In this episode, Institute for Humane Education founder Zoe Weil talks with our co-hosts to dive into the history of humane education, how to move from being a problem solver to being a “solutionary,” and the impact she believes humane education could have on our country and world – especially as we emerge from a global pandemic.
The Institute for Humane Education helps educators teach about human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection to create a world where all can thrive, they recently partnered with Antioch University to offer MA, MEd, EdD and certificate programs in Humane Education.
You can find the books Zoe mentions like The World Becomes What We Teach and Most Good, Least Harm on the IHE website here.
Watch Zoe’s TEDx Talk on The World Becomes What We Teach here.
Read more about Antioch University and the Institute for Humane Education’s partnership here.
Learn more about the Institute for Humane Education here.
To apply for a Humane Education program please visit antioch.edu.
Recorded March 22, 2021 via Riverside.fm. Released March 31, 2021.
The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University, co-hosted by Jasper Nighthawk and Simon Javan Okelo, and edited by Lauren Instenes. Guidance for this episode came from Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland. Podcast cover photo of Zoe Weil by Jo-Anne McArthur.
[00:00:07] Jasper Nighthawk: Hello, and thank you for joining us here on The Seed Field Podcast from Antioch University.
With every episode, we celebrate and share stories from those that embody the spirit of Antioch University and our founder Horace Mann, as they win victories for humanity. Simon, who do we have on the show today?
[00:00:33] Simon Javan Okelo: Today, we are lucky to be joined by Zoe Weil, the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education. She is the author of seven books, including her latest, The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries. Zoe is a pioneer in the field of humane education. For the last 30 years, she’s led workshops, written articles, and spoken at universities and conferences across the United States.
She has been invited to talk at TEDx six different times, and one of the recordings has been viewed over 130,000 times. She designed the curriculum for the Institute for Humane Education’s Master of Arts and graduate certificate programs, which are offered in partnership with Antioch University. Zoe, welcome to The Seed Field Podcast.
[00:01:37] Zoe Weil: Thank you so much. It’s really a pleasure to be here.
[00:01:40] Simon: Thank you. It’s wonderful, and we are so happy that you chose to spend your time with us today. You run the Institute for Humane Education. Your core mission is to help teachers and changemakers create a more just, humane, and sustainable future by educating them about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental sustainability, animal protection, and building a society of solutionaries. This is a powerful mission. I want to circle back to this term, solutionary, but first, as one of the pioneers, can you tell us the story of humane education? How did this novel idea come into the world?
[00:02:29] Zoe: It’s actually been a term that’s been around since the 19th century. Henry Bergh, who founded the first SPCA for animals as well as the first child protective organizations, he and some others realized the importance of educating young people to be compassionate and to strive to make a difference for others. What was interesting is that the term grew out of this combination of both child protection services and animal protection services, so it was holistic in its origins. Then for many years, the term became most commonly associated with humane societies and SPCAs, and really was focused on animals.
Some of us in the late 1980s and early 1990s, wanted to go back to its original meaning, and to define humane education as education about the interconnected issues of social justice and sustainability and protecting other species. We have been going back to the roots and making humane education the comprehensive field of study that it is today, that prepares people to understand these interconnections and to create a world in which all can thrive.
[00:04:07] Jasper: That’s such a beautiful mission and I think relevant throughout history but especially today. It seems urgent with everything that we’re facing as a society and as a species. As I understand it, one of the major thrusts of humane education, as the Institute for Humane Education practices it, is preparing educators to educate their students humanely. One of my questions is, that there are already so many standards in curricula, training programs, certification programs that teachers need to adhere to in every state in the country. My question is, what makes humane education different from education as commonly practiced today?
[00:04:51] Zoe: That’s a great question. It’s really interesting that you mention that part of the mission is that education should itself be humane because that was not the origin of this term. It really was a term that revolved around a field of study, as I was just describing.
Just as an aside, a few years ago, a woman who was an educator and educational trainer and had been an educational administrator, she was just thinking about education and schooling in the United States and where we live in Maine and just thinking about how inhumane some of the practices were. She googled humane education because she wanted to create education that was more humane. She found us and found what humane education also means, this field of study.
But to get to your question, humane education can be perceived as something that is in addition to. You were just talking about all those things that teachers have to add onto their already incredibly full plates. How can humane education not be perceived as yet another add-on, something more that teachers have to do?
