A Case For Humane Education

Spring 2011

By Tim Donahue

Park Slope, Brooklyn, has perhaps the nation’s densest collection of farmers markets and artisan breads in the country. But a few storefronts down from the fair trade Chai tea merchant, 10th grade classmates were struggling to answer the same question that had stumped so many of their contemporaries around the city — “Where did your lunch come from?”

The hamburger, the fries, the soda, the cookie — they were birthed somewhere and somehow other than the “immaculate conception” our consciences would deem most convenient. In that day’s class, aimed at exposing the stages of food production, students slowly peeled back the layers — their food came from “the school kitchen,” “the food service distributor,” “the farm,” “the farmworkers,” “the soil,” “the water,” “animal feed,” “the things we put in the feed, soil, and water,” “the trucks,” and on like this until the students devised categories that included “cultivation,” “distribution,” “retailing,” and “waste.”

As we traced each item back from product to process, it was at once revealing, exciting, practical, and ultimately, empowering. Students who simply ate the stuff on their plates or on the shelf were trying to pronounce their ingredients; those who wanted nutrition were a little outraged, and those who knew of healthier options were insiders.

When students “close the loop” around their own consumption like this, to see the interdependent connections between animals, natural resources, and their own welfare, learning becomes intimate and relevant. This consideration of how the chain of production affects the rights of humans and animals and the natural resources they depend upon is the core value of humane education, which is now a public school mandate in 13 states. If it is true that our most frequent and vocal practice of democracy comes from our role as consumers, a class like this seems inordinately practical.

Though there are many classes that call for our sympathies, from the plights of Madame Bovary to Anne Frank, there are not enough that allow our pathos to extend beyond the classroom walls. Humane education begins in the incubus of a lesson plan, but its ethic extends towards integration in the greater community, with social action projects that include fund-raisers, volunteer drives, and peaceful demonstrations.

While humane education was formally introduced to schools back in 1915, with the American Humane Association’s “Be Kind to Animals Week,” its presence in high school and university classrooms has grown in direct response to the latest economic downturn that has many re-thinking material possessions. As the green economy, concerns for sustainable living, and species extinction continue their daily coexistence, the case for humane education in our schools becomes increasingly important. Its foundations are as timely as they are enduring:

It is forward thinking...

Against a student’s slate of classes that includes Hamlet’s potential suicide, the Holocaust, entropy, La Biographie de Robespierre, and the rules of trapezoids, humane education allows students to connect with the world that the archetypal graduation speakers say they “will inherit.”

President Barack Obama promised five million new green-collar jobs would rise out of this challenged economy, where survival seems to depend upon sustainable practices. The unlikely “Blue Green Alliance” between United Steelworkers and The Sierra Club underscores this. According to Executive Director Dave Foster, “It’s not a question of jobs or the environment. It’s both or neither.” When problems are conceived in absolute terms, critical thinking skills give way to bipartisan ruts. Humane education involves the sort of integrated thinking that promotes such “win-win” alliances and allow the most good and cause the least harm.

A lesson on urban transportation, for instance, considers not only the health of the local environment, but also that of the people who are commuting. It considers the quality of life for those who live near streets with high traffic volumes and whether urban planners could introduce healthier modes of transit. It takes the immediate problem of the danger a child might have in crossing the street and asks this student to re-vision — literally, drawn on paper — a viable, safer model. This one lesson, then, can enlighten the student about a wardrobe of green collar options: urban planning, environmental justice, alternative energies, public transportation advocacy, or architecture. No matter how beautiful The Great Gatsby is, it can’t do this.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the environmental consulting services industry “is projected to be the fastest growing, with employment increasing 83 percent over the 2008–18 period, and is one of the highest paying.”) One of the best — and most annoying — questions a student can ask of a class is, “How is this relevant to my life?” Relevance will never be an issue with humane education. Consider these reasons:

It is action-based...

If train x leaves station y at z speed and train a leaves station b at c speed, they will hypothetically meet and provide an answer for a homework assignment. But what else are they going to do? Traditional assessments, where students submit papers to individual teachers and teachers submit them back to individual students, can get lost in a defunct underground railroad. If education instills so much power that it was stripped from Native Americans and Nazi Youth, then its force should be more visible. One of the most popular classes in the humane education canon has students looking into the “true cost” of material items we might take for granted — perhaps an iPod, a pair of sneakers, or a cotton shirt. When students remind themselves, for instance, that the cotton in their shirt may have deprived communities of water, was assembled in a sweatshop, and then was shipped halfway across the planet and sold by uninsured minimum wage earners, the lesson begins to have a resonance. This begins when students teach their parents and extends to when they shop selectively, host fund-raisers, or eventually, start a school for Pakistani children who would otherwise be in sweatshops, as did Broadmeadows Middle School in Quincy, MA.

