Humane Education: Tasting a Life of Purpose, Empathy, and Peace

It's nearly fall, and a new batch of students is beginning one of our five graduate programs in humane education. Toward the end of the program we ask students to reflect on what they've learned and how they've changed. We wanted to share IHE M.A. student Stacey Newland's recent essay about her experiences:

When I began [IHE's] graduate program one year ago, I was oblivious to the dramatic impact that humane education would have on my life. At first, I thought humane education was just about helping animals, or helping people, or reducing pollution and protecting the natural environment. It wasn’t until I was finishing up with [the course] Culture and Change that I began to understand that humane education is so much more than the sum of its parts! For me, it is a state of consciousness; a way of being that colors every aspect of one’s life. 

There are so many things that stand out for me when it comes to what I have learned during this program. Probably the most important is that there is a price to be paid by someone or something every time I make a choice. Whether it is what I will eat for dinner, what company I work for, or what products I choose to purchase, as the choice-maker, I must be held responsible for any pain, suffering, pollution, injustice, inequality, etc., that I am supporting every time I lay down my money and vote “yes.” This was one of the most empowering eureka moments that I had during this program, and subsequently, it has influenced all of the choices I make on a daily basis. For example, now when I am in the supermarket and am offered a plastic bag, I stop and think about what exactly I am saying yes to: the estimated 12 million gallons of oil used annually to make the plastic bags that Americans consume; the effect the bags have on the environment as they begin to break down into toxic bits; the plastic “stews” that have developed in the oceans made up of plastic bags, jugs, bottles, nets, and other plastic junk -- one of which scientists have named the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” To say yes to a plastic bag may seem like a simple, straightforward decision to some; but for me, the answer challenges my value system to its very core.
I've also learned how to look at problems and pinpoint the connections between them. [IHE president] Zoe [Weil] provides a wonderful example in her book, Most Good Least Harm, when she cites David Orr’s question that he poses to his environmental studies students: "What is the connection between the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and the fact that 22% of American teenagers are reportedly overweight?" As she later mentions, these are the kind of connections that are ignored in our society. Many of us have been taught to look at single issues and have simple cause and effect discussions about them. I will admit that I certainly had a tendency to view most problems in this way. However, humane education has taught me how to draw a web. Now, when I think about factory farming, I think of human slavery; when I see KFC packaging and to-go containers, I think about the loss of habitat for Sumatran tigers; when I see a cheap cotton shirt at a department store, I think of sick children in Asia; when I see people littering and trashing the earth, I think about female exploitation and abuse. To me, this is the brilliant insight of humane education.  

My own growth has certainly affected how I perceive my own ability to nurture the growth of others in the future. It has given me a whole new sense of patience, tolerance, and understanding for others, despite where they may be in their own lives. As noted earlier, I myself was completely clueless at the start! If I didn’t have people like the IHE faculty and my co-students, who treated me with such support, positivity, and tolerance despite my obvious ignorance regarding so many of these humane education issues, I would not have made such enormous strides. This experience has made it clear to me how critical it is to demonstrate a level of understanding and acceptance for everyone, because deep down, we are all just trying to find our way to fulfillment and belonging. I love the level of insight that Zoe demonstrates in her Most Good Least Harm book when she says: “Share what you know with others…by using positive communication that does not judge or blame. Listen as often as you speak. Model your message, and speak your truth in kind and inspiring ways wherever you are and with whomever you’re in contact” (p. 147). In the future, I will strive to take on this level of graciousness with my own students. 
Finally, as this graduate program nears its end, I realize how humane education has become a mental meditation for me. Prior to this program, I made decisions rather impulsively, driven mainly by my particular want or desire in the moment, resembling that of a drive thru Starbucks double latte on the go. But humane education is like the Buddhist monk who sat me down and taught me the calming, soothing, meditative art of brewing, pouring, sipping, and enjoying a cup of tea. How could I ever go back to that hurried, unconcerned life when I have tasted a life of purpose, empathy, and peace? 

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