I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which we humans seem to gravitate towards "either/or" choices. Either we protect Northern Spotted Owls or people's logging jobs. Either we invade Iraq or not. Either we pull the troops out or stay. There are more. Either we trust our minds or hearts. Either we are Christian or Muslim. Either we are Republican or Democrat.

Yes, there are people who want to protect owls and jobs, think beyond
either/ors and work creatively to come up with the wisest choices in Iraq, trust both their minds and hearts, see the connections between all religions, and consider themselves Independents. But it seems to me such people are the minority.

Among activists, the either/ors are sometimes cast starkly: either someone (or some company or industry) is good or evil. The CEO of Altria (formerly Philip Morris), of Exxon-Mobil, of Monsanto - they must be evil, while the CEO of Working Assets must be good.

It's just not this simple. But complexity is, well, complex. Commitment to seeing both-ands instead of either/ors demands more from us. It may at first even appear wishy-washy, as if you've lost your passion and your commitment if you don't immediately "take sides." It shouldn't. Instead, a commitment to both-and is a commitment to problem-solving at the deepest level. A realization that people have the capacity for dangerous, unwise, unhealthy choices, as well as compassionate, kind, and brilliant choices means that we can try to influence the former, rather than call people names
and divide the population into us and thems.

There will be many times when taking sides is exactly what you need to do, but let's not let side-taking become a knee-jerk reaction to everything that is presented to us in either/or terms. You'll find either/ors everywhere. Listen for them. And then see if you can determine a more nuanced both-and…and a solution that works for all.

-- Zoe Weil, IHE President

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Learning Education -- Part 1

If someone asked me what my definition of education was when I was 8 years old, I probably would have said something like, “going to school and learning stuff.”

In my experience, most young people experience education the same way they experience the cold in their refrigerators at home. They open the door (of the fridge or school) and there it is. You just show up and it happens to you. Right? What’s to define?

At 16, if asked to define education, I probably would have matured into the trite and tiring: “learning everything you need to know to get into college and get a good job so you can have a good life.” This kind of response seems clearly a restatement of common parental urgings a lot of kids hear.

For the life of me, I can’t remember ever overtly being taught what education meant, by anyone, inside a classroom or out. I imagine this is true of a lot of people. What I do remember is that it never dawned on me that there was a definition of education beyond what I was experiencing, albeit passively, in public school.

What I failed to realize back then is that I was actually ferociously engaged in education all the time, in perhaps a thousand other ways, but to me it just looked and felt like . . . well, like my life.

As you can imagine, my definition of education has expanded dramatically and continues to grow. Not surprisingly, it still includes “going to school and learning stuff,” just as it did when I was 8 (I’m not much of an iconoclast).

I’m resisting the overwhelming urge to share with you my definition of education right now. But it would be a lot more fun to ask you and the other readers of this blog to respond with yours. Maybe we’ll learn something from each other that we can add to our own definitions and practice as educators.

Khalif Williams
IHE Executive Director
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Eighth Grade Projects for Life

My son goes to an alternative, K-8, Waldorf-inspired school in rural Maine. Each year the 8th graders choose a project to complete over the course of the year, find a mentor to help them achieve it, and, about one month before school ends, present their project to the school. This past week the students have been doing their presentations, and I’ve been attending them each morning. Over the past week one girl produced an hour-long radio show; one wrote a beautiful cookbook; one learned to fly a plane; one made intricate glass beads, and one trained a puppy for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. One boy studied body language (and embarrassed his classmates by analyzing their poses in their class photos from second grade and eighth grade); another build a wooden kayak, and tomorrow we’re going to watch one juggle and another play his original jazz piano compositions.

I think that it’s fabulous that my son will have the opportunity to choose a project next year when he’s in the 8th grade and persevere in its completion. I’m thrilled that he’ll get to learn something that he’s chosen for himself, not that’s been chosen for him by our culture or by his parents and teachers. I’m excited that he’ll find a mentor to teach him what he sets his mind on learning.

So it must be with humane education. While there’s a body of knowledge humane educators want our students to know (what is happening in this world to people, animals, and the environment; what people are doing to make a difference; why we must care, and what tools are available for problem-solving), we need to invite and allow our students to choose what matters most to them and to pursue positive change and healthy choices with their own hearts, minds, and hands.