The way that we perceive it is that humane education can infuse schools and infuse curricula so that regardless of what a teacher is required to teach. Whether they’re a math teacher of 7th graders or whether they are a high school history teacher, whatever it is, that they were hired to teach that these issues of social justice and sustainability and animal protection can actually be brought into the curriculum to enliven and enrich the curriculum so that students can learn about real-world issues within whatever subjects they are required to study and that their teachers are required to teach.
[00:07:10] Jasper: I love that. It sounds to me like a matter of first principles rather than a new curriculum, or it’s something different. It’s more the ground on which this is undertaken.
[00:07:22] Zoe: Yes.
[00:07:23] Simon: I just love how also, as you’re suggesting, that it’s a way for teachers to infuse these core issues, environmental justice, and sustainability into what they already have going on.
[00:07:38] Jasper: It’s so interesting learning more of the history of humane education. I wanted to ask, one of the big terms that you use at the Institute for Humane Education is this term “solutionary” and specifically training children to be and think as solutionaries. Can you tell us what this word solutionary means? I’m hoping that you can contrast it with another term, “activist” that is in wider circulation today.
[00:08:04] Zoe: Sure. Thank you for the question. I also want to contrast it with the word “problem solver” because solutionary is not synonymous with either of those words. A solutionary is somebody who can identify unsustainable, inhumane, and unjust systems, and then devise solutions that do the most good and the least harm for everyone: for people, for animals, and for the environment. Solutionaries also strive to make personal choices that are aligned with more just and sustainable and humane systems themselves.
So how is that different from being a problem solver? You can imagine an engineer has a problem and they solve it and they are a problem solver, but being a solutionary means really becoming a systems thinker who understands the interconnected systems that cause problems, so that when they devise solutions, they do so in a way that doesn’t produce unintended, negative consequences toward any group. Problem solvers could easily do that, produce a solution to some problem that has other negative impacts, because they are not charged with making sure that they don’t produce unintended, negative consequences.
[00:09:29] Jasper: That’s such a nice way of framing it. I was hoping you could cast this into more specific terms. Is there an example of a problem where you’ve seen the problem-solving approach go in one direction and where you see a solutionary approach – if you could give us a specific example of where a solutionary approach might yield real great benefits.
[00:09:50] Zoe: Oh, sure. This also gets to the difference between a solutionary and a humanitarian. Let’s say you have a problem of litter on your roads. You think we have to solve this problem, and so you gather a group together to pick up the litter. This happens all the time. Litter is picked up from roads all the time and beaches all the time.
Or let’s say you have a problem of hunger in your community or houselessness in your community and you want to help this problem, and so you do a food drive or you open a new homeless shelter. The idea there, of course, is you’re solving this problem. There are people who are hungry, you’re providing food for them, but it’s not a solutionary approach because you’re not looking at the systems which are causing that problem to begin with.
You’re going to continue to have your roads full of litter year after year, after year, and you’re going to continue to have people who are hungry or who don’t have a house to live in year after year, after year, unless you address the systemic causes of those problems, and you look at root and systemic solutions to them. I think that that gives you an example of how those things are different.
[00:11:19] Jasper: Yes, thank you for that.
[00:11:21] Zoe: To get into the question of activism, an activist can absolutely be a solutionary, and a solutionary can also be an activist, but not all activism comes with this solutionary mindset or the solutionary thinking process.
There’s a way in which we think of activism in our society. It’s certainly a way I thought of myself when I first started doing activism. Activism meant that I was standing on a street corner handing out leaflets, or I was attending rallies and protests. That felt to me like what it meant to be an activist. It usually also meant that I was writing letters to my legislators or contacting them. I was trying to create change through those things, but I wasn’t necessarily, once again, going through a solutionary process.
In a solutionary process, we identify a problem that we want to solve, so activists that might be similar. The next step is we do a lot of research and investigation to understand the systemic and root causes of that problem. We reach out to all stakeholders. Sometimes activists don’t do this. Activists will often show up at the protest with a sign, but that doesn’t mean that they have made a concerted effort to reach out to the stakeholders, including those who are benefiting from the systems that are perpetuating the problem.
If we don’t reach out to all of those who are impacted by a problem, and by all of those, I don’t mean every last living being, I mean different categories of people and those representing other species or the environment, and really understand that problem’s impacts on all these different communities. If we don’t simultaneously reach out to the beneficiaries, then we are not going to be able to ultimately find the best strategies to create systemic change. That’s another piece of what it means to be a solutionary.
