Oddly, this is one of those questions that we don’t often ask. It just seems too basic — as if we believe it’s already been asked and summarily answered long before our personal tenure as educators. Yet, I believe it is the single most important question of our time.
We are confronted with escalating, interrelated global problems, from climate change to growing extinction rates to economic instability to a looming energy catastrophe to depletion of resources to an ever-growing population of people, each of whom requires food, water, shelter, and a job. Our economic, agricultural, energy, and production systems all exacerbate the growing problems in our world, and while plenty of people are working to create solutions, because the systems in place that perpetuate our global problems are so entrenched and pervasive, the challenges to creating a just, healthy, and peaceful world are enormous.
Clearly, we need to create better, sustainable, and restorative systems in a host of arenas, from food production to energy to transportation to financial markets. But how do we start the process? I suggest that we begin by asking ourselves the crucial question: What is schooling for? If we can transform this central cultural system, other changes will follow.
While the mindset of politicians and the mainstream educational reform initiatives is that education ought to ensure that our students are verbally, mathematically, and scientifically literate and proficient enough to “compete in the global economy,” many educators, when asked, answer this question about the purpose of education with more complexity, nuance, and vision. They want schooling to enlighten, engage, and inspire. They want the education their students receive to lead them toward lifelong learning and help them to be critical and creative thinkers and good citizens. They want to impart their particular passion — whether for literature, history, science, math, foreign language, or the arts — so that their students may also fall in love with a field of study that opens their minds and hearts and gives them the knowledge and tools to make a difference in the world.
Sadly, forces in education are currently arrayed to thwart teachers who believe that schooling should have a broader or deeper goal than competing in the global economy. And while independent schools are not required to submit their students to endless standardized tests, or have their teachers judged by these tests, there are still traditions and expectations that often stand in the way of the transformation educators say they want to see.
In particular, culturally driven parental expectations of high SAT scores and guaranteed placement into elite colleges lead many schools away from humane, experiential, project-based, democratic, and/or holistic education. Grades are ubiquitous in most independent schools, as are hours and hours of homework, AP courses, textbook learning, and frequent stress-inducing exams. Outside of some specific alternative school movements (such as Waldorf, Montessori, and Democratic schools), the goal of education may not be that different in independent schools than in public schools; it’s just more intense. Not only will graduates in independent schools be able to “compete in the global economy,” many are being educated to be leaders and professionals at the top of the economic and social hierarchy.
Yet, what happens when these students become productive contributors to the global economy? If they haven’t been educated to understand, address, and solve systemic global problems, they are unlikely to have the tools to create new, healthier, and more just systems. In fact, the more successful they are, the more likely they will be to contribute to the pervasive problems we face.
Which is why we need to adopt a new purpose for schooling: to provide all students, in age-appropriate ways, with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a peaceful and healthy world for all. Put another way, I believe that we need to graduate a generation of solutionaries so that our graduates, whatever careers they pursue, understand that it is their responsibility to ensure that the systems within their professions are sustainable, humane, and just.
In today’s world, anything less than this seemingly lofty purpose is ultimately unfair to our children and will leave them unprepared to address the grave challenges they will face.
For almost 25 years, I have been a humane educator — that is, someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection in order to provide students with an understanding of global challenges and the skills to solve them. For many years during which I had the title “humane educator,” I never looked up the word humane in the dictionary. I thought I knew what it meant, so why bother looking it up? When I finally did, however, I found this definition: “Having what are considered the best qualities of human beings.”
There are many opportunities to infuse humane education into the curricula in schools, and many current school components that could be modified to make them more relevant and vital for today’s world. For example, consider debate teams. For years, I have thought of school debates as exercises in polarizing thinking. When we desperately need our graduates to think beyond either/ors and to be innovators and problem solvers, it has become commonplace for students to be given a debate topic that represents black and white answers to complex issues. Students are instructed to research and argue their side in order to win. But to what end? Certainly they will acquire useful skills in the process, but couldn’t our students learn so much more?
I loved this definition of humane. It made my understanding of my work so clear. It became my goal to invite students to identify what they considered to be the best qualities of human beings and then to help them put those qualities into practice in practical ways. I began asking each group I taught to tell me what they considered the best qualities of human beings. Compassion topped virtually every list, followed by wisdom, generosity, kindness, courage, perseverance, honesty, and integrity. No one ever said greed, violence, or hatred — even though these seem to be quite prevalent in the world today. Importantly, the lists that they generated were always similar no matter the venue, age, religion, or class of the individuals. By and large, we all seem to agree upon what makes us good human beings.
