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Recently, a participant in the Institute for Humane Education’s online course, Teaching for a Positive Future, shared her experience of showing my TEDx talk on humane education with her twelfth graders at a college preparatory private school. While the students liked the talk, they wondered if such an education — one that focuses on learning about relevant global issues and becoming critical and creative problem solvers for a better world — would be preferable to the curricula they were used to. Was it “academic” enough?
About a year ago, an administrator at another prep school said that his faculty, after reading one of my essays on humane education, was concerned that if they embraced a humane education vision, they might not meet the expectations of parents and students alike, who are seeking acceptance at elite colleges, which, they believe, is secured by taking AP courses and following the standard curricula that colleges expect from their applicants.
I found these responses to humane education terribly dismaying. Not only is it worrisome that people might not consider learning how to be a conscientious choicemaker and engaged changemaker for a more just, healthy and humane world important enough to embrace wholeheartedly, but it is also my experience that humane education actually prepares students better than traditional curricula. Humane education demands much of our students: that they rigorously investigate the truth of statistics and information; that they critically evaluate everything (even what their teachers say); and that they not regurgitate memorized facts or argue a single side of an issue, but use their knowledge and skills to develop creative solutions to complex issues. Moreover, humane education invites real world engagement, and in the real world it actually matters how well you express yourself in writing or speaking, or how fully you develop a cost effective plan to improve some aspect of your school or community.
For example, I recently asked an 8th grade class to listen to a This American Life episode about the production of Apple products in China, and then to write letters to Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, expressing their concerns. I helped them to understand that this letter to Tim Cook had to be good, because it mattered. It had to be respectful, clear, well-written, heartfelt, thoughtful, organized, and to the point. This was a demanding assignment, and they told me the next morning how much time they spent on their letters. And it showed.
Tim Cook has since written back to the class, which has been diligently following the news of Apple’s increased attention to unjust and inhumane conditions in the factories that produce its products. These students have gotten to experience the power of their voices directly. Humane education has asked much of them, and the results — both in their work and in the real world — have been significant. They have learned to care about others far removed from themselves, they have learned to voice that care and their ideas, and they have learned that their voices can have a positive effect.
While we and our kids may want the opportunities that elite colleges provide, it’s important that we not buy into inflexible systems of schooling in our pursuit of some imagined future success. My guess is that great colleges would actually like nothing more than to read applications from students who’ve made a difference in their young lives; who have tackled real world challenges and learned what it takes to succeed in creating positive change; who have decided that taking AP course after AP course is not necessarily the path to a better education; and that engaging in relevant real life issues helps them acquire the practical and theoretical skills for a truly successful future.
It’s sad that some think they’re taking a risk by embracing humane education enthusiastically and making it the core philosophy of schooling when the real risk is the one we are taking every day: that we don’t choose to make raising a generation of engaged solutionaries the highest goal of our schools.
Image copyright Institute for Humane Education.