We spoke with Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education. Zoe is an author, speaker, educator, and trailblazer changing the world for the better. We found out how she’s spreading good across the world, why we should all be solutionaries, and why right now is the very best time to learn humane education.
What is Humane Education and what do you teach your students?
Humane education invites people to examine the connections between human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection in order to identify systemic challenges and address them holistically to solve problems in ways that contribute to a peaceful, just, and healthy world for all. Humane education gives people the tools and motivation to lead lives that are deeply aligned with their values so that they do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the earth that sustains us all.
The word humane literally means “having what are considered the best qualities of human beings.” Humane educators do not tell people what those best qualities are, but rather solicit them. I’ve asked thousands of people what they think are the best qualities of human beings, and the answers are always similar. People say compassion, kindness, integrity, honesty, generosity, wisdom. They never say greed, cruelty, or hatred. Once people have identified for themselves these best qualities, humane educators help them to research, investigate, and learn about the ways in which their everyday choices impact others far removed from them through the global marketplace, and to understand the systems that cause harm and destruction. With that knowledge and a commitment to live more deeply aligned with their own values, people have the ability, the wherewithal, and the commitment to make new choices and to make a difference.
What have graduates of your programs gone on to accomplish?
Many are classroom teachers who incorporate humane education into their curricula, which is so powerful. We’ve had graduates who have started humane education programs in India, Hong Kong, and Kenya, and a middle school principal in Singapore who’s entire school is humane education focused. Some are artists, writers, actors, screenwriters, and singers incorporating humane education into the arts. Several work for non-profit organizations as humane educators. There is quite a range!
How do you incorporate the MOGO philosophy into your daily living?
MOGO is short for “most good” which is short for doing the most good and least harm to all through our daily choices, acts of citizenship, work and volunteerism. For me, it’s simply a matter of asking the question: “What will do the most good and least harm in this situation?” Whether it’s my food choices (vegan), clothing choices (mostly from thrift shops), or profession (humane educator), I try to live this principal as honestly and fully as I can. I’m far from perfect, but I try.
You’ve said you discovered your life’s work in 1987. How did you find it, or how did it find you?
While in graduate school, I was looking for a summer job and found a program at the University of Pennsylvania that offered week-long courses to middle school students. I taught three courses that summer, one on environmental issues, one on animal issues, and a creative writing course. Teaching the animal issues course, I watched my students become transformed, changing their attitudes and actions. In one case, after learning about product testing on animals (in which everything from shampoo to oven cleaner is dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits, forcefed to animals in quantities meant to kill, and smeared on their abraded skin), a twelve-year-old boy in the class went home and made his own leaflets. This was long before kids had personal computers, so when I say he made his own leaflets, I mean that he handwrote them! He came back to class the next morning with a big stack and stood on a Philadelphia street corner during lunch handing them out. I heard later that the course changed the lives of several of those students; it also changed my life, and I wound up becoming a full-time humane educator teaching around 10,000 kids annually. I wanted to create a revolution in education so that all young people learned about how to protect our beautiful planet and solve the problems we face in the world.
So I created humane education workshops to train other people to be humane educators and then co-founded the Institute for Humane Education, where I developed humane education graduate programs, wrote books, and began speaking around the world about humane education. We are creating a powerful movement that will change education and from that, the world. I know that may sound ridiculously ambitious, but it’s happening. We just need to speed up the process.
You gave a powerful TEDx talk in 2010 that ranked as one of their 50 top rated talks. Why do you think it was so well received?
In that talk, I suggested that we needed a bigger purpose for education, and that it should be to educate a generation of solutionaries. Given the complex, interwoven, and escalating problems we face in the world, and given the tremendous opportunities we have to learn about anything and everything instantaneously, as well as to collaborate, communicate and solve these problems, it seems crazy to have students memorizing names and dates of battles or a host of other tasks typical of classrooms one hundred years ago, before students had the breadth of human knowledge available on devices that fit into their pockets. I think this concept of educating people to be solutionaries able to identify challenges, understand the systems that perpetuate them, think critically and creatively to solve them, and to do so in ways that do not harm one group while helping another, is one that resonates with people. And when people are inspired by this idea and want to implement it they can come to the Institute for Humane Education where we have programs – an online grad program, online courses, free downloadable resources, books, and workshops – to help them.
