Transcription of the episode “Zoe Weil on humane education: The world becomes what we teach”

Jon M: 00:15 I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: 00:16 And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. This is the Ethical Schools podcast where we talk about how to create ethical classrooms and schools that graduate students who are motivated and prepared to create a more ethical world.

Jon M: 00:34 Zoe Weil is the Co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education, where she created the first graduate programs and workshops in comprehensive humane education. Zoe has given six TEDx talks and is the author of seven books, including “The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries.” She holds master’s degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Pennsylvania, and her new blog appears in Psychology Today. Welcome and thanks for joining us.

Zoe W: 01:01 Oh, I’m so pleased to be here. Thank you Jon. And thank you Amy.

Jon M: 01:03 Zoe, what is humane education?

Zoe W: 01:06 Humane education explores the interconnections between human rights, animal protection and environmental preservation, with the goal of preparing people of all ages to have the knowledge and the skills and the motivation to solve the problems that we face in the world in ways that are good for everybody. And another way of putting it is the goal of humane education is to prepare people to be solutionaries for a peaceful, just and sustainable world.

Amy H-L: 01:34 Zoe, what does that mean, solutionary?

Zoe W: 01:36 Well, it is a made up word. It’s interesting. Most people who hear it have an immediate sense of what it means. And I will say that a solutionary is different from a problem solver. So somebody can be an engineer and be a problem solver. What a solutionary does is a solutionary is able to identify unsustainable, unjust, inhumane systems and address challenges in ways that go to the causes of the problems and solve them in ways that are good for everybody, for people, animals, and the environment. So a solutionary is somebody who really sees those interconnections and avoids any unintended consequences that could harm one group while helping another.

Jon M: 02:24 So how do you, in, in your blogs, you talked a lot, very powerfully, about the need to avoid false dichotomies. Uh, we’ll say between people’s jobs and saving species or growing things locally and globalization or dependence on goods from far away. And that very frequently you can find things that in fact are what’s become a cliche win-win solutions for people. How does being a solutionary deal with situations where there are serious conflicts of where, for example, you know, a business, the Koch brothers, let’s say, make their money off of fossil fuels and intend to try to do that for as long as they can and really don’t seem to be that concerned with the impact on large numbers of other people. How do you make those kinds of judgments and what do you do about them?

Zoe W: 03:17 That’s a great question and a really complicated question. So even just saying that we should avoid either/or polarized thinking is itself potentially polarizing. So there’s a wonderful quote about, is it an Elie Wiesel quote about two sides? Because if you don’t speak up, you’re siding with the oppressor. I’m paraphrasing the quote. And so I think it’s really important not to create another either/or. I’m not going to suggest that every conflict of interest is easily or readily and maybe sometimes not even possibly solvable in traditional ways. But that doesn’t mean that there can’t be education along the way that gets to a more solutionary approach. So in general, I discourage anybody, and particularly as we’re teaching young people, from falling into the trap of either/or polarized thinking, which is presented to us constantly. It’s presented to us in the media. It’s presented to us by politicians. We’re always being asked to take sides. And when we’re asked to take sides, then that prevents us from trying to find the ways, the places where we agree, trying to talk to all stakeholders to really understand different perspectives. I think it’s really important to hear the perspectives of the Koch brothers and not to just, read something from the left that disparages them without trying to understand their perspective. I don’t know the Koch brothers, I’m not a supporter, but by any stretch of the imagination, of the Koch brothers. But I wonder if in a conversation with the Koch brothers, we could get to a point where they agree that we will be heading toward a fossil fuel free future. And if they agree that that’s where we’re heading, how could we get there faster? What are some options for that? And most of the time, when I talk to people with whom I disagree about many things, we can find these points of convergence and when we do, we get a little bit closer to finding some solution. Now it’s not going to necessarily be some great solutionary solution, but it gets us on that path away from polarization and toward thinking about all stakeholders and toward building bridges, which most of the time turns out to be a good thing.

