Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 190; Rethinking Education. Airing for the first time on Sunday, May 3, 2015. Education is a multifaceted process and one that we may not feel strongly about. It is also an intrical aspect of wellbeing both present and future. Today, we speak Zoe Weil, Founder of the Institute for Humane Education and long time Maranacook teacher, Nordic ski coach and Dean of students, Steve DeAngelis about their perspectives on education. Thank you for joining us.
Many years ago I picked up a book called, ‘Above All Be Kind’. This was during a time when I was raising my children. I’m still raising my children, they’re older now. This book is raising a humane child in challenging times and it’s by Zoe Weil. Today, I have across the microphone from me, Zoe Weil, so it’s pretty great that I’ve actually been able to make this loop come full circle.
Zoe Weil is Cofounder and President of the Institute for Humane Education and is considered a pioneer in the comprehensive Humane Education movement. She’s the author of six books, including the Nautilus Silver Medal–winner “Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life” and two books for young readers, including Moonbeam Gold Medal-winner “Claude and Medea.” Her first TEDx talk; the world becomes what you teach is one of the most watched of all TEDx talks. Thanks so much for coming in and being here with me today.
Zeo Weil: It’s a pleasure, thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Now, before you … I started talking on air, we were talking about our sons who are both 21, and I’m wondering how much of an influence was your son on your decision to start working in the field on humane education?
Zeo Weil: None because I’ve been working in the field long before he was born. I would say though that being a humane educator and teaching about how we can make a more humane, sustainable and just world was more deeply motivated when I had my own child and I had to do the best that I could to make a better world for him.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about humane education. It seems like people would hear that term and know what it means, but it has some very specific elements for you.
Zeo Weil: It does, so the word humane literally means having what are considered the best qualities of human beings. What are those qualities? I don’t need to tell anybody what they are because we all generally agree on them and, in fact, I’ve asked thousands and thousands of people what are the best qualities of human beings and the lists are always very similar. Nobody says greed or violence or hatred. We generally agree on the best qualities of human beings, but how do we live according to those best qualities, especially in a globalized world in which all of our choices are affecting other people, animal and the environment all over the globe?
Humane education links the issues of human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection with the goal of helping people to understand how they can make a difference or the word that we like to use is how they can be Solutionaries for a more just, sustainable and peaceful world for everyone.
Lisa Belisle: You have a Divinity degree from Harvard. What’s the relationship there for you?
Zeo Weil: Well, I was all over the map when I was in college. I actually went to college pre-med and I abandoned that career unlike you. I ended up going to law school very briefly and I wound up in divinity school because I was fascinated by people’s belief systems and their values. I was studying comparative world religions really trying to understand what are people’s core values and beliefs, and what are those impacts of those values and beliefs in the world.
I actually at the time imagined that I would become a college professor and teach world religions. I ended up going down in a different path. Everything was slowly but surely leading me toward humane education, although what I do didn’t exist when I was in college or graduate school, so I had to create it.
Lisa Belisle: This has been an interesting process for you and one that you’ve undertaken while living in Maine. Most people would have a big idea and head towards the big city. You didn’t.
Zeo Weil: Well, I grew up in the big city. The biggest one in the United States, I grew up in New York. I went to college in Philadelphia and I also lived in Washington, DC and Boston, so until was 35 years old I lived in some of our biggest cities at least here in the east coast.
When I was first a humane educator it was in the Philadelphia area. I was going into school in a 60 mile radius in and around Philadelphia. I was reaching about 10,000 students a year, and I realized that if we wanted to really transform the world, to make the world a just, peaceful and healthy place for everybody that we needed a massive movement to transform education. Education is the root system that underlies every other system and if we educate young people to have the knowledge, tools and the motivation to be Solutionaries we will be able to solve the problems that we face in the world.
I was watching the tremendous power of this education in the Philadelphia area. I would go into schools, I would watch kids after a single presentation that I gave start a school club and then go on to be advocates, activists and do all sorts of incredible things and I have so many stories I could tell you.