Social action projects are often the end result of humane education units. A middle school in Manhattan that studied habitat destruction raised money for Haiti; a Chicago class that focused on social service created new school menus, upgraded school recycling, and launched anti-bullying programs; students in St. Louis formed a “Riverkids” group to clean up an adopted area of shoreline on the Mississippi River. With lessons that highlight the contributions of “humane heroes” like Jane Goodall, Cesar Chavez, Wangari Maathai, and Nathan Runkle, humane education shows how conviction, critical thinking, and compassion allow ideas to happen.

It is uncertain whether 21st century students are so inundated with tales of extinction, erosion, and overturned tipping points that they have become overburdened and demoralized. It is certain, however, that these students need to learn that our pressing problems offer exciting and viable solutions. Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, encourages schools to evolve from hosting debate teams to creating “solutions” teams that square off with different proposals for how to fix current issues ranging from carbon emissions to food deserts.

It fosters interdisciplinary connections...

Humane education is not didactic. It is not concerned with one special focus; it’s not the red team against the blue team ending in stagnating stalemates. It is about integrating ideas beyond polarities, walking around the humans, animals, and resources involved with the issue and getting into critical thinking.

Thinking becomes exciting when these connections open, when one idea informs another. As it relates to the fields of science, anthropology, economics, history, and others, humane education offers a kinetic storm of the synapses. A study of the BP oil spill, for instance, integrates the livelihoods of those who fish, those that are fished, and the rest of us who rely on the oil that interlaces them. A study of the Tata Nano, an Indian car that costs half as much as its competitors, invites questions of social status, air pollution, safety, economic inequality, materialism and happiness, road systems, urban planning in India, and viable transport alternatives. The inherent debates between interest groups lead to broader-based perspectives.

Of course, any issue worth studying has conflict, which is why, in the U.S. alone, there are 90,000 lobbyists spending over $3 billion a year to get their earmarks on the law. Rather than approach topics from an either-or dynamic, and marginalize viewpoints, humane education is about recognizing problems and solving them. If the pundits are correct when they say that President Obama’s era is characterized by the most polarizing press and the most bipartisan gamesmanship , this integrative approach offers an important alternative for the future.

It is intimate...

A student enrolled in a humane education elective might expect to study how humans differ from other animals, where our food and clothing comes from, how our cleaning products and cosmetics are tested on animals, how the streets of our neighborhoods are designed, how material possessions distinguish cultures, and how people’s access to food, water, and clean air affects their wellbeing. In other words, humane education concerns itself with what goes into, on, and around our bodies. Can this be said of trigonometric functions?

The accumulated knowledge from such an open-ended study informs its students on another intimate level — as consumers. What we choose to buy — or not to buy — is one of our most vocal forms of language and the chief complicator of our democracy. Humane education encourages a healthy skepticism that considers the true costs of our purchases, recognizing all stages of consumption. Reminded of this right to choose, students promote cruelty-free shopping guides for their classmates, find new interest in vintage clothing, and put themselves on leather diets.

Bringing this wider lens into focus also informs how students choose to spend their time. Where some schools, rather paradoxically, “require” their students to “do” a quota of community service hours, such time is a natural extension of the humane education curriculum. Students who make their own leaflets about animal testing and hand them out on street corners, as they did after a course in Philadelphia, or students who volunteer their time to work at animal shelters are making public contributions based on inner convictions.

There seems a conflict between education’s underlying purpose — is it to prepare students to meet the challenges of world they will inherit or is it to teach the verbal and scientific literacy required to find jobs and compete in a global marketplace? Humane education graduates understand their role is not to perpetuate the system they inherit — no matter how good we are as workers, it will not matter if we are on a destructive path — but to be conscientious choice makers engaged in just and sustainable solutions. Such a paradigm shift must begin in schools.

It allows for a dynamic curriculum that responds to current events...