Let’s give our students the opportunity to make their lives a succession of eighth grade projects, one building upon another, always knowing that they are free to look within themselves to uncover their passions and to find mentors to achieve their visions and dreams for more meaningful lives as well as for a better world.

-- Zoe Weil, IHE President
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One Tube of Toothpaste

Last week my husband and I had an argument…about toothpaste. To get a better picture, it might help to know that John and I have (as of this post) been married for almost 22 years, and that we’re one of those couples who almost never argues, whom people point to and say “Soulmates.” or “Gosh, you’d think they’re newlyweds.” We have always traveled the humane path together. Our values are near mirror-perfect. People call us JohnandMarsha because we are, often, as one. (In a touching, inspiring way, not a sad, co-dependent way.)

So one day last week John came home from the dentist with his baggie of floss…and a little tube of toothpaste. From a multinational corporation. Who still uses animal ingredients. Who still uses toxic ingredients. Who’s responsible for creating a Superfund site. Being the loving, compassionate communicator that I am, I calmly asked why he hadn’t left the toothpaste at the dentists’ office (like I always do). He replied that he hadn’t thought much about it, and besides, it would be handy for travel, anyway.

I’d like to say that I handled the rest of that conversation with love and compassion. After all, this is my soulmate. My beloved. The guy who walks the same walk with me. I didn’t. Although I was trying to be calm and non-judgmental, I questioned him in a way that made him feel defensive. And I felt betrayed. How could someone who has made a long-lived habit of making humane choices make such an unconscious choice? Suddenly, this little tube of toothpaste had blown up into a GIANT BIG DEAL. He was upset. I was upset. It took us a good hour of talking it out (or not) to discover that our shared humane perspective wasn’t quite as in synch as we had thought.

My take: Our (his and my) humane choices are a journey. In different areas (food, clothes, transportation, recreation, etc.) we’re at different levels. Once we achieve a certain level of humaneness in a certain area – once a new choice has become an old habit, that’s the default choice (until we’re ready to continue up the humane path).

His take: Our (his and my) humane choices are a journey. In different areas (food, clothes, transportation, recreation, etc.) we’re at different levels. Although we continue to strive to make more humane choices, we’re nowhere close to perfect in all areas, so what’s the big deal about an occasional backslide, if it’s not actively causing harm?

I’m not sure I agree with his take, but I certainly understand the reasoning behind some of his choices much better. And we both agree that:

  1. It’s waaay too easy to demonize people for their choices – even (especially?) those we dearly love.
  2. While we might be on the same (or a similar) level with someone, we might each interpret the choices for individual circumstances differently.
  3. Forward progress is ideal. A little backsliding may not be ideal, but it’s not the end of the world. And, a little wiggle room is necessary.
  4. Clear, calm, compassionate communication GOOD. Talking things out until everyone feels understood GOOD.
  5. In the grand scheme…it was one tube of toothpaste.
-- Marsha Rakestraw, Web Content/Community Manager
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A Pigeon Walks Into a Bar...

I was in Portland, Maine, recently for a couple of business meetings and a non-profit conference. Finished with my work for the day, I walked back to my hotel, dropped off my stuff in my room, and headed straight for the 12th floor lounge. I approached the bar, ordered a Manhattan, and took a cocktail table right next to the window, overlooking Portland’s working waterfront. Not pretty, but with a certain utilitarian appeal.

Now, I don’t like being away from my family and my home. And I really dislike hotels. Having decided that there wasn’t anything good going on in town that particular Thursday night, I decided that sitting for awhile in this 1940s style bar, alone, seemed like a better choice than sitting in a hotel room, alone. Nevertheless, I was feeling like time was not on my side. I had too much of it, with not enough to do.