Jon M: 05:54 So years ago, the Harvard Negotiation Project wrote one of the pathfinding books in conflict resolution, called “Getting to Yes,” which I’m sure you’re familiar with, which basically sounds as though many of those principles are similar, in terms of negotiating, in terms of interest rather than positions. I’m forgetting if I’m getting the terminology right. Is that similar to, are there common elements in that, in what you’re talking about?

Zoe W: 06:23 So it’s been a long time since I’ve acquainted myself with that. but I think there are similarities. Maybe what I’ll do is just describe the approach that we take when we’re educating young people to be solutionaries. So we ask them to research whatever problem they are wanting to address, to research it really thoroughly to find out everything that’s already been done to solve the problem and to find out all of the stakeholders. So when you’re going to address the problem, if you ask yourself who is harmed by this problem and who benefits from the problem, you’re going to find many more categories or harms than you initially thought. So for example, let’s say you wanted to address the problem of the growing incidence of Type Two diabetes among children. So if you ask who’s harmed by the problem, you know the first thing that’s going to come to mind is, well those children are harmed and their families and friends are harmed. But if you keep digging deeper, you’re going to find out, oh, there’s way more harm. And the reason there’s way more harm is because the systems that are contributing to the rise of Type Two diabetes have to do with our agricultural system, our political system, our economic system, all these systems. And in fact the same things that are contributing to the rise in Type Two diabetes are contributing to the rise of terrible animal cruelty and factory farming to monoculture, agricultural crops that are the feed for animals, and the process of which is causing ocean dead zones as fertilizer runs off into the Mississippi River. All of these interconnected problems and so you realize, oh, there are so many more harms than I even thought about. And then it’s really important to ask who benefits because there are plenty of people benefiting from this rise in Type Two diabetes. All the people making money off of all of the foods that are contributing to Type Two diabetes, they’re benefiting. All the people whose retirement accounts are connected to those industries, which is most people’s retirement accounts, are benefiting. Politicians are benefiting, lobbyists are benefiting, hospitals and doctors are benefiting because they’re making a lot of money off of sick people. So so many people are benefiting. So once you understand who’s benefiting, who’s harmed at all of those connections, and you begin to talk to those stakeholders, you see these complicated, interconnected systems. And then as you’re looking for strategies for addressing the systems that are causing this, you find little points of leverage. You find places where we could tweak that, then all of these other things could fall into place. But you want to make sure that you are considering those who are benefiting so that you can say, hey, you’ll be able to benefit in these other ways. Here are other ways to benefit that don’t require that we can continue to produce foods that make children sick. So that’s our approach and I think that it’s taking into consideration stakeholders like you were just suggesting, finding the common interest, but it’s also digging deep to find the mindsets, the world views, and the systemic structures that are all interconnected and contributing to the problem.

Amy H-L: 09:58 I love that approach, Zoe. We find often though that kids themselves are experiencing trauma. They’re hearing about climate change, they have relatives who are being deported, they experience violence in their communities, perhaps racism. So how do you create a classroom environment that encourages solutionary thinking, given where these kids are coming from often?