Solutionary thinking is comprised of many forms of thinking, but primarily, critical thinking, systems thinking, strategic thinking, and creative thinking. You begin by cultivating your critical thinking capacities, so that you’re really a solid investigator. You really can distinguish fact from opinion, and information from disinformation or misinformation. Then, again, you understand all of the systemic causes and the root causes that lead to the system, the creation of those systems. When you’ve done that really thoroughly, then you can think strategically about where there are leverage points to create change that can be widely accepted and implemented.
That is a really important piece of being a solutionary, because if you can’t be strategic and find those good leverage points, the chances for being able to be successful with a solution go down. Then, ultimately, you have all of those pieces together, you think creatively, and you can come up with a solution.
The last thing I’ll say about that is it’s not as if every solution has to be brand new. Nobody’s ever thought of this solution before. It doesn’t necessarily work like that at all.Sometimes you might, in the process of doing your investigation and research, find phenomenal solutions that simply haven’t been successfully implemented. Your solutionary thinking might be that you are devising strategies to successfully implement others’ solutions.
[00:15:25] Jasper: I love that. One of the things that it makes me think of as a contrast with activism is the way that restorative justice tries to upend the entire system that has led to the committing of what we might think of as a crime. It tries not to think of just how do we punish somebody, it tries to think of how do we bring in all of the different people who this has affected and come to some solution moving forward. I love when you describe bringing in all of the different stakeholders, even those people who might be benefiting from the system as it is currently set up.
[00:16:01] Zoe: I love that you just brought up restorative justice because I think of restorative justice as one of those fantastic solutionary solutions that is spreading. In Maine, there was a high school that participated in our solutionary program, and the students decided to address the punitive disciplinary policy in their own school as the problem that they wanted to solve. They, through their research, discovered schools in Oakland, California that had implemented a restorative justice approach.
The punitive disciplinary policy, the way it punished students was, if a student, for example, was skipping school, the punishment was suspending them from school. How that solved anything, I don’t know. One student at this school, when I asked, “Why are you taking this approach? Why did you want to address this question,” he said, “I just want everyone to succeed.” The way they went about it was finding another school that had implemented a restorative justice disciplinary policy.
They brought that with their own modifications to their administration, and then the school changed their policy to adopt this approach. Imagine if that were to spread into every school. It doesn’t have to be that solutionary work is rocket science. It can be as simple as spreading great ideas and making them real all over the country and all over the world.
[00:17:41] Simon: Thank you so much, Zoe and Jasper. It’s just been amazing listening to the two of you. It’s like listening to the kind of news that everyone should be listening to. I wanted to take us back to 2019. Starting in 2019, the Institute for Humane Education has been partnering with Antioch University to offer advanced degrees at our New England campus. I wanted you to share with us why you were drawn to partnering with Antioch, and in a broader sense, why is it useful to accomplish your mission through partnerships?
[00:18:17] Zoe: Thank you so much for the question. Partnering with Antioch was an absolute no-brainer, full-stop. Who better to partner with than the leader in progressive education? We are so excited to be working with Antioch.
When we think about whether or not to become a fully accredited graduate program ourselves or partner with an existing institution like Antioch, that also is a no-brainer. Working with a university that has been doing progressive education for so long and has been so successful at it. It’s just a privilege to work with Antioch and with the New England campus for our master’s degree and certificate program, and then with Antioch University for the brand new EdD program, which is the first doctorate in education with a specialization in humane education in the world as far as we know.
[00:19:24] Jasper: Thank you for explaining that, Zoe. Here at Antioch, we definitely try to be the leader in progressive education. At the same time, it really is these partnerships with like-minded people and organizations that allow us to embody that. I want to ask you, though, the last four years really have not been a banner time for progressive education in this country. Just last September, a handful of months ago, former President Trump called for patriotic education, that was his term, and he banned racial sensitivity training for federal contractors. There’s obviously a big movement of foot to ban the idea of racial sensitivity training across the whole country.
Here at Antioch, we take a different view of what constitutes patriotism and education, but this is obviously a really live conversation in this country. My question for you is; what do you see as the proper role of social justice in K-12 education?
[00:20:26] Zoe: I think that’s a really good question and a challenging question. People come to this question of what should be taught in schools from very different perspectives. I have tried very hard to ensure that the humane education approach is welcomed readily by virtually everybody. The way that I articulate the fundamental values of humane education are generally embraced by everybody, no matter what their politics and their perspectives.
