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Only in recent history have we had the capacity to alter the climate of our planet; to cause the extinction of so many species so quickly; to desertify our land and cause dead zones in our oceans. At this very moment approximately one billion people do not have enough food to eat or clean water to drink, and around 25 million are living as slaves. And this year, close to one trillion animals will be killed for food in ways that are not only unsustainable but also profoundly inhumane.

Yet, despite this gloomy reality, only in recent history have we had the capacity to communicate and collaborate instantaneously with people across every border to work together to solve our challenges and create healthy and restorative systems that benefit all people, all species, and the environment that sustains us. How exciting to live at a time when we have the tools for dramatic collaborative problem-solving, and when the information we need to creatively address persistent issues is available through small devices that fit into our pockets.

Given this, our children need and deserve schools and teachers that help them think critically and creatively, follow their passions, work together, and solve the problems that loom over their futures.

This right kind of schooling has a name. It’s called humane education.

What Does Humane Education Look Like? 

Picture a seven-year-old boy exploring the natural world with a magnifying glass, staring at tiny hairs on plants and noticing amazing insects, some of whom are pollinating flowers. Even though he lives in a big city, every month his class visits nearby parks where they learn about nature, witness the changes in seasons, taste edible plants, practice quiet observation, and see and hear wildlife. This little boy is giddy with excitement when he goes home, eager to learn everything he can about the natural world and to make a difference even for the tiniest of creatures.

Imagine an eleven-year-old girl waking up each and every morning so enthusiastic about going to school. All her fellow middle schoolers begin each day spending 10 minutes doing something to make a positive difference. Collectively that’s a week’s worth of action every single morning. Together they’ve written thousands of emails to their legislators; set up new systems for recycling and composting at their school; presented position statements on local issues to their town council; called companies to urge ethical standards in production, and much more.

Now envision a high school senior, passionate about the plight of animals, who spends a semester interning at an animal sanctuary for rescued farm animals. In consultation with his teachers, the director of the sanctuary, and the local animal control officer, he investigates and documents animal cruelty to create a film to help viewers understand the cruelty inherent in factory farms, and what they can do to stop it. A filmmaking mentor teaches him how to best edit his footage. Just days after he uploads the film to the Internet, it has been viewed ten thousand times.

Visualize highschoolers across the globe hard at work preparing for their annual Solutionary Congresses during which teams share their practical solutions to problems in their schools, communities, and world. One group is working to transform their school cafeteria so that it serves only humane, healthy, sustainable food. Another is tackling a weighty, complex, global challenge: how to produce and disseminate affordable, clean, renewable energy for a growing population of over seven billion people. A team in a poor community in Africa is working to create alliances and systems that enable them to gain easy access to clean water.

Stories like these are happening across the globe as humane educators bring important global issues into their classrooms; foster their students’ reverence, respect, and sense of responsibility; teach them to be critical and creative system-thinkers and problem-solvers, and inspire them to make a difference.

What Does it Mean to be Humane?

One of the definitions of the word “humane” is: “Having what are considered the best qualities of human beings.”

Humane educators ask their students to identify these qualities, and the lists their students generate are always similar. They mention kindness, integrity, wisdom, fairness, courage, and perseverance. None say greed, violence, or hatred. Practically all include compassion and/or empathy on their list.

Once identified, humane educators help their students cultivate these qualities in a complex world in which every choice – from the food they eat to the electronics they buy to the clothes they wear to the ways in which they participate in democracy and prepare for careers – affects people, animals and ecosystems around the globe. This work entails teaching about the grave and pressing problems in the world and helping students to become solutionaries who are equipped and empowered to solve them.

Let’s Make Humane Education Synonymous With Education

Commitment to such an education is growing. I say this with some confidence. At the risk of demonstrating an embarrassing lack of humility, I feel compelled to write that my first TEDx talk, The World Becomes What You Teach, which introduced the idea of educating a generation of solutionaries as the very purpose of schooling in today’s world, became among the most popular and viewed TEDx talks. The speed and enthusiasm with which this vision has spread has made me realize that teachers, parents, administrators, change agents, and policy-makers are eager to re-examine the goal of education in today’s world, and that humane education is on its way to becoming the core of schooling.

Why is this vision being embraced so enthusiastically? Because people realize that unless our children are given the knowledge, tools, and opportunities to understand, address, and solve real-world problems such as Climate change, resource depletion, inequity, population growth, cruelty, massive extinctions, and much more, their future – no matter how verbally, mathematically, or scientifically literate they are – may well be bleak.

“People are awakening to the truth that if we love our children then we must prepare them properly to meet their future.”

There are thrilling things in the works across the globe to make humane education synonymous with education. Teachers everywhere are bringing these ideas and approaches into their classrooms, inspiring and preparing a generation of solutionaries.

Perhaps most exciting is the creation of a new, 21st century, comprehensive, open-source, shareable curriculum and the opening of the first preK-12 Solutionary School in New York City based on that curriculum, that will serve as a replicable model for schools everywhere.

What Can You Do to Help Make Humane Education the Core of Schooling?

  •  Contact your local legislators, school administrators, and teachers and share the vision and practice of humane education. Help them to understand that simply focusing on improved math and language arts skills is neither enough for our kids nor likely to leave them prepared for the important world-improving work they must do.
  • Bring humane education into whatever settings suit your skills and personality. If you are a teacher, infuse your curriculum with relevant, global issues and prepare your students to be solutionaries. If you are not a professional teacher, that doesn’t mean you cannot educate others. You can offer an afterschool course or mentor a solutionary team; bring classes to adults and/or programs for children in libraries and camps. Teachers, parents, and activists will also find loads of free activities here.

Image source: Steve Holden/Wikimedia Commons