I thought we really need a movement and so I cofounded the Institute for Humane Education primarily to train other people to be humane educators. We created the first graduate programs in humane education and they were online long before online education was as popular as it was.
Really, we could be anywhere and why not be an incredibly beautiful, wonderful place like the State of Maine, and so our graduate programs they started their online except for one week and our students they come here at Maine, they fall in love with this incredible place from all over the world.
Then, we started doing more, we do workshops. I would travel and lead workshops all over the country and overseas as well. Also, online courses that were shorter so you didn’t have to do a whole graduate program and then we created a free downloadable resource center on our website. It’s an award winning resource center.
We have teachers, advocates and activists all over the world who are downloading those resources, so we could really be anywhere. Now, we’re in the process of creating the first Solutionary School and our plan is to open it in New York City and create a totally revolutionary, totally innovating K through 12 curriculum that will be free and shareable to the world. Whether I’m in Maine or not won’t matter because this is going to be the wave of the future of education.
Lisa Belisle: I like it. I was on your website I was looking at the ideas behind a Solutionary School and it is K through 12 so it’s going to be complete. You’re going to start when they’re very small and get them in a good place before they head off to college. Why New York City?
Zeo Weil: Well, New York City is one of the many places where we want to see this school happen. We had a number of people who were in New York, some of are graduate students are New York, and so when were looking for a place where there were going to be a lot of people who wanted to be involved in making this happen, we had those people in New York City and, of course, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere, right?
Bringing the first Solutionary school to New York City is a way to really showcase this kind of education, but the goal is not a single school. This will be a flagship school, but it won’t be the single. It will be a model for replication everywhere, so I’m really looking forward to Solutionary Schools opening here in Maine and across the world.
Lisa Belisle: Solutionary is an interesting word because I think often when we are dealing with problems, we’re dealing with problems we’re not dealing with the answers to the problems, but you are right up front saying we are people who want to actually move things forward in a positive direction. We want to be the Solutionaries, so how did you come to this place that you’re calling it Solutionary School?
Zeo Weil: Well, the word came up from our former Executive Director of ours who just came up with that term Solutionary and I just love it. I said, “That’s it. That’s the word we’ve been looking for.” That really explains who we want to be and who we want young people to be. One of my frustrations with … We’ll our society in general certainly with government and with the media is that so many issues are presented to us in either or terms, and we’re … Even in schools, we have debate teams and students are often assigned one side or another of what’s … Sometimes a fabricated either or, or sometimes is a problem but it’s presented in black and white terms. Students are taught to research it, argue it and win for their side, even if they don’t agree with their side.
Now, I see the value in becoming that kind of critical thinker and learning persuasive skills and articulation skills. That’s all good, but is that really the best we can do? It occurred to me when I was listening to NPR one day in my car and one of those NYU debates was airing. The issue was, was the United States responsible for Mexico’s drug wars?
It was … Again presented in either or terms and I was … I think my jaw dropped. I thought that is a very complex issue and question. Why would we want to argue one side or the other? Why wouldn’t we put the great minds together to talk about how can we end Mexico’s drug wars? What are the solutions to that terrible problem?
I thought what if instead of having debate teams in all these schools in the United States, we add solutionary teams so students would be able to find a problem; it wouldn’t be a assigned to them, They could find a problem, it could be a small problem, it could be a problem in their school, it could be a problem in their neighborhood, it could be a global problem. The goal would be that they would work together collaboratively using their various skills and interest and they would come up with solutions to the problem and they could present those solutions.
We’re a very competitive society, so if we want to have those teams compete they can still compete for the most innovative, the most practical, the most viable, the most cost effective solutions to real world problems. They’re going to gain the same critical thinking skills, strategic skills, wholistic thinking skills, system skills, but they’re also going to be able to solve a problem and the best ones where we could implement them. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Lisa Belisle: That’s a great idea. I think about my own children and watching them evolve through the school systems. It is a black and white often. It’s often … We’re training kids that they can be right or wrong. They can win or they can lose. That’s not really the way that the world works. Having worked with the Maine Media Collective now for several years, writing for the magazines and doing the radio show. It is a collaborative project. It is everything that comes out of this office is touched by many people, so you need to actually solve problems as a group. I don’t think that those skills are something that necessarily are fostered all the time in education.