I’m sure that most educators would support the values of this list. However, I don’t think many of us examine the ways in which we either reinforce or undermine these qualities in our own schools. What, for instance, does it actually mean to be kind in our schools? We all understand proximal kindness, but how can we be truly kind when the food we eat in our school cafeteria is contributing to environmental destruction, animal cruelty, human health problems, and the oppression of people on farms and in slaughterhouses? How can we be kind if, when we shop, the clothes we buy are tainted with child slavery in cotton production and then sweatshop labor in overseas factories? How can we be kind when we acquire electronics, the components of which were likely mined in unsustainable ways, causing toxic pollution and exposing workers, including children, to poisons? In my experience, there are very few schools that consider these issues deeply, even as they say they espouse kindness.
When youth have identified for themselves what is most important to them, and when they are then helped to understand the implications of living a life that is compassionate, just, courageous, and full of integrity, they are able to take the next steps: putting their education into action to come up with systems that are compassionate and just while they simultaneously endeavor to make personal choices that do the most good and least harm.
There is an activity I do with middle and high school students that invites them to explore and understand the impact of their choices. It’s called “True Price,” and it can be used as a 15-minute exercise or a yearlong course. True Price analyzes an everyday item (e.g., conventional T-shirt, cheeseburger, bottled water, MP3 player, etc.) asking these questions:
• What are the effects, both positive and negative, of this item on you, other people, animals, and the environment?
• What systems are in place that perpetuate this particular item?
• What alternatives would do more good and less harm and what systems would need to change to make such alternatives ubiquitous?
After doing this exercise with students at a national honors society induction at a local school a few years ago, one inductee — when asked by a friend what she thought of my talk — said it made her angry because, as she exclaimed, “We should have been learning this since kindergarten!”
What if, instead of debate teams, we created solutionary teams in which groups of students worked together to come up with the most imaginative, yet practical and cost-effective solutions to complex challenges? These students could address issues in their own schools (e.g., cafeteria food or energy use); in their communities, or in the world, and in so doing begin to develop creative ideas for actually solving problems. We could then implement the best ideas, enabling our students to understand the real power they have as solutionaries and the great pleasure and liberation to be found in taking responsibility for bettering their schools, communities, and the world.
Toward a Better Future
After years of work as a humane educator, visiting schools, and speaking to tens of thousands of students, I realized that there were not enough teachers trained to educate in this way, and not enough schools implementing these ideas. So, I co-founded the Institute for Humane Education and created the first humane education training programs — from online graduate degrees to workshops to short online courses to free resources at our website — in order to help advance and operationalize the goal of educating a generation of solutionaries. Teachers across the globe are using the free downloadable humane education activities at our website. They’re getting their M.Ed. degrees in humane education, taking our online courses, and bringing these ideas into their classrooms from pre-school through 12th grade. They are infusing their curricula with greater relevancy and meaning whether as math, language arts, science, or social studies teachers. And their students are responding. They are becoming more compassionate and more determined to make a difference; they are cultivating their critical and creative thinking abilities toward problem solving; they are realizing that they have the capacity to create positive change; they are engaged and passionate about both learning and doing.
Most of my days I now spend training teachers, writing, and speaking about humane education, but I still go into schools to teach. When I do, I usually receive letters from the students. Here is an excerpt from a letter that I received from an eighth grader at a Waldorf School where I had offered a weeklong humane education mini-block:
Spending that week with you was the most inspiring five days of my life so far. You made me realize how much just one person can do to help the world and how much more you can do by educating others about the issues. I have already started teaching my parents…. It really feels good to know that I can take sometimes simple and sometimes complex actions to save a life and our world. Thank you so much for this opportunity! I will carry that week with me for a lifetime.
That letter should make me happy. It doesn’t. That week should not have been the most inspiring five days of her life. Such education should be the norm. Each day, she should be learning that what she does matters, that the world needs her, that there are big problems, and — while each of us is complicit in causing suffering and harm because of entrenched systems from which we cannot easily extricate ourselves — that she is able to make different choices and participate in creating positive, systemic change. She should know that when she learns math, she is being provided with the knowledge of numeracy in order to do amazing things in the world that can make things better. She should understand that when she learns science, a world of wonder and possibility is being offered to her and that her knowledge can be harnessed for great good. She should be taught that history is the gateway for understanding our past so we can build a healthier and more just future, and that literature is where we can uncover the deepest truths to guide our path toward meaning and integrity.
One of the greatest opportunities for this sort of education to take root lies in our independent schools, which are not beholden to state and federal mandates and so have the capacity to transform more quickly and efficiently to address a changing world, and which can readily harness the passion and brilliance of their teachers who will, if given the opportunity, answer the question, “What is schooling for?” with teaching that will lead us toward a better future.