Humane Education in Action: Helping College Students Rethink Animals

We first interviewed our good friend and colleague, Paul Gorski, assistant professor at George Mason University and founder of, last fall, about his work amidst the intersections of justice. When we learned that he taught an intensive course about animal rights and humane education for the first time this summer, we had to get the scoop.

IHE: What inspired you to teach a summer course about animal rights and humane education?

PG: I always am looking for fresh opportunities to engage students in processes that might help them, in essence, see what they've been socialized not to see. Most of them eat meat; many love going to circuses and Sea World. I knew that, despite my evolving consciousness related to other sorts of justice issues, I was oblivious to, or chose not to see, some forms of animal exploitation for much of my life, as well. Thanks, in part, to my partner, Jennifer Hickman, a lifelong animal rights activist, I am increasingly passionate about animal rights and their intersections with topics about which I normally teach: social justice education, economic justice, and environmental justice. I knew, partially because I am so compelled by animal rights, that the title of the class would make students curious--especially those who had taken other classes with me. Plus, a majority of my students in New Century College are future teachers. All of this sort of came together, and I was inspired to create and teach the class.

IHE: How were you able to get the course approved? Were there any obstacles from George Mason University?

PG: I teach in New Century College, which is a sort of college-within-a-college at George Mason University. The programs within New Century College are all interdisciplinary and integrative. Every faculty member comes from a different discipline. As a faculty member I am encouraged to dream up and design innovative courses. I have been lucky to teach in two of the most pedagogically and curricularly innovative programs in the U.S., first in the M.A.Ed. and Ed.D. programs at Hamline University, then in New Century College at GMU. So I didn't experience any obstacles teaching the Animal Rights and Humane Education course, nor have I experienced any obstacles teaching Social Justice Education, Poverty, Wealthy and Inequality, or courses on other politically-charged topics.

IHE: How did you decide what materials (films, speakers, etc.) to use, and can you share a few of them?

PG: Luckily, I'm close enough to Washington, D.C., to have access to some fabulous organization-based resources. I used a lot of guest speakers, including Justin Goodman (Laboratory Investigations Department) and Katie Arth (D.C. Organizer) of PETA, Anne Hogan (New Media) and Matthew Prescott (Corporate Policy and Supply Chain Strategy) of the HSUS, and a team of students from GMU's Animal Rights Collective. These guests talked to my students about the campaigns on which they're focused and the strategies they employ in those campaigns. I chose a range of speakers in order to make sure my students saw models of people doing humane education from a variety of philosophical and strategic positions, from a more welfarist point of view to a more liberatory point of view.

Similarly, I used a variety of films, often juxtaposing corporate or industry claims, such as by showing a film on the Ringling Brothers website about their elephant programs, with more critical analyses, such as by showing the "Entertainment" portion of the film, Earthlings. I showed a few other disturbing films, including Meet Your Meat, that graphically depicted animal exploitation, but I also showed films, like The Cove, which focused more on forms of activism.

I designed the class as a week-long seminar, so we met all day for a week, Monday through Friday, allowing us to get out into the field, as well. We spent one full day at the Poplar Springs Farm Animal Sanctuary in Poolesville, Maryland, which is one of my favorite places in the world. Terry, one of the sanctuary's founders, introduced us to many of the animals, sharing the stories of how they ended up there. That process--sort of describing each animal as an individual with a personality--seemed to be extremely powerful to my students, most of whom were not animal rights activists. We spent Friday at the Taking Action for Animals conference in Washington, D.C., so that my students could engage with people involved in the movement.

IHE: Can you give us brief overview of the course?

PG: My intention was to introduce students to a wide range of animal rights concerns and to help them consider those concerns in light of their own lives, their own choices, and their future careers (mostly as teachers). Each day we focused on one or two animal rights issues: factory farming, animals in entertainment, animal testing, and so on.

More importantly, though, in New Century College we require students to take a certain number of "experiential learning" credits. Most of the courses I teach in the summer are experiential learning courses. I like to tell students in my experiential courses that the nature of experiential learning is that learning happens in your head and in your bones. The idea is not to read something, then write an essay, but to experience something much more deeply. So there was no lecture and very little "chalk talk" and a lot of dialogue, a lot of experiencing, a lot of analyzing.

There were several in-class types of interactive and group assignments for which students collected data and examined various perspectives on animal rights concerns such as dog fighting, fur trapping, and canned hunting. In addition, students had to complete two out of four major course assignments at the end of the class. These included (1) an analysis of the effectiveness of a specific animal rights campaign from the perspective of a particular target group (for which they could choose their own peer group or their future students); (2) a philosophical essay in response to the question, Do animals have rights?; (3) a creative project in a form of their choice on the theme, The Human Cost of Animal Suffering, in which they explored how animal abuse affects the human spirit; and (4) a humane education lesson plan on an animal rights issue of their choice.