Zeo Weil: I don’t think they’re fostered much at all. Competition is happening constantly in education. At every turn, right? Even grades are often just competitive, right? If kids are graded on a curve that’s competition right there. The goal isn’t really to make sure that every student gets an A because that means they’ve mastered the content. We would just say, “That’s grade inflation. Grades don’t mean anything anymore.” Everything is a competition.
While we pay lip service to collaboration because businesses, industries, everybody wants collaborators. Collaborators are really key and nobody wants to hire somebody who’s not a good collaborator and yet where do we teach it? We don’t. We often if we just throw kids into a group they’re going to collaborate but they haven’t been taught how to collaborate. It’s a really important skill.
Just to go back to the solutionary teams, on our website which is HumaneEducation.org, people can download a solutionary team toolkit, so any teacher who’s listening to this who want to create solutionary teams can just go to our website, it’s free and you can start a solutionary team in your school.
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Lisa Belisle: The title of the book that I first read of yours, ‘Above All Be Kind’, raising a humane child in challenging times. I know this is not your latest book but it’s the one that I first read. I was drawn to it because of the idea of kindness and a compassion, but not in a passive way and I think that’s often what we think of when we think of being compassionate. We think of not speaking ill of other people or being nice, but you’re talking about a very active, mindful approach to being kind. You’re talking about really taking into consideration how everybody is impacted. Everybody meaning every creature, every living thing is impacted by any given decision and moving forward with that knowledge. That’s an interesting … That’s interesting because it’s not easy.
Zoe Weil: No, it isn’t easy, but it really feels good to try and you’re right kindness is not the same thing as being nice, right? Being nice does feel more passive to me. Kindness is compassion in action to me. It means really being aware of the effects of one’s choices, and proximal kindness, that is, being kind to people with whom you interact, that’s hard enough. We have enough trouble with that. I mean, we have all of these anti-bullying programs in schools because people have challenges just being kind to each when they’re interacting.
How much harder is it then to be kind when the food you eat or the clothes you wear or the electronics you use or the products you buy may have come with so many effects on other people, on other species, on the environment. It could have been terribly cruelly produced, terribly environmentally destructively produced and it takes a real active will to say I’m willing to learn about that. I’m going to find out about the effect of my choices so that I can truly be kind in a very extensive way.
People listening to this might think, “Well, that’s overwhelming. I don’t want to know if it’s going to mean that I have to constantly be looking at all my choices.” I get that and yet there is something deeply satisfying about striving to live with integrity. I often think to myself, I have to look at myself in the mirror everyday and one day I’m going to die. I want to know that I did my best that I strived to truly be a good and kind person. That’s with this way of thinking allows us to do. That’s really rewarding not to mention that it creates a more peaceful and kind world. Don’t we all want to that for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren?
Lisa Belisle: I think we do and I also think you’re right that people can feel overwhelmed by it because there are people that … I’ve been in this situation myself where you really want to do what’s best, but sometimes what’s best over here is not best over here, and something that you’re trying to do that’s good for the plants and the animals sometimes it’s hard on the people and it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to weigh all of those decisions.
Zoe Weil: Yes, and this gets to the reason why humane education is so important and Solutionary Schools are so important because we need to address the interconnected systems. So often, we look at problems in isolation and when we do that, that means that we solve them in isolation and that means that you may cause harm and suffering somewhere else as you’re trying to solve a problem over here.
Becoming a deep systems thinker when we have so many systems that intersect. For example, in a unit that we are creating for the Solutionary School. This is a sixth grade, six week unit around this question. What are the connections between public health problems and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?