We love the term “solutionary.” Do you think we can all be solutionaries?
I do think we can all be solutionaries, and I’m aware that it’s not easy. To be a solutionary, one needs to cultivate and practice deep problem-finding and couple that with deep critical and creative thinking. Bandaid and single-issue solutions along with polarized thinking are ubiquitous in our culture, and they are antithetical to solutionary thinking which demands that we identify the dysfunctional, unhealthy systems perpetuating entrenched problems and come up with new, sustainable ideas that are good for all. Coming up with a “solutionary solution” is hard. For example, CNN did a show on a man they identified as a CNN Hero who saw two problems – food waste from restaurants and hungry people at soup kitchens who need food. He came up with an idea to use volunteer help to bring restaurant food that was going to be thrown out to food pantries where people needed food. Sounds solutionary, right? And it is, but it is low-level solutionary. It doesn’t solve the issue of hunger and poverty and income inequality nor the issue of wasteful, destructive, inhumane food production. Those are tough problems, and they require deeper, more systemic solutions. I’m not criticizing this CNN hero’s good work, but I do wonder if we might raise the bar on what’s worthy of such an accolade and media attention. And if we raised the bar, we might discover a paucity of truly solutionary ideas because we don’t learn how to be solutionary thinkers. Instead we learn how to take sides, jump on the bandwagon of soundbytes, argue and debate our “position,” and we learn this partly in school! It’s what debate teams promote.
Instead, I propose we use those school years to teach students how to be systems thinkers and critical and creative thinkers so they can truly solve the challenges we face.
You teach humane education to children, students, post-graduates, and adults. When do you think is the best time to be taught this information?
The best time is all the time. While I don’t think that young children should be unduly exposed the problems in the world before they have the tools and abilities to solve them, I do think that we need to cultivate a sense of reverence and wonder in young children so that they care enough to protect our world and all who reside here from violence and harm as they get older. From around fifth grade up, we should focus learning on real-world, relevant education that helps young people be solutionaries. Imagine how in demand these young people will be when they graduate from high school and college! Every profession needs solutionaries. Such a generation will have tremendous opportunities because they will have practice, skills, and the mindset to solve problems rather than win arguments. This year we are piloting an exciting program bringing Solutionary Congresses to a half dozen schools. In these Congresses, students will work in teams to address a systemic problem and offer viable, practical, cost-effective solutions. One of the criterion for a “solutionary solution” is that it cannot harm another group. In other words, a solution to an environmental problem cannot harm individual animals; a solution to a social justice problem cannot harm the environment. Not easy! It will be exciting to witness the learning and growing these students will experience as they work together to solve real-world issues. They may choose to address problems in their school, community or a global challenge. The goal won’t be to compete with each other, but rather to compete in the marketplace of ideas so that the truly innovative, exceptional, doable ideas are implemented.
Are there any current events that really irk you right now?
Oh my goodness, yes! There are truly ghastly and frightening things happening in the world: war, human trafficking, climate change, the horrific brutalization and killing of a trillion animals every year for food, and much more, and these sadden and anger me tremendously, but what irks me most is myopia, lack of critical thinking, and the polarization of just about everything. We are urged by the media and through our political system to take sides on everything – as if everything should be seen in for or against terms – instead of engaging people’s good minds in finding positive solutions. It’s the ultimate dumbing down of our culture and threatens the ability of young people to grow up and grow out of this destructive and unhealthy approach to problems. This is why I work to transform education. If we truly educated a generation of solutionaries, we would solve the problems we face. It’s that simple.
If you weren’t doing what you are doing, what would you like to do instead?
I can’t imagine not doing the work I do because it is the most meaningful work I can imagine. When I look at myself in the mirror I want to have respect for the person looking back at me. I’ve been doing this work for over 25 years, the last 19 of which have been in the role of a full-time volunteer. With that said, I need and rejoice in time doing other things that reinforce my love for this world and remind me why I care enough to devote my life to humane education. I’m in nature as much as possible, carrying a magnifying glass and a camera, hiking, exploring, wading, climbing, snorkeling, paddleboarding. I’m an avid mushroom forager and nature photographer. I practice Aikido, dance, paint, write, and do improvisational comedy. I love living life to the fullest.