Humane Education Activity: Learning From Our Heroes and Enemies

We're often told to look for heroes we can turn to for inspiration. How often do we seek out what we can learn from people we dislike, or those who've done evil?

At our summer residency last month, M.Ed. student, Jessica H., led an activity that explores what we can learn from both our heroes and enemies. This activity could be used for most classrooms, and it could also be adapted for companies, organizations, or even families to use.


  1. Start by sharing two versions of a quote from Confucius:

    “When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.”

    "When we see men of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves."


    Ask: What do you think the quote means? (Even if you don't like someone, you can learn something from them.)
  2. Say:  Take a couple minutes to think of someone you admire;  think of what about them you admire and consider how you can integrate what you admire about them into your own life.
  3. Say: Now take a couple minutes and think about someone you dislike or don't understand or agree with. Think of how you can learn something from that person, whether it's something good about them, or something you can improve upon in yourself by seeing how their words or actions have affected others negatively.

    Were you able to do that? Was it harder? (Invite volunteers to share.)


  4. Divide participants into about four groups. Give each group a set of cards with the names (or names and images) of various well-known leaders (some historical, some current - make sure everyone knows who each one is). Ask each group to discuss within their group what they can learn from each person.

    Sample list (names Jessica used):

    • Christopher Columbus
    • Aung San Suu Kyi
    • Thomas Jefferson
    • Helen Keller
    • Adolph Hitler
    • Martin Luther King, Jr

    5. Back in a full group, choose one of the names and ask each group to share what they decided they could learn from them. Repeat for each person.

    6. Debrief about the experience.
This activity could be used featuring all sorts of people -- from public figures, to people in the news throughout the year, to people we know in our own lives (both those we like and those we don't), and people whose values and beliefs we may disagree with (such as factory farmers or oil executives or owners of sweatshops, or climate change deniers).

The takeaway is that everyone has something to teach us.

~ Marsha

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