Now when you hear that … Well, first you might think I don’t know what the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is, so what it is is it’s an area in the Gulf of Mexico where life no longer exists and it’s because there’s … Oxygen has been depleted in that area. Now, why did that happen? It happened because of runoff from the Mississippi river. What’s in that runoff? Nitrogen fertilizer primarily also sometimes treated sewage is a problem there. Where does all that nitrogen fertilizer come from? It comes from the way we do agriculture.
You get into so many different ways of thinking and the new systems. Now, what is all of that have to do with public health? Well, the way we do agriculture is affecting public health. We are eating too much meat and dairy products. We are eating too much junk food and most of that is food that comes from the area around the Mississippi that is just sprayed with pesticides, massive areas of feed crops which are then fed to animals which produce only a small amount of beef back or chicken back or dairy back from the amount that we put in. We have all of the corn that’s been grown that goes into all of that junk food that we eat, and all of that is contributing to the health problems.
Then we have our healthcare system, we have our economic system, we have our advertising system, our agricultural system, our political system, our subsidy system, our tax system. There are so many intertwining systems with a question as simple as what are the connections between public health problems and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?
Now, imagine a sixth grader learning about all of these interconnected systems and realizing that there is no quick solution. They have to be system thinkers and think about … All of these systems and then what are they going to do? Well, imagine if some of them learn these things they go to their legislators and they say, “Why is it that we are subsidizing certain agricultural products? Why is it that a fast food cheeseburger and an organic Apple cost the same amount? How is that possible? How is it possible that soya milk costs more than dairy milk when dairy milk is produced from cows who are fed crops like soya beans and the conversion rate is a terrible conversion rate? How are these things possible?
Then they’re going to find out about tax subsidies and then they’re going to be talking to their legislators saying why do we do that. Some of them maybe will become legislators themselves or they’ll draft legislation or they’ll become advocates in their community and they’ll try and actually solve these problems at the source. Another kid might be going to the school cafeteria and saying, “Hey, we need to make sure that the foods that we eat here in our school are healthy, just, humane and sustainable. How can we do that?”
Lisa Belisle: I’m listening to you I’m thinking about the actual spiritual roots of what you’re describing. I’m thinking about the Buddhist tradition which is not a religion, but it is a tradition. The idea of interconnectivity and the idea of everything being related, did any of these come into your mind as you were thinking about humane education?
Zoe Weil: Yes and no. Well, first I will say that I love the Dalai Lama’s line, ‘Kindness is my religion’. I think that’s beautiful. I would say that I found it fascinating when I was studying world religions. To learn about different traditions and their … What they taught about our relationship to the natural world, our relationship to other animals, I did find that very interesting to learn about.
I wouldn’t say that any of my humane education work stemmed from any spiritual or religious beliefs. It definitely stems from my ethical beliefs and the principle that I try to live by is the MOGO principle; MOGO being short for Most Good. How can we do the most good and the least harm to people, animals and the environment and ourselves are included in the category of people? How can we do the most good and the least harm? That to me is the ethical principle by which I try to live and I think that humane education at its core is inviting people to figure that out for themselves.
Lisa Belisle: What about the Quaker tradition? You were in Pennsylvania for your education. Obviously, there’s a strong Quaker influence in Pennsylvania and when we had Billy Shore, who is the founder of Share our Strength; the childhood hunger relief organization. He was on our show. He actually sent me some books that were written by a teacher who has a Quaker background. Did any of that … I mean, obviously, this is its own thing, but were you aware also of that?
Zoe Weil: Well, I was certainly aware of the Quaker tradition. I have given presentations and talks in many Quaker schools in the Philadelphia area because there’s so many of them. Again, though, I would say that my values and thinking around these years intersected with, but were not informed by the Quaker tradition.
Lisa Belisle: Well, I just think it’s interesting as you’re talking about systems and I always think when I’m asking people questions about where they came from and what their influencers were. I think it’s interesting that you have synthesized something that is entirely new; this MOGO principle, the idea of humane education and Solutionary sSchool. It does … There are some echoes I guess …
Zoe Weil: Right.