Our in-person week was followed by a week of online discussion, as well.

IHE: Humane education isn't about indoctrination, but it sometimes gets that label. How did you deal with any concerns about bias or indoctrination (from students, administrators, etc.)?

PG: I teach these sorts of courses in order to open new windows for my students. I do not enter these classes hoping to turn all of my students into activists, although part of me might be drawn to that possibility. I am up-front with my take on many issues, but I also have learned over the years to create space for my students to grow and grapple with cognitive dissonance. The students recognize this, I think, so I rarely have to deal with concerns about bias or indoctrination from them. The issue has never come up with administrators, whether with this class or any other I have taught in New Century College. But I do know that, if I am an effective facilitator of learning, and I just let students know that a new window is there, they will be curious enough to look through it eventually. Often that doesn't happen on the spot, in the class. Maybe it happens the next time they see animal abuse or drive by a chicken farm. But I work as hard as I can to give them all of the cognitive tools they need so that they start to question what they hear and see. My sense is that this approach results in greater learning for students and, perhaps, in more activism by those who choose whatever we're discussing as they're particular battle. It's all a matter of effective facilitation.

IHE: How did students react to what they learned?

Reactions varied. One student became a vegan after the first day of class and started sending me descriptions of the vegan meals she was cooking each night that week. Others were more hesitant. It was interesting to see a sort of divide between those who felt very engaged by some of the more graphic films or by PETA's brand of activism (what I would call an "animal rights" approach) and those who were critical of that sort of thing and preferred a more welfarist approach. Many of the students were future elementary educators, so they often spoke about all of this through what they assumed to be the lenses of their future students.

I collected reflection papers after each day of class, though, and I have read all of their final assignments, so about this I'm certain: Every student was surprised by the amount of exploitation animals suffer for human profit. Every student sees that aspect of the world a little differently now.

IHE: What was the biggest lesson you learned, and what from the course did you find most challenging and most inspiring?

I relearned a lesson I never seem to learn adequately: My students are amazingly smart and incredibly complex thinkers. I teach about a lot of difficult, gut-wrenching topics, and I often find myself reflecting on whether to show this or that film clip, whether certain topics are too upsetting, whether students will tune out if we start talking about, say, links between animal or human exploitation and corporate profits. I hear people say things like "ignorance is bliss" and I think, Not to my students, it's not. I think there are a lot of problems with teacher education in the U.S., but perhaps the biggest problem is that, even while we challenge future teachers to have high expectations for their future students, we don't always seem to have very high expectations of what they are capable of doing. I relearned that my students are desperate to be pushed, to get messy, to trade comfort for deeper learning. I relearned how honored I feel that they allow me along for the ride.

The most challenging part of the course was the lack of time.

IHE: Why do you think so few universities offer courses about animal rights/animal protection, and do you think the trend to do so will grow?

I know that schools and colleges of agriculture within some universities offer courses in animal welfare, but these usually are framed from the point of view of the industry. Often these sorts of programs would be hostile to conversations about animal rights, a discipline that could be seen as threatening to agricultural industry profits.

The courses that do exist appear to be found primarily in philosophy programs and the occasional animal studies program.

I do think the trend will grow, particularly as people who teach about social and environmental justice come to realize that these disciplines and movements are interconnected. I know that IHE has collaborated on some great course and program opportunities, and the Humane Society University recently was approved to start offering several full Masters programs, so those developments should bolster animal rights and humane education as legitimate scholarly pursuits.

IHE: At IHE we focus on the interconnectedness of social justice, environmental preservation, and animal protection. You usually teach more about issues of poverty, racism, and gender. Do you find yourself integrating more of the animal connections into these courses, or is there still a separation?

In the past couple years I have introduced my "circle of justice" model in most of my classes. It is a diagram that overlays social justice, environmental justice, and animal rights concerns, demonstrating how they are intersectional; how the biggest exploiters of humans, systemically speaking, also tend to be the biggest exploiters of animals and the environment; how all of this appears to be driven by profits and power. But I'm still evolving when it comes to providing a seamless integration, largely because each of these issues is so enormous in its own right.

I also am working with Al Fuertes, one of my favorite colleagues, to design a new concentration in New Century College in Social Justice and Peace, which will include an Environmental Justice course I designed for GMU's Conservation Studies major as well as the Animal Rights and Humane Education course. My dream is to develop a program--perhaps a graduate program--based around my "circle of justice" model.

IHE: Will you teach this course again?

PG: I likely will teach the course either in the summer of 2012 or the spring of 2013.

Paul C. Gorski is founder of EdChange and an Assistant Professor at George Mason University, where he teaches courses on social justice education, animal rights, and environmental justice.

~ Marsha

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