By Zoe Weil
There are days when I feel hopeless about the future. Not my personal future, but the future of humanity, the planet and other species. But my work in humane education, which explores the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection, and provides people with the knowledge, tools and motivation to be solutionaries for a better world, is inherently hopeful. There would be no reason to devote my life to this work as a full-time volunteer at the Institute for Humane Education if there were no hope that it could make a difference.
Yet, at times I despair. I’m not a pessimistic person, but one doesn’t have to be a pessimist to recognize that time is running out to address looming planetary catastrophes. We’re losing more species every year than we are capable of counting; the ice caps are melting; human population is still growing, and one billion people are undernourished and have no access to clean water.
The numbers of people living as slaves, and girls who are trafficked and sold into prostitution, seem not to decline, despite massive efforts by many people. Peak oil looms, threatening to make the current recession seem like boom times unless we develop sustainable and abundant energy sources soon.
And while all this is happening, tens of billions of land animals are treated unimaginably cruelly in factory farms before they are slaughtered, while one trillion sea animals are killed brutally every year. There’s good reason to feel hopeless at times.
And yet, most days I am hopeful. Usually, I rise eager to work for positive changes that I think are absolutely possible, and I spend my time advancing the field of humane education, which I consider to be the greatest hope for a restored and healthy world. As Thoreau once said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
Humane education is that root work, promising to raise a generation ready and able to tackle the current and looming problems with wisdom, creativity and resolve, both as students and through their future professions.
I know humane education is long term work, but were we to embrace a bigger purpose for schooling (to graduate a generation of conscientious choicemakers and engaged changemakers for a healthy, just and humane world), we could ensure that every child learns about the pressing issues of our time in age-appropriate ways; is taught to think critically and creatively about those problems; has their innate compassion nourished and cultivated, and is offered the tools for problem-solving. These students would inevitably transform unjust and unsustainable systems because their education would have prepared them for this important work.
But I realize the challenge in manifesting this vision is huge. So many forces are arrayed to prevent this root solution from actually taking root, and each passing year in which humane education makes only small inroads, the tasks ahead grow more daunting. And yet, my hope is sparked when, in just four months, my TEDx talk on humane education, “The World Becomes What You Teach,” is nearing 20,000 views and people keep saying “Yes!” to this vision, which means there is hope that it will be shared and implemented sooner rather than later.
My hope is sparked when other educators’ work is similarly embraced, from Phil Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project, to the growing list of schools signing up for HEART’s comprehensive humane education programs in New York and Chicago, to the work of visionary educators Sam Chaltain and John Hunter, to Ashoka’s new empathy initiative for schools, to the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford, to the work of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, and so much more.
As Joan Baez put it, “Action is the antidote to despair.” So when I feel hopeless, I harness my fading will toward action once again. And when I do, when I teach and watch my students become energized, enlivened, engaged and enthusiastic, my hope returns. I feed the part of myself that is starving for renewed faith, and I feed those students eager (and sometimes even desperate) for meaning, purpose and relevancy in their education. And that is when I know that a humane, healthy and just world is possible: as long as we refuse to give in to despair, but instead work just as tenaciously when hopelessness takes root as we do when we are hopeful.
I feel lucky that 25 years ago, I stumbled upon a root solution to our world’s gravest challenges that lay in the inspiring work of humane education. I feel incredibly privileged to have found a path that makes a difference while also being so deeply heartening and such rewarding work. I feel lucky that, because I have the opportunity to witness the power and promise of humane education, I get to restore my hope again and again in the face of realities that could otherwise derail me because of the frightening future they portend.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, www.HumaneEducation.org, which offers the first and only M.Ed. and M.A. programs in Humane Education and online programs for teachers, parents, and change agents. She is the author of Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; and The Power and Promise of Humane Education. She has given a TEDx talk on solutionary education and blogs at www.zoeweil.com. Find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.