Lisa Belisle: Of things that have been around. That maybe in some ways I would think that might be helpful for some people because they already have a framework in their mind. They’re already familiar with some of these other things, so that maybe they can start connecting with what you’re describing.
Zoe Weil: Absolutely, because at our core, it’s like what I said at the beginning about if you ask people what are the best qualities of human beings, the lists are always so similar. These are innate to human beings. We agree that kindness, integrity, generosity and courage are good qualities. I don’t think anything that I’ve said is all that new. I mean, the MOGO principle? Sure, I coined the phrase, ‘MOGO’ for what’s worth, but the idea of doing the most good and least harm is very ancient. To me, I liken it to the golden rule, “To do unto others as you would have them do unto you or do not do unto others what anathema to you.” I mean, both of those versions of the golden rule are in every religious tradition.
Every human has tradition. They’re deeply embedded in our value system as human beings and I would just say that the MOGO principle asks us to take that golden rule and really apply it in a systematic way in a complex globalized world.
Sometimes, I think people could hear this and say do I have an agenda that I’m trying to push on young people? I would say, yes, the agenda is to do the most good and least harm but that’s where it ends. I’m not going to tell anybody what they should think, what they should do, but I’m going to ask people to think and to consider what they do in relationship to this principle. I’ve asked thousands and thousands of people, do you think that this principle of doing the most good and least harm is a good principle by which to live? Unanimously, people say, yes, nobody has ever said, no, that’s not a good principle by which to live.
We agree on the principle. We’re going to disagree on how we manifest that principle, but at least let’s do it honestly and with integrity. That’s what I think schools need to enable students to do. I mean, we live in such a different world from when you and I were in school. It’s changing so dramatically and yet schools haven’t changed that much.
Our children need to be able to graduate and negotiate this very complex world in which all of the information, all of human knowledge is available to them in a device that fits into their pocket and yet we still have them memorizing the names and dates of Presidents, right? Let’s have them actually doing work, thinking about real world issues and trying to solve what are potentially catastrophic problems that we’re facing.
Now I’ve very optimistic. I actually believe that we are living in less violent, less discriminatory and less cruel times than ever before in recorded human history and there’s so much evidence to back that up if somebody wants to research that.
I’m not poliansh about, but the evidence is there. At the same time the threats that are facing our children are pretty frightening threats. Climate change is a frightening threat. We have over seven billion people that number is continuing to grow. Every single person on this earth needs access to adequate food and clean water, a home, an economic opportunity.
We face some really big issues. We are depleting so many species of sea animals in the oceans. We are in the midst of what people are calling the sixth extinction. We are losing so many … Species we don’t even know exist, we are losing them. This is frightening. We could potentially lose half of all species on earth by the end of this century if we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably and live more ethically. This is so important and this is what young people need to be able to learn to do.
Lisa Belisle: Zeo, how do people find out about the Solutionary School that you are starting; your flagship Solutionary School and the Institute for Humane Education?
Zoe Weil: People can go to our website HumaneEducation.org. They’ll find links to everything; our graduate programs, workshops, free downloadable resources, the Solutionary School, our blog, all sorts of things there and they’ll also find links to my TEDx talks. I’ve done six of them and people can find out everything in one place; HumaneEducation.org.
Lisa Belisle: We’ve been speaking with Zeo Weil, who is the Cofounder and President of the Institute for Humane Education and who’s considered a pioneer in the comprehensive humane education movement and author of six books including the one I have on my lap. I’m going to have you sign it before you leave. People, who are listening, please do take the time to learn more about this. I think it’s an important thing that Zoe is doing and know it’s crazy you’ve taken the time to come all the way down here and talk with us, so thank you.
Zoe Weil: Thank you, it’s been really fun.
Lisa Belisle: As a physician and small business owner, I rely on Marci Booth from Booth Maine to help me with my own business and to help me live my own life fully. Here are a few thoughts from Marci.