Education is the root system underlying all other systems. Given the grave and potentially catastrophic problems we face, it is critical that we provide young people with the knowledge, tools, and motivation to address our pressing challenges in order to transform unsustainable and unjust systems into ones that are humane, healthy, and peaceful.
People may be surprised when they hear that Zoe Weil, founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education, finds inspiration in Star Trek for how to live a just, peaceful, and sustainable life. As she explains in her acclaimed TEDx talk, "The World Becomes What You Teach", Star Trek models a "future in which we've solved our earthly problems. Our nations are at peace, our planet is alive and thriving, we're no longer myopic and mean-spirited, we're part of a united federation of planets, and we're actually explorers without being conquerors." While a united federation of planets is the stuff of science fiction fantasy, the ideals appeal to Weil.
What set Weil on the path to humane education was a course she taught in Philadelphia. In 1987, her summer job was to teach middle-school kids about cosmetic product testing on animals. One student went home after class to make leaflets against animal testing and abuse to hand out on the street. Weil says with pride and a touch of wonder, "He became an activist overnight." The enthusiasm and activism that course engendered in the students inspired Zoe Weil to become a humane educator.
What is a humane educator? Weil defines it as "someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, animal protection and environmental preservation, with the goal of providing students with the knowledge, tools and motivation to be conscientious choicemakers and changemakers for a just, healthy and humane world." Zoe calls the people who make these connections, choices and changes "Solutionaries".
In 1996 she founded the Institute for Humane Education in Surry, Maine. IHE, in affiliation with Valparaiso University, offers the only comprehensive, accredited graduate programs in humane education in North America. The program's goal is to teach students to be critical thinkers, to question everything they read and hear and to conduct their own research. Weil writes, "I don't want them parroting what I say; I want them to confirm whether what I say is valid and meaningful...I want them to take whatever I teach them and carry it further than I ever could; to assess not only the truth of what I say, but more importantly, to explore what those truths that they find mean and imply as they work to come up with ideas and approaches that help produce more human rights, greater animal protection, and better environmental preservation in the future."
IHE trained teachers incorporate the training into their classroom curricula and non-profit operators benefit by using what they learn in the program to better and more actively engage their members and target audiences.
Is it fair to place the burden of solving the world's problems squarely on the shoulders of students? Weil is confident that students are interested, enthusiastic, imaginative, and ready to tackle any challenge given to them. Recalling a talk she gave at a National Honor Society induction ceremony on the environmental and moral issues associated with buying a cheap cotton shirt made halfway around the world, Weil says:
After the talk, one of the girls who'd just been inducted was angry that she'd never learned about these issues before. "We should have been taught this since kindergarten!" she exclaimed. Youth yearn for meaningful education. I receive letters after humane education presentations that are full of gratitude. As one 8th grader wrote, "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. I will carry that week with me for a lifetime." While this letter sounds positive, I find it poignant. A week-long course with a humane educator shouldn't be the most inspiring five days of a 13-year-old's life. Such education should be the basis of schooling.
Through all these experiences, from her fascination with the ideals of Star Trek as a teenager to her work as a humane educator--traveling, teaching, giving presentations—Zoe Weil remains hopeful…and funny.
MOGO (Most Good) is her motto, and she recently created a one-woman show My Ongoing Problems with Kindness: Confessions of MOGO Girl. Michael Greger, the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States, says about the show,
"Whoever thought that hearing about the terrible things we do to animals, the destructionwe're wreaking on the environment, and the misery we're still inflicting upon each other could be so hilarious? Zoe Weil has made learning about some of the most important issues of our time entertaining and captivating while, in her self-deprecating way, showing us how we can live differently, more humanely, and better and solve the problems we've created in the world. Prepare to laugh, think, and leave this show transformed."
Zoe Weil, the IHE, and an ever-growing number of Solutionaries demonstrate that we can all become more informed about the choices we make in life. Weil believes that with this consciousness we can fix our global problems creatively, peacefully, and sustainably.
Weil is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for A Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child In Challenging Times;The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea about 7th graders who become clandestine activists in New York City.