The first piece is the MOGO principle. MOGO is short for most good, which is short for most good, least harm. I wrote a book called Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life. The concept of MOGO is that, to the degree that we’re able, each of us should strive to do the most good and the least harm to all people, to other species, and to the ecosystems that sustain all life.
I have asked thousands of people, young and old, whether they think that this is a good principle by which to live. Not once has somebody said, “No, it’s not a good principle by which to live.” It does not matter what their politics are, what their religion is, what their particular backgrounds are. Basically, this principle is like putting the golden rule into practice.
In a globalized world, it’s challenging to do the most good and the least harm to everybody because our choices impact others we will never see across the globe and ecosystems that we will never experience across the globe. The other piece comes down to the mission at the Institute for Humane Education, which is to educate people to create a world where all people, animals, and nature can thrive. If you ask people, “Is that a good mission and one you can support,” virtually everyone will say yes.
This is a long way of answering your question, “Where does social justice education fit?” I would say that if we can all agree that striving to do the most good and the least harm individually, societally, and through the systems that we create and perpetuate, if we can all agree that that’s a good principle by which to live, and if we can all agree that we want to live in a world where people, animals, and nature can thrive, then the question becomes, “What does education look like with those goals in mind?”
With those goals in mind, there should be no fear of talking about how do we create more sustainable systems, more just systems, more equitable systems, more humane systems, because if we can create those, then we will be on our way to creating this world that we all agree on. Now, we are not going to all agree on the best solutions. We are going to disagree on many of them. However, if we come to this with this value and this principle in mind, and we come in good faith, that this is what we’re striving to do, then we bring this solutionary lens to that work and we educate young people to bring the solutionary lens.
The solutionary lens is the lens that says, “Problems are solvable, and we need to collaborate and learn from each other to solve them.” If we bring that lens, we learn to think like solutionaries, then there should be no real controversy about whether this is acceptable to bring into schools or not because we’re doing this in good faith. We are not discounting different people’s perspectives. We are saying, “Let’s get to this ultimate goal. How can we do it?”
[00:25:16] Jasper: I love the way that you frame that; as an earlier principle before the potential conflict, over these terms that become loaded and people start arguing over them. You’re saying everybody can get behind an idea, like doing more good or the most good, sorry.
[00:25:37] Zoe: Right. There are a lot of terms out there that people bristle at. I get worried that we get attached to terminology and we don’t take a step back and find our common values and then strive to achieve them. Instead, we argue, and we debate, and we take sides on things that, on the deepest possible level, we may not be on differing sides.
Now, I’m not saying this is across the board. I mean, if somebody is a white nationalist, or an anti-Semite, or homophobic, they’re going to be on a clearly different side than I am, but that’s not the majority of people. When we think about our public school system, we are serving the majority of people who want a world that is just, healthy, and humane.
[00:26:41] Jasper: Hi, this is Jasper. I’m going to jump in here for a second to let you know that The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Let’s make the world better together. Complete your bachelor’s or your master’s, or study for a doctoral degree with us and join a community with a 160-year-long commitment to social justice. Win one for humanity. Learn more at antioch.edu.
[00:27:14] Simon: Zoe, I would love to just ask you to share with us how you think we could educate our kids, especially in what we see as, literally, a new world order? What are the challenges that you see post the pandemic, and what are some of the opportunities that you see?
[00:27:33] Zoe: Great question. The pandemic has brought into very stark relief, many of the inequities that plague education. It’s so distressing that there are millions of children who’ve just disappeared from school this past year. I don’t have the answers for how we help these kids and how we bring them back into schools ready and able to move forward in some of the traditional ways because what this points out is those inequities. They’re just in such stark relief right now.
There are many different systems that contribute to those inequities. There’s our economic system, and our political system, and our voting system, and our healthcare system, and our city planning and infrastructure system. There are just system after system contribute to this. One of the biggest systems is the way we fund public education. Public education is supposed to be equal for all children, and yet we fund public schools largely through property taxes.
If you live in a community where property taxes are collecting lots and lots of money for the schools, then there’s lots of money for those kids. If you live in a community where there’s very little money coming in from property taxes, then you have kids who don’t have as much money spent on them. That’s completely inequitable. That is something we could solve quickly if we said, “No more. This is not how we’re going to fund schools anymore. It’s not going to be based on property taxes.”