Zoe W: 10:29 That’s a great question. And you know, it’s not only the kids who are experiencing trauma and who are disenfranchised and who are experiencing racism and bigotry of different kinds. All kids these days seem to know about the problems in the world and even the most privileged. And I’m going to tell you two stories to answer your question. So the first story goes back to my early years as a humane educator when I was delivering presentations in schools and all different kinds of schools. And there was one place I went every single month. It was more like a juvenile detention center. It was a school for kids who had been kicked out of schools. In other words, it was the last place before jail. I went every month, and these were about the most disenfranchised kids you can imagine, and also pretty hardened kids. And what amazed me is that when I pointed out to them the ways that they themselves were being targeted by advertisers and media that were trying to get them to live and act in certain ways, eat certain foods, wear certain clothes, but they were being manipulated and influenced, they really wanted to use their voices to combat that. They had fire in the belly when they could see the ways that they could take action. And I was really heartened by the fact that the most disenfranchised could become the most empowered because they didn’t want to be treated that way. They didn’t want to be used that way. And this was an arena in which they could have a voice. So that’s the first story. The next story I want to tell you about is speaking at a school in Connecticut. And this was an independent school in an affluent community. So these were, by and large, quite privileged kids. And I asked them, they were fifth and sixth graders, and I asked them to tell me what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. And they filled up a whiteboard with all the same problems that older students and adults would name. In fact, one boy said sex trafficking, and these were fifth and sixth graders. So they were not learning about this in school. They just knew about this. This is the era that they live in. And so I asked them to raise their hands if they could imagine us solving these problems that they’d named. And of the 45 kids in the class, only five of them raised their hands. Only five could even imagine that we could solve the problems that they named. At that point, I’d been a humane educator for about 25 years. That was the most sobering moment as an educator. I thought, you know, if they don’t even have hope that we can solve these problems, what will motivate them to try? So I changed up what I was going to do. I asked them to close their eyes and take a few deep breaths and I did a guided visualization with them in which I asked them to imagine themselves very, very old and at the end of a very long life, sitting on a park bench on a beautiful spring day, hearing the birds breathing clean air surrounded by waterways that were all clean. And then I invited them to imagine that in their future there hadn’t been a war in decades and that while we hadn’t solved all our problems, basically we treated each other and other species with respect and compassion. And after I’d painted this picture of the future, I asked them to imagine a child coming up to them and sitting on a park bench and that the child had been studying history in school and learning about much darker times, times they lived through and the child asking them how did things change? And so while they answered the child’s questions, I asked them at the very end of the visualization, I tell them that the child has one final question for them. And that is what role did you play in helping to bring about this better world? And then I asked them in their imagination to answer child’s question. So while these kids still had their eyes closed, while we were doing the visualization, I asked them to raise their hands if now they could imagine us solving the problems they’d listed on the whiteboard. And this time, 40 hands went up. So the ratio completely reversed. So you know, there were still five kids who could not imagine that we could solve the problems, but 40 could. So I reflected on that for some time and I thought, you know, at least for those kids, and granted this was, these were privileged kids, it wasn’t hard to restore their hope. So a couple of years after that, I was in Guadalajara, Mexico and I was keynoting an international teachers conference and the American School of Guadalajara invited me the day before to come visit the school. They were hosting the conference and I was asked to go into the fifth grade classroom and it was a special fifth grade class. And I asked those students to raise their hands if they thought we could solve the problems in the world. And every hand just flew up in the air. And so what was different? Well, the difference between that Connecticut school and this classroom in Guadalajara was that the teacher in that classroom in Mexico was teaching her students about problems in the world in age appropriate ways and engaging them in solving those problems. So those kids knew that problems could be solved because they were solving them. They’d set up a compost system at their school, their school had solar panels. So that’s the difference. So it’s just a really long way of answering your question, Amy. But the reality is, as Joan Baez said, action is the antidote to despair. And if we can engage young people in using the literacy, numeracy, and science skills that they’re gaining in school for an actual real world purpose that matters to them, then they can become more empowered. It doesn’t mean that they’re not still traumatized by the things that are going on in their life, but that is the best healing that they can do because that sense of efficacy and empowerment is also what will lead them to solving the very problems that they are victims of.