Down on a ledge, three or four feet below the lounge window, sat a pigeon. Immediately the judgments began swirling in my head, though I didn’t notice them at first: She’s huddled against the wind, I thought. Utterly alone. Exposed. Precarious. She’s forced to eek out a life for herself here in what must seem, to her primal brain, like a dismal, manufactured wasteland. Humanity launched this global experiment in urban living only a few thousand years ago, and here she is surviving off the waste of it all. And here I am, warm, inside, food at my fingertips, all my needs met, experiencing a very privileged existence. . . with no real comprehension about -- With that thought, almost effortlessly, she spread her wings, caught an updraft and soared -- only a few feet from my face -- up and out of sight. My mind shifted immediately! I think I actually laughed out loud, sitting there, alone. I laughed because, in that instant, all my fabrications about her desolation and my privilege were pulverized. I also laughed because it’s not the first time I’ve learned this lesson. It takes a lot of repetition for me to learn a lesson. Besides, it’s always a good laugh when someone reminds you of the nose on your own face.

Her freedom and self determination, and likewise, my dependence on “the system,” became clear once again. Here I was, trapped in a concrete box, incapable of fending for myself, relying on cash transactions for so much of my livelihood, all the while personifying this bird, believing her to be some sort of powerless victim of civilization.

Now, I don’t think civilization is evil and that we should all be more like pigeons. That’s too simplistic. I’m just eager to celebrate the little ways that my life serves to show me, time and time again, my place in things. And I’m grateful to remember, from time to time, that privilege can just as easily be desolation with sugar on top, and precariousness simply freedom with no ornamentation or appeals to comfort.

-- Khalif Williams, IHE Exective Director
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You Never Know Who's Watching, or, Can't I Just Do the Right Thing Anyway?

I just read the completed coursework from a student in our M.Ed. program who took Introduction to Humane Education this semester. One of the principle concepts in this course is that our lives are our message, and that the primary way in which we teach is through example, by modeling the message we hope to convey. One of the things this particular student wrote about was picking up trash whenever she sees it. She does this because she thinks it’s the right thing to do, but it struck her, in the context of modeling her message, that when she does this, she’s “teaching” anyone who sees her.


Since reading her coursework this morning, I’ve been thinking about how I fail to pick up the trash in my path more often than not. My excuses are manifold (I’m far from home; my pockets are tight; it looks yucky; it’s cold, and I’ll have to keep a hand out of my pocket for too long to hold that bottle or can or broken buoy, etc.). My mind and heart say “pick up the trash,” but the convenience-loving, lazy, self-centered part of me often doesn’t comply. But I’m going to change this now. I hope that when I’m alone I won’t think, “No one’s here to model a good message in front of, so I’ll just leave this trash.” I’m just planning to pick up a lot more trash.

-- Zoe Weil, IHE President

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Motivating Good People to Do Good Things

I just finished The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo. It’s a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it. The first half of the book describes Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment in which young male college students participated in a psychology study on the effects of prison life on prisoners and guards. Carefully selected, these bright young men had no violent tendencies and no histories of mental illness. Randomly assigned to be either prisoner or guard, within 24 hours the experiment had turned ugly. Several guards became abusive and cruel; most prisoners became impotent, powerless and despairing. I won’t go into detail here, but the take home point is clear: good people do evil things all the time, and they do so because of dangerous, inherently unstable and abusive situations and corrupt systems.

Zimbardo discusses the Abu Ghraib abuses in this context – a perfect example of Zimbardo’s point – in which the perpetrators were dismissed too quickly as “bad apples” when, in fact, they had been perfectly good people in a situation and a system that brought out evil. The final chapter discusses how we can learn from these examples and inspire and motivate people to instead do good -- to bring out the banality of heroism instead of the banality of evil.

This is the very purpose of humane education: to raise a generation to actively, joyfully, consciously choose to do good and to fix corrupt, abusive, dangerous systems so that they will not relentlessly create evil.

Khalif’s last post on this blog was an example of ordinary heroism. It was, in fact, the second time this year that Khalif has intervened in a violent situation to protect someone in need (the other instance was on a bus from Portland to Bangor in which a young black man was being threatened by an out-of-control white man). Both times Khalif had to face the reality that he was putting himself (and ultimately his family) in danger. He weighed his options. Intervening to do good won out.