So funding is one of the pieces, but we know that it goes deeper than funding. While I don’t have a solution to that piece of what has been revealed about inequitable education during the coronavirus, while I don’t have a solution, I can tell you that the solutionary process is part of that solution. That if we bring the solutionary process to those problems, then we can make headway there.
[00:30:07] Simon: I love how earlier on, before we pressed the record button, you were sharing with us how teachers have become so innovative and how that’s where the humane education comes into play, especially now, is when the work that you’ve been doing for years is really most needed.
[00:30:27] Zoe: Yes. It’s been really interesting to see how some teachers have pivoted during COVID to make the curriculum more flexible around students’ individual interests and passions. There they are at home, what can they do to make their learning come alive for purpose in solving problems that they are experiencing or that concern them? We know teachers who are doing this. Their students are doing solutionary work. They’re deeply engaged, even though they’re not in the classroom this year. They’re able to be a little bit more flexible because the system is not expecting the same thing this past year as it has expected in the past. Standardized tests have been stopped or postponed.
Teachers have been able to be more flexible, and therefore to innovate and experiment. If we see some of the ways in which those teachers and those students have come alive during this time and new ways of thinking about education and thinking about allowing education to really serve the individual needs of learners, then when students are fully able to come back into the classroom, let’s take that learning and spread it.
[00:32:05] Simon: That’s so amazing. We love to end The Seed Field Podcast with something actionable that our listeners can take away and apply to their lives. I feel like you just described that. I just wanted you to share with us briefly anything else that you feel that an individual from anywhere else in the world can do to contribute to a more peaceful world through their everyday actions.
[00:32:34] Zoe: I would say that anybody can become a solutionary. We have produced two guidebooks that are digital and they’re free, and they’re on our website, humaneeducation.org. One is for teachers, and it’s called The Solutionary Guidebook, and one is for everybody else, students, and changemakers, and solutionaries in training, and it’s called How to Be a Solutionary.
People can go on our website and they can download whichever guidebook is appropriate for them and for most listeners, it’s probably going to be How to Be a Solutionary. They can read it and start practicing the solutionary process. Boy, if everybody does that, just imagine the world we can create. If every teacher educates their students to be solutionaries, just imagine the solutions that are going to unfold from those students.
[00:33:35] Jasper: That’s beautiful. That’s not just a world that we have to stretch our imaginations to see, it’s one that is also being built by your programs in collaboration with Antioch. I was hoping, as we’re wrapping up our podcast, that you could tell us some of the upcoming programs that you’re offering for teachers and others who might want to become more expert in humane education.
[00:34:00] Zoe: Sure. On April 6th, we are launching a Solutionary Micro-credential Program for teachers. It’s a 30-hour program, and it confers a Solutionary credential as well as a Solutionary Badge. For those teachers who want it, they can get CEUs, Continuing Education Units, from Antioch. We’ve also made that program accessible to everyone through the generosity of a donor. If any teachers cannot afford the cost for the program, they can choose from subsidized options, including paying nothing at all, to complete this program.
People can find out about that at our website, humaneeducation.org. We have our upcoming deadlines with Antioch for our graduate programs. We had an MA, MEd graduate certificate and EdD program. The deadline for summer enrollment is on May 1st and for fall enrollment is August 15th. People can find out about that on our website as well.
[00:35:10] Jasper: That’s so great. Thank you so much for taking this time to talk with us. It’s been wonderful.
[00:35:15] Simon: Thank you so much, Zoe. This is Simon. I’m just grateful that you took the time. I can’t wait for us to have you back here in the future.
[00:35:23] Zoe: Oh, it’s just been a pleasure. It is really a joy to work with Antioch and it’s been so much fun talking to both of you.
[00:35:40] Jasper: You can find links to Antioch’s humane education programs and to the Institute for Humane Education in our show notes. The second edition of Zoe’s book, The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries, comes out this summer. You can find the first edition on bookshop.org or wherever you buy your books. You can always find our show notes along with transcripts, links, and prior episodes by visiting theseedfield.org. The Seed Field Podcast is produced by Antioch University. Our editor is Lauren Instenes. Guidance for this episode came from Melissa Batalin, Karen Hamilton, and Melinda Garland.
[00:36:28] Simon: Thank you for spending your time with us today. That’s it for this episode. We hope to see you next time. Don’t forget to plant a seed, sow a cause, and win a victory for humanity. From Antioch University, this has been The Seed Field Podcast.