What Humane Education Looks like: Finding the Connections and Root Causes of Global Issues

We live in a world in which we too often dichotomize issues into a simple black/white, either/or, us/them framework. We find it in the news, in our education curricula, in our government and business policies, and even in our own daily choices.

But the world is much more complex. As we teach in humane education, most issues are deeply interconnected, and the most effective change happens when we seek out the root causes of our problems.

I wanted to share two great examples that highlight that interconnectedness and demonstrate the importance of diving beyond the surface. Not only are they great discussion starters, but they serve as a model for educators and activists alike.

The first example is from educator and environmental leader, David Orr. In his 2004 book,
The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment in an Age of Terror, he said the following:
"I once asked a class to explain the Gulf of Mexico dead zone (which is roughly the size of New Jersey), the fact that 22 percent of U.S. teenagers are reportedly overweight or obese, and the possible relationships between the two. After an hour, they had filled the blackboard with boxes and arrows that included federal farm subsidies, U.S. tax law, chemical dependency, feedlots and megafarms, the rise of the fast-food industry, declining farm communities, corporate centralization, advertising, a cheap food policy, research agendas at land-grant institutions, urban sprawl, the failure of political institutions, cheap fossil energy, and so forth. Most of the things described by those boxes, however, resulted from decisions that were once thought to be economically rational or at least within the legitimate self-interest of the parties involved. But collectively they are an unfolding continental-scale disaster affecting the health of people and land alike.

The same connect-the-dots kind of exercise could be done to explain urban decay and land sprawl, a defense policy that undermines true security, a de facto energy policy that promotes inefficiency, transportation gridlock, and the failure to provide universal health care. Our individual and collective ­failure to comprehend and act on the connectedness of things is pervasive, systemic, and threatens our health and long-term prosperity. It deserves urgent national attention, but is scarcely noticed. 

Why is this so?"
 The above excerpt is required reading for our graduate students, and for many of them it's an epiphanic moment. As one of our students recently shared about her humane education training (and referred to Orr's statement):

"... 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."

The second example is from a book I'm reading now: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. He relates the story of entrepreneur, Paul O'Neill, who at one time was working for the U.S. government and was assigned to determine why U.S. infant mortality was so high. O'Neill was determined to get at the root cause of the problem, which on the surface seemed like this simple solution: to lower infant mortality, improve mothers' diets.

But O'Neill made his assistants dig deeper, and they uncovered this trail: To improve mothers' diets (which would reduce malnourishment of babies), women had to improve their diets before becoming pregnant. Which meant they needed to be educated about nutrition before they became sexually active. Which meant teaching them about good nutrition in school. Which meant making sure that high school teachers (especially in rural areas) were proficient enough to teach good nutrition. Which meant improving how teachers were trained. As Duhigg says, "Poor teacher training, the officials working with O'Neill finally figured out, was a root cause of high infant mortality. If you asked doctors or public health officials for a plan to fight infant deaths, none of them would have suggested changing how teachers are trained."

Again, the interconnectedness and complexity of an issue is revealed.

Helping our students and fellow citizens to become solutionaries means giving them the skills and motivation to seek out the connections and root causes of global issues, so that they can eschew the over simplistic and often inaccurate framing that inundates our culture and focus on truly creating a better world for all.

~ Marsha

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