Khalif is a role model for me, but the truth is that while ordinary heroism may sometimes involve facing dangerous situations, we don’t have to endanger ourselves to be ordinary heroes and do good. Not at all. And if we allow ourselves to think, “I could never do that,” and so do nothing instead, we permit ourselves to fail at what we can do. The truth is that we can do good every time we spend money, by spending it on products and services that are humane. We can do good by volunteering. We can do good by becoming activists for change and participating in our democracies. We can do good by ordinary, every day kindnesses. We can do good by refusing, as much as possible, to participate in corrupt systems and by actively working to change them. We can do good by making sure that our work and careers are not causing harm but are contributing to a better world.

Here’s to doing good.

--Zoe Weil, IHE President

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Car Race

Recently, I was driving home from work when I saw a mini-van that was approaching from the other direction come to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. The passanger door flew open and a young woman, probably about 20 years old, either fell or was pushed out onto the rain-slicked road.

My heart began to race as I pulled my car over to the side of the road. The woman got up and quickly crossed the road away from the mini-van, her face a heart-wrenching combination of angry and frightened. I drove slowly, and turned around when I saw the mini-van pull over. Unsure what would happen next, I, too, pulled over, at an inconspicuous distance, and watched. I couldn’t see who was driving. The woman kept walking. At first.

What happened next was unexpected, but, unfortunately, not uncommon. My adrenaline level was already high, and I was already weighing the options of approaching the woman to see if she wanted my help or trying to get a license plate and simply calling the police. My hand was reaching for my cell phone when I watched her stop, turn, walk across the road to the idling mini-van, open the passanger door, and get back in.

Before she even had the door closed, the van took off...very fast. As they passed by me, I could see them both clearly. With her door still open, perhaps as she was trying to leave the mini-van again, their car started to veer violently back and forth across the road, while at the same time speed away, nearly out of control. Dialing 911 with one hand, I put my car in gear with the other and took off after them.

I knew I needed to keep the mini-van in sight so that the police would know where to find them. Keeping this woman safe felt like the highest priority. But this simple concern was in direct conflict with more than a few others, making my short, three minute, high-speed pursuit more than an attempt at a good deed.

First dilemma: I have a wife and 2 small kids at home. I’m the sole bread-winner. What if, in an attempt to help this woman who willingly put herself back in harm’s way, I get into an auto accident, leaving me badly injured or dead? What if by chasing him, I provoke the “perpetrator” behind the wheel and he turns his violence on me? Is he stronger than I am? Does he have a gun?

Second dilemma: The man was black. That's not only unusual in my town, but also in my state. Why is this a dilemma, you ask? Here’s a short laundry list of reasons posed as questions: Will the cops who stop him use unecessary force? Will they be more likely to assume his guilt? Will his process be fair at all?

Third Dilemma: The woman was white. If black people are rare in the state of Maine, interracial couples are like a mythical animal indeed. Could the police who stop this man because of my 911 call be provoked into lashing out or could they further deny him fair process because he’s dating a white woman? Such injustices happen in much more diverse areas than this in the U.S. every day. Why not here?

I could go on, but you see my point. None of these issues stopped me from placing my 911 call and giving a description of the event, the car, and the people inside. I believe I did the best thing given the situation. But my doubt lingers about what tragedy might have been caused by my intervention, either through personal risk or by inadvertently setting in motion the wheels of racism or some other unidentified outcome. This event is a perfect example of the difficulty we have sometimes standing up for what’s right; whether it’s chasing a violent criminal, choosing what we believe is more humane food, or deciding to combat globalization, the most good is not always clear.

Admitting this, where are we left? What can we know? Better yet, what can we learn?

-- Khalif Williams, IHE Executive Director

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Head Outside

Why do I ever forget to go outside? No, that's not quite right. How is it that I ever feel too lazy, tired, busy, or stressed to go outside for an hour and take a walk through the woods, climb a small mountain, or stroll by the ocean? There will always be a million things to do, a mountain of work. There will always be stressors. I will likely always think of reasons why not to. And every time that I allow that persistent voice that says "Go! Now!" to convince me to drag myself outside, I am so grateful. My best ideas happen in the natural world. My creativity is sparked; my soul is soothed. I am reinvigorated for the work at hand. I am energized, even if my body tires. My reverence is reawakened, and I know just what it is I'm spending my life trying to protect - this unfathomable, remarkable, gorgeous world we were all born into.

Please go outside. For yourself and the world.