Jon M: 17:19 So I guess I have a followup question. That was very powerful. I have a follow up question that I’m not sure if it has one fork or two, but one is, so once students or anybody else are knowledgeable about issues and have a sense that in fact they can have an impact on things, one question is, do you as the Institute for Humane Education or in terms of the concept of solutionary, one question is, do you talk in detail or get students to talk in detail about specific strategies that they can use? For example, around issues like guns or climate change? Or these kinds of things where, you know, as you identified, there are systems with individuals but also corporations, just everybody in one way or another very, very invested in systems that may be very destructive. So the first question is how you talk about these strategies, like for example, where might the Parkland students go from here, that kind of thing. And the other thing that I was thinking about as you were talking is, I don’t know if you know the work of Grace Lee Boggs, but in her latest book, the last one before she died, “The Next American Revolution,” she sort of was moving away from the idea of advocacy and towards the idea of, I guess, self-help. People in Detroit, for example, growing gardens, doing things like that, building a movement from the bottom up and in a way, moving away from her and her husband, James Boggs’s earlier emphasis on struggle, which in a way came out of their Marxist backgrounds. So where do you find yourself in these kinds of questions?

Zoe W: 19:01 So I’ll tell you that I believe that I have the solution to one system, and that’s the system of education. I don’t have the solution to all of the other problems in the world. I’ve focused on this one, and my solution to the issues of education or the problems of schooling is to educate young people to be solutionaries. And by that, I mean providing them with these critical thinking skills, these creative thinking skills, these strategic thinking skills and these systems thinking skills that all add up to solutionary thinking. So it’s really important to answer the first prong of your fork that young people learn where, what the systems are, but where are those leverage points? Because I’m not going to have the answer to your Parkland question because I, even though I obviously follow this issue of gun violence, I have not spent my time really focusing on what are the best leverage points to solve this challenge, and other people solved this challenge. Australia solved this challenge. New Zealand is now solving this challenge. I don’t know exactly how in the United States we solve this challenge because of the interconnected systems that make it particularly difficult here. However, what I would say is that if those, not just the Parkland students, but all of these students, all of our students in the whole country, for those for whom this is a particular concern, what I would say is that it’s really important that in their education they get to spend time focusing their learning skills on solving this problem. If they do, they are going to come up with leverage points. Now maybe those leverage points are going to be legislative. Maybe they’re going to be educational, maybe they’re going to be direct action, but they are the ones who need to learn how to strategize carefully and how to find those leverage points. So what we try to do is help people to learn how to do that, not what those leverage points are in every specific circumstance. Now, to answer your next question, this is another area where I think everybody has to decide for themselves what it is that is the best path for them to make a contribution. Now, if Grace Lee Boggs felt at the end of her life that sort of localizing the work and the community autonomy was the best way for her to do it, more power to her. For other people, it’s going to be a different approach. Some of the people will stick with advocacy, some will focus on education. Again, some will focus on legislation, some will want to solve a problem through innovation, through, you know, being entrepreneurs, like creating brand new systems. And there isn’t one way to solve problems and there is potentially a similar path, but there isn’t one answer for every problem. I think that answers your question. Does it?

Jon M: 22:27 Yeah. It’s a very interesting and thoughtful answer.

Zoe W: 22:31 You know what, I want to add one more thing. In one of my TEDx talks, called “How to Be a Solutionary,” I invite viewers and, and in this case the audience was high school students, to think about answering three questions. What are the issues I care most about? What am I good at? And what do I love to do? And if we can find the place where the answers to those three questions meet, we suddenly discover that we may have put ourselves in a perfect position to our achieve our life’s mission, our life’s path. Now young people may not yet know what they’re good at. You know, they might be just finding out the things they’re good at, but still, if you find that place where what you’re good at, what you love to do, can be in service, and then you discover, oh, I’m good at this too. You add that to your repertoire and it really sets you up for a deeply meaningful life that contributes to solving problems in a better world.

Amy H-L: 23:39 Yeah, I think you’re right. One pattern that I tend to see is students who do focus on a particular problem, perhaps it’s a problem they’ve read about or been exposed to, and don’t see some of the interconnections. And you know, in truth, all these systems of injustice and environmental degradation are related.