While there are several online sources for existing humane education activities and curricula, from groups like the Institute for Humane Education, TeachKind.org, and Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers (HEART), no plan will exhaust the discipline’s possibilities. Just as connections evolve among the core areas of animal rights, human rights, and environmental stewardship, so do the issues concerning them. Consider how the integrative approach applies to a sample of pressing issues: the BP oil spill, the sustainability of the Colorado River, housing size and costs, congestion pricing and livable streets, or alternative energy investment.

These topics also allow for expansive assessment modes. A unit, for instance, that studies the viability of congestion pricing could study the math of miles driven, fuel consumed, and savings projected. It could feature position papers that stress persuasive, researched writing, or stimulate a video ad campaign that teaches technological literacy. It could delve into the biological effects of air quality or probe the history of congestion pricing in other cities around the world.

Also, since the sources for humane education can be so current, its study teaches media literacy. Just as some websites offer questionably reliable information, so, too, do newspapers, advertisements, and politicians. By means of a really good humane education course, students will learn to look at all the perspectives and weigh all the evidence. To preface a lesson that asks students to detect the “greenwashing” of products that make erroneous eco-claims, for instance, students engage in their own analyses of ads. Of a given ad, they are asked, “What deeper need does this product fulfill?” “Who is excluded by the ad?” “Does the product require any exploitation, suffering, or destruction that is hidden from view?” The students who can respond to emerging media with a critical context feel at once frustrated and empowered — they are not submitting to the system, they are questioning it and seeing it with fresh eyes.

When our students can make the connections humane education inspires, they are able to transcend apathy with action.

In 2000, the Animal Legal Defense fund counted nine Canadian and U.S. law schools with courses on animal rights; today, the group counts more than 120. This upswing owes more to the 1999 introduction of animal law courses at Harvard Law and Georgetown Law than to the increased plights of animals. But the integration of law, ethics, religion, literature, ecology, and visual art is gaining traction at the undergraduate level as well in subjects from English to Freshmen Seminar to Religion to Environmental Science. H-Animal, an online discussion group hosted by H-Net, lists dozens of class offerings. Among them: “Animal Ethics,” “Animals, People, and Nature” “The Human and its Others: The Question of the Animal,” “Suffering: Animals, Violence, and the Consequences of Silence,” and “The Nature of the Beast in American Culture.”

University of Chicago Professor Pamela Alexander accounts for this influx into the curriculum: “Animal rights is one of the greatest social justice movements of our time. It’s captivating and alluring to students to get involved in this, to recognize that the human-animal bond is not reflected in the law as it is in society.”

High schools are beginning to reflect this growth curve. More — though not enough — are adopting humane education electives or incorporating humane lessons into their existing curricula. Health classes might view The Meatrix, an animated film that exposes factory farming, and then discuss nutrition; history classes might incorporate the social implications of sweatshops. One charter school in California, Humane Education Learning Community Charter School, intends to orient all its lessons though the lens of humane education.

When Ms. Weil, author of The Power and Promise of Humane Education and perhaps the movement’s strongest voice, begins with a new group of students, she often asks them to define “humane.” She reminds them that it means “having the best qualities of human beings.” As a class, they typically define these traits as perseverance, honesty, kindness, and courage. Education, she feels, needs to make the “mental shift” that emulates these values. “When we begin to perceive global warming and extinction of species every single day and the crisis that looms ahead if we don’t address these problems, I think that humane education could become part of every school in a decade.” 

Tim Donahue is a humane education instructor and curriculum consultant for HEART (Humane Education Advocates Reaching Teachers), which services the New York City area. He is also on the English faculty of Birch Wathen School in Manhattan, where he has taught since 1998. He is the author of Sustainable Writing: A Guide to Composition and Climate Change.


Dagmar Barlow. "List of Green Collar Jobs and Growth Predictions." Environmentalism. March 16, 2010.
Amy Brown. “Weekend Voices with Zoe Weil.” WERU Radio, Blue Hill, ME (February 2, 2008).
Dave Davies. “Fresh Air.” WHYY FM, Philadelphia, PA. August 10, 2010.
Jennifer Epstein. "New 'animal studies' courses look at culture, not biology." USA Today. July 28, 2010.
Bret Mizelle, ed. "Animal Syllabus Exchange.” Dowloaded from www.h-net.org/. Accessed May 24, 2011.
The Growth in Green Collar Jobs.” Newsweek, April 7, 2008.

Tim Donahue

Tim Donahue has been teaching Upper School English and history at Birch Wathen Lenox School (New York) since 1998. He writes about education, endurance sports, and environmental issues.