The World Becomes What We Teach
An Interview with Zoe Weil of the Institute for Humane Education.
Posted April 29, 2020
“Educating people to create a world where all humans, animals and nature may thrive.” – Institute for Humane Education
It is my great pleasure to offer this interview with Zoe Weil, co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) and one of the world's leading humane educators.1,2 For many years, she has been a role model for me and for countless others. Here's what she had to say in our interview.
Why and when did you cofound the Institute for Humane Education (IHE)?
I had been a humane educator for many years before cofounding IHE, offering presentations in schools, leading assembly programs, teaching afterschool courses, and witnessing the powerful impact humane education had on young people. Students launched school clubs after a single presentation. Some became activists overnight.
One 12-year-old boy, who took a week-long summer course I taught in 1987, hand wrote leaflets after learning about product testing on animals (in which products are dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits, smeared onto animals’ abraded skin, and force-fed to them in quantities meant to kill). He distributed his leaflets on a Philadelphia street corner during our lunch break the next day. I couldn’t help but wonder how the world might be different if–in age-appropriate ways–young people learned about the connections between human rights, animal protection, and environmental sustainability not just once from a visiting humane educator but infused into their school curricula daily.
I cofounded IHE in 1996 in order to propel the humane education movement forward and prepare educators and activists to teach about global ethical issues. We wanted to offer not only free resources, workshops, and classes, but also to create the first graduate programs in comprehensive humane education.
Through an affiliation with Antioch University New England, we currently offer online Ed.D., M.Ed., M.A., and Graduate Certificate programs in humane education. These are the only programs of their kind in the world. We also have an award-winning free resource center that includes our Solutionary Guidebook for educators and a brand new guidebook for youth and changemakers, How to Be a Solutionary, which offers a step-by-step process for solving problems in ways that are good for people, animals, and the environment.3
You’ve earned graduate degrees in Theological Studies and English Literature, and you’re certified in Psychosynthesis. You’re also a nature photographer. How did these interests lead to your work as a humane educator?
I love our beautiful Earth and the myriad species who reside here with all my heart. From the time I was very young, I adored animals and was bereft when I witnessed or heard about animal suffering. When I learned about slavery and the Holocaust in school, I couldn’t fathom how we could do such things to one another.
My interest in literature, religion, and psychology stemmed from my desire to make sense of what we value, how we think, and our capacity for both astonishing altruism and astounding cruelty. My circuitous path to my career as a humane educator makes sense in the context of wanting to help build a more humane world, which I believe begins with understanding the human species and then focusing on education.
As for nature, it keeps me grounded and joyful despite all the destruction and suffering that humans perpetuate. When I photograph the natural world, I am simultaneously tingling with excitement and in a state of serenity.
Please tell readers about your pioneering ideas about people becoming solutionaries.
Young people generally care deeply about suffering, cruelty, and destruction. They want to make a difference. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily change their personal behaviors (or have the parental support to do so). While making personal choices to do the most good and least harm is important for many reasons, including integrity and credibility, we are never going to create a just, humane, and sustainable world solely through personal choice-making. There are too many systems impacting our ability to make compassionate, sustainable decisions. For example, we can’t easily avoid fossil fuels, unsustainable mining for electronic devices, or sweatshop and slave labor embedded in the global production system. Therefore, we need to create changes in our energy, economic, political, production, and other systems so that they are sustainable and just.
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This is why people need people to become solutionaries, who identify unjust, unsustainable, inhumane systems and develop solutions that address the causes of problems and solve them in ways that are good for all life. I have come to believe that this should be the very purpose of schooling, rather than to prepare children for “global competitiveness,” which is the current mission of the U.S. Department of Education. Then the acquisition of literacy and numeracy, and the understanding and implementation of the scientific method, can be directed to address real-world issues. In the process of becoming solutionaries students become proficient critical, systems, strategic, and creative thinkers and compassionate changemakers for a better world. This is a beautiful win-win for kids and our future.
Who do you hope to reach, and how do you do so?
We focus on educators and parents because they are preparing the next generation for their important roles in shaping the future. We also provide resources and support to youth and activists directly (e.g. our free guidebook How to be a Solutionary). We’ve launched a Center for Solutionary Change, which serves as a hub for learning, professional development, educational resources, and methodologies for advancing the growing solutionary movement, and we have a variety of entry points, from our blog and free resources to workshops, courses, and webinars to graduate programs.
What is your mission, and what are some of your major messages?
Our mission is to educate people to create a world in which all humans, animals, and nature may thrive. While this goal is broad, our educational strategy is specific. We believe that the world becomes what we teach, and we offer an innovative and effective solutionary educational process.
In terms of our major messages, we believe that despite all the awful things that are happening in the world, we can solve our challenges and build a positive future. It’s important to pay attention to how much has improved over time. When I was born, it was legal to discriminate against people of different races. We have a long way to go to end systemic, institutional racism, but the passage of the Civil Rights Act and bans on miscegenation laws happened in my lifetime. The air and waterways in the U.S. are cleaner now than when I was a child, and while cruelty to animals persists, according to a Gallup poll most people in the U.S. now believe that animals should be accorded rights and protections.
How does the IHE differ from other organizations that are concerned with some of the same general topics?
Our comprehensive approach–creating a better world for people, animals, and the environment–distinguishes us from most groups that focus on one, or at most two, areas. Our solutionary approach is also distinctive. We advance a level of thinking and action that goes to the root of systemic causes of problems in order to solve them in far-reaching, sustainable ways that do the most good and least harm for all life, not just human life.
Are you hopeful that things will change for the better?
Most of the time, yes. There are some days when my optimism wavers, but I believe what Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I think we will replace fossil fuels as an energy source. I think we will limit family size and reduce the human population. I think we will embrace economic systems that ensure that everyone’s needs are met. I think we are within two decades from a future in which it is uncommon to slaughter animals for food. Perhaps I should say I know we can, and I hope we will do these things, but I prefer to offer the more optimistic vision.
1) Zoe Weil is the cofounder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), where she created the first graduate programs in comprehensive Humane Education linking human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection, offered online through an affiliation with Antioch University. IHE also offers an award-winning resource center through its Center for Solutionary Change to help educators and changemakers bring solutionary practices to students and communities so that together we can effectively solve local and global challenges. Zoe is a frequent keynote speaker at education and other conferences and has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed TEDx, “The World Becomes What You Teach.” She is the author of seven books including The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries; Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm, Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, and Above All, Be Kind. She also blogs for Psychology Today. Zoe was named one of Maine Magazine’s 50 independent leaders transforming their communities and the state and is the recipient of the Unity College Women in Environmental Leadership award. She was also a subject of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series. She holds master’s degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Pennsylvania and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Valparaiso University.
2) Institute for Humane Education, P.O. Box 260, Surry, ME 04684, 207-667-1025, firstname.lastname@example.org.
3) Solutionary: Noun: A solutionary is able to identify inhumane and unsustainable systems, then develop solutions that are healthy and just for people, animals, and the environment. Conscious of their personal impact, solutionaries also endeavor to do the most good and least harm through the choices they make. Adjective: Characterized by addressing problems in a strategic, comprehensive way that does not harm one group by helping another.
Bekoff, Marc. One Health Stresses Working Together to Heal a Broken Planet.
_____. Why People Should Care About Animal and Human Suffering.
_____. One Welfare: Ways to Improve Animal and Human Well-Being.