Zoe W: 24:06 That’s a challenge. And I think that, you know, one of the things that we try to do at the Institute for humane Education is we’ve produced a rubric for analyzing your solutions on a solutionary scale. And so it really asks very specific questions. You know, are you going to the root of the problem? Is anybody harmed in this — people, animals, or the environment? You know, if you constantly put that in front of people to ask themselves, you know: If you’re an animal activist, well, what about people? If you’re a human rights activist. well, what about other animals? If you’re an environmentalist, well, what about the people who are going to be affected? If we protect this forest from any logging and now we have loggers who are out of a job, what do we do about that? So if we constantly put that question forward to people, then they’ll get practice in thinking that way.

Jon M: 25:10 So when I, what I hear you saying it is, I mean we’ve been using the term, uh, which we didn’t create but, but it’s a really useful term, “universe of obligation.” So it sounds as though what you’re saying is that you’re pushing people to think in terms of enlarging their universe of obligation or enlarging their awareness of what impact their actions are going to take and that you’re not, you’re not necessarily, if I’m understanding you, predicting what path they’ll take or even, you certainly can’t control how much somebody will choose to weigh on one side rather than another, but that your focus is on getting students in particular to think deeply about things, to understand systems and look for solutions that…I think you use the MOGO, I don’t know if you pronounce it that way. Most good least harm. Is that a, is that essentially the core of what you’re saying?

Zoe W: 26:13 Yes. I mean I use the term circle of compassion rather than universe of obligation, but they think they mean the same thing. And yeah, I wrote a book called “Most Good Least Harm: A Simple Principle For a Better World and Meaningful Life.” And I call that principle MOGO for short, MOGO just being short for most good. And you know, it’s such a simple principle, it’s really like taking the golden rule and just expanding it a little bit and helping people to realize that our choices affect others — people, animals and the environment, all the time. And how can we become cognizant of that and expand our circle of compassion to include everybody who can suffer?

Amy H-L: 26:55 Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds very Deweyan, similar to John Dewey’s concept that we need to constantly think about the impact of our actions and to revise them in light of scientific advancements and social changes.

Zoe W: 27:13 Absolutely.

Jon M: 27:13 So it’s a 21st century adaptation, an expansion, of course. I mean Dewey didn’t particularly, as far as I know, didn’t think a lot about animals, for example. And I’m not even sure that he talked that much in terms of around sexism and so forth. So obviously things, things are very different now, but it’s interesting how some of the core concepts of how to approach things get adapted over time.

Zoe W: 27:41 Yup. Yup. MOGO is an enhancement of the golden rule that’s been around since as long as human culture has been around. You know, when, when the golden rule was sort of adopted by so many different religions and groups of people, um, it was so obvious, but it’s really not obvious how you can do unto others how you want them to do unto you when the clothes you buy may have been produced in a sweatshop and the cotton harvested by children working as slaves in some other part of the world. I mean, these issues become so complex, which is why we have to address them on a systemic level, because at this point, we can’t solve our problems through boycotts and buycotts. We can’t just say, well, okay, I’m, I’m not going to use disposable plastics and I’m going to be vegan and I’m going to get my clothes from thrift shops. And so we’re all good. We can’t solve the actual problem, we have to take action that really addressing the systems. And if we don’t teach young people how to do that in schools, then those systems that are unjust and unsustainable and inhumane, are just going to be perpetuated.That’s why I feel like the core system, the root system underlying all others, is the education system. And if we can just address and transform that and educate young people to be solutionaries, literally make that the purpose of education. If we do that, I really don’t see any reason why we can’t solve the problems that we face in the world.

Amy H-L: 29:28 Thank you so much. This has been wonderful speaking with you.

Zoe W: 29:33 Oh, you’re so welcome. Thank you.

Amy H-L: 29:36 So we’ll be back next week. Join us as we talk about the intersections of ethics in education. Visit our website,, where you can peruse the archives and subscribe to the Ethical Schools podcast and newsletter. We’re on Twitter @ethicalschools. Till next week.

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