Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself. – John Dewey
John Dewey (1859-1952) was arguably the most consequential educational thinker of the twentieth century. According to Dewey, education should consist of meaningful activity in learning and participation in classroom democracy. Curriculum should be relevant to students’ lives as well as prepare them to contribute effectively to democratic society later on.
Dewey stressed the importance of imparting habits of ethical inquiry, encouraging students to discover solutions that create the best outcomes for the most people under a given set of circumstances. He argued that students should learn to consider the impacts each option is likely to have on different socioeconomic and ethnic groups. Schools should be diverse and inclusive so as to facilitate communication and understanding among youth of different backgrounds. Ethical inquiry is ongoing, in the classroom and in larger society; conduct is always subject to revision in light of social and scientific developments.
Whether or not educators treat them as such, school meals are daily exercises in experiential learning, opportunities for ethical inquiry and deliberation. Unfortunately, students are rarely given enough information about the impacts of competing food options to make informed choices.
How do students decide what to eat for lunch or, more broadly, how to live their lives? Dewey identified three categories of human conduct: instinct, habit, and reflective action. They differ from one another mainly in the degree to which thought plays a role. Children are born with instincts, the ability to perform sometimes complex movements without a basis in learning or prior experience. An infant contemplates neither the means (sucking) nor the end (milk) of her actions. Over time, her actions become more intentional. She deliberately grabs a toy or pets a dog. As she becomes more observant and reflective, she begins to adopt behavior she is taught as well as those she observes in the people around her.
Over time, these behaviors solidify into habits. She develops tastes for certain foods at certain times — cereal in the morning and a sandwich at lunchtime, for example. Cow’s milk (“milk”) on cereal, for example, or pig’s flesh (“ham”) between two pieces of bread. The child doesn’t think about the implications of choosing these foods over others. She simply chooses what appeals to her taste buds from the options she is offered. Typically, these foods were popularized in a different era and under vastly different circumstances.
Every society devises means to satisfy people’s basic needs at a particular point in time. These customs, the shared habits of a group, are passed down to one generation after another through socialization. People continue to follow them long after the circumstances that gave birth to them have changed.
This is especially true of eating habits. Fifty or sixty years ago, there may have been rationale for people to consume animals’ bodies or their secretions. At that time, animals were raised mostly on family farms; it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that the first giant animal factories appeared. The involvement of greenhouse gases in climate change was largely unknown.
But two generations later, we know eating animals, especially the 99% of animals used for food that are produced in factory farms, is unhealthy, environmentally unsustainable, and socially irresponsible. As well, we now know with certainty that animals have sentience. They feel pain, fear, loneliness, and depression.
So how can we change these self-perpetuating habits? How can we urge people to make more deliberate and democratic choices?
Dewey theorized that while adults’ habits were already entrenched and there was little chance of changing them, children could be taught to reflect critically on the consequences of each possible action. And although Dewey focused on the consequences to humans, he emphasized the need for flexibility in light of scientific discoveries and social changes.
Scientific and social developments subsequent to Dewey’s lifetime have changed the ethical landscape entirely. First, there is consensus that the earth’s climate is warming and that human activities, including animal agriculture, are primary drivers of climate change. We know environmental toxins have devastating impacts on human health. And farms have become vast factories where sentient animals are treated as mere pieces of machinery.
Students should be encouraged to consider the effects of their choices not only on humans but also on the environment and animals-other-than-humans.
The people most directly impacted by industrial agriculture are workers in factory farms and slaughterhouses. Slaughterhouse employees endure some of the most dangerous working conditions in the country. Amputations of fingers, hands, and arms are common and the furious pace of the work causes repetitive stress injuries and musculoskeletal disorders. Despite these dangerous working conditions, most workers don’t have health insurance or the protection of a union. Often companies recruit people who are undocumented because they won’t be able to speak out against these conditions.
In addition to being physically dangerous, slaughterhouse work is psychologically traumatic. Workers are forced to kill animals who have done them no harm over and over again. Many workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from causing so much suffering and death. These employees don’t have access to basic health care, let alone mental health care, so often they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Rates of addiction and domestic violence are significantly higher than in other industries.
Neighboring communities, which are overwhelmingly Black and/or poor, have to contend year-round with the stench of animal feces and urine. The waste is collected in vast open-air pits known as lagoons. Runoff from the lagoons makes its way into rivers and streams, drastically raising nitrate levels, which are linked to autoimmune diseases and birth defects. The lagoons are periodically pumped out and the waste sprayed as fertilizer onto fields surrounding the factory farms, forcing local residents to stay inside and keep their windows shut. People living in the vicinity of these factories experience significantly higher rates of asthmas, high blood pressure, eye irritation, and depression than those in surrounding areas.
Farmed animals are a major source of climate change. They emit more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector. Animals, especially cows, directly emit greenhouse gasses. Cows burp methane, which is 20 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, and their poop emits nitrous oxide, which is up to 300 times worse. So we dramatically reduce our carbon footprint by reducing or eliminating our consumption of meat and dairy products.
Eating animals is extremely wasteful of limited natural resources. For every 100 calories of corn and soy we feed a farmed animal, we get 40 calories of milk, 12 calories of chicken, or 3 calories of beef. And all this corn and soy requires tremendous amounts of land and water. Eating more efficiently is critical. World population has grown from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.5 billion in 2017, and is projected to be 9.1 billion people by 2050. Unless we change course, there simply won’t be enough food for everyone.
Today, in the US alone, nine billion land animals are bred in factory farms each year. They live in deplorable conditions and die in horrific ways. Breeding sows spend their lives in crates so small they can’t turn around, let alone nestle their babies. Dairy cows are inseminated year after year, their calves taken from them within days of their birth. The dairy cows cry inconsolably, typically for days, and the calves search in vain for their mothers. When they no longer produce enough milk to be valuable, they’re slaughtered. And according to government estimates, over 10,000 broiler (meat) chickens are boiled alive every single day. So anytime we eat chicken, we have no way of knowing whether that chicken was one of the millions boiled alive every year.
Dewey contended that the primary purpose of education is to build students’ capacity to conduct intelligent moral inquiry. He argued that schools should be reconstructed so as to promote “experimental intelligence” and “wider sympathies.” The food choices that schools and students make every day are too important to be left out of the ethical decision-making rubric.
As ethical institutions, schools should ensure that the foods they procure or prepare have minimal impact on the planet, humans, and animals-other-than-humans. Students can participate in planning lunch menus, putting habits of moral inquiry into practice.
As well, the impacts of individual and, more importantly, institutional food choices are integral to any serious study of the environment, climate change, human rights, workers’ rights, and rights of animals-other-than-humans. An ethical education prepares students to participate in democratic society. It is through their ethically-based activism and advocacy that society has the possibility of becoming more open-minded, compassionate, and just to all earthlings and to the earth itself.
Amy Halpern-Laff was a Deweyan before she knew about Dewey. A lawyer by training, she is Director, New York Region and Director, Strategic Partnerships, Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, a national nonprofit committed to educating people on the impacts of their food choices. FFAC provides free presentations for students, educators, and activists. Contact Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org.