the fact that the product cost more than a counterpart?  Why?
Discuss the ramifications of people living their lives consciously aware that their dollars are votes.  What might change?  How might the students spend their money differently after this activity?  Ask students how products have already changed because of consumer voting?  (e.g. availability of organic foods, creation of hybrid cars, labeling of fair trade and cruelty-free products, etc.)

Conclusion: explore the ways in which students are and are not inspired to make humane “voting” choices in their own lives.  Create a longer project in which students research and report upon the effects of different product choices.


Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the International Institute for Humane Education (IIHE) which, through and affiliation with Cambridge College, offers a distance-learning M.Ed. in humane education which is the first and only program of its kind in the U.S.  IIHE also offers its acclaimed Sowing Seeds humane education workshops monthly around the U.S. and Canada.  Zoe is the author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education and Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times.  For more information about IIHEís training programs and Sowing Seeds workshops, visit