-- Zoe Weil, IHE President
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Racism in the Morning? No, It's All the TIme

I listened to the Imus In the Morning radio show for over 10 years. Surprised? Don't be. Imus's access to politicians, journalists, and the leaders of American industry was unparalleled for a talk radio host.

Now I can't get away from Mr. Imus, even when I shut my radio off. The story of Don Imus's recent racist name-calling incident and the ensuing public outrage, corporate retaliations, and his subsequent firing all came to me as a shock but not a surprise. (It's funny to me that he should take the fall on "nappy-headed hos" when he's said such--and worse--show after show, all these years.)

Democracy Now, NPR, Alternet and the like are all doing their part to bring as much societal relevance to their treatment of this event as possible. Even the New York Times is doing a better job than I would have expected by running long op-ed pieces that venture headlong into the issue with broadening and sometimes confession-tinged perspectives that come darn close to showing the entire episode as the red herring that it is.

We of color know that racism is so much more than single, or even regular episodes of name-calling. Straight up racial hate-speech is simply the acrid, spattering foam that lets us know the pot is hot, full of poison, and about to boil over. Racist comedy is more subtle and, unfortunately, all too easily commoditized, even when misappropriation abounds. (Let's face it: Chris Rock can function a a self-effacing satirist when he does negative black stereotypes. Not so Mr. Imus.)

MSNBC, NBC, and the advertisers who pulled their advertising are not enlightened heroes refusing to sanction corrosive, racial humor. Far from it. Having made lots and lots of money off of the consistently racist behavior of Mr. Imus and the show's producer of 20 years, Bernard McGuirk, they've cut and run when the denigrative act became a liability rather than the high-margin product itself.

-- Khalif Williams, IHE Executive Director

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Choices, Choices

Sometimes I get tired of caring about how my choices affect others, especially others far removed from me. When this happens, I remember a time many years ago when a friend of mine told me that she didn't want to know any of the details behind the scenes of the fast food hamburger she held in her hand. I hadn't planned on lecturing her, but she knew I knew more than she wanted to know. I was silent, but what I thought to myself was, "How can you not want to know? How can you not want to make the kindest choices possible?"

Twenty years later, I understand my friend a bit better. While I personally never shy away from information about how my choices affect others (humans, nonhumans, and the environment), there are times when I don't want to sacrifice the satisfaction of fulfilling some desire I might have, even though I know that in doing so, I'm not making the kindest or most sustainable choice.

What to do?

Fortunately, making choices that are good for others is, itself, satisfying. This is hardly news, but in our materialistic culture, where we are bombarded by countless messages that things will satisfy not only our deepest desires but also our deepest needs, it is easy to forget that things don't bring joy, but generosity and kindness often do.

I've come to believe that the effort to live a humane life offers the deepest satisfaction and the most profound happiness. When I forsake a desire for a thing or action that causes harm in order to satisfy a deeper desire to live peacefully and joyfully, I usually discover I've given myself a great gift.

If you have a question that you'd like us to address in this blog, please email me at:

--Zoe Weil, IHE President

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Welcome to IHE's Blog!

Welcome to the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) blog. IHE Faculty and Staff will regularly post ideas and questions here to further the discussion of humane education and its importance, and we hope you’ll come back often to explore the latest issues in humane education and humane living.

Over 20 years ago, I became a humane educator. I began teaching young people about what was happening on our planet - to people, animals, and the environment. My goal was not only to inform students about global realities that are often ignored in traditional school curricula and largely by the media, but also to inspire and empower them to be changemakers who seek solutions to problems and lead their own lives in as sustainable and peaceful a way as possible.

I’ve come to realize that humane education underlies every form of changemaking and is the foundation for positive choices individually, culturally, politically, and economically.

Humane education is a worldwide movement that begins with you. Each of us is a teacher. We teach through our words and our actions. Whether you are a classroom teacher or college professor eager to impart relevant knowledge and inspire reverence, respect, and responsibility in your students, a parent wishing to raise your child to be humane, an activist passionate about conveying critical information to others, or a concerned citizen enthusiastic about living and modeling a humane life, you are part of the humane education movement. We hope that we can assist you in realizing your goals for a better world and a more meaningful life.

- Zoe Weil, President
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