by Tim Myshrall

a child kneeling at the edge of the seaIn his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari asserts the importance and necessity of illusions to our species.

As individuals and communities, we shut our eyes to this fundamental nature of ourselves. We adhere to our myths, stories, and ideologies, even when they are harmful to our individual selves, our species, and the entire biosphere.

Perhaps it is a survival mechanism. An adaptation that arose as a side effect of evolved cognitive skills for living in a social group.

But there is little chance for significant change in our behavior unless we understand the importance of questioning everything, even sacrosanct doctrines about humankind. We need to recognize that our society, economy, and politics are the products of complex interactions and random chance and not the natural or inevitable outcome of our biology or history.

When we accept the notion that our culture mentally conditions us to think in distorted ways, we start to open our minds to the possibilities for redefining who we are and what we believe.

And so I think humane education must help us develop the courage to doubt.

Humane education must instill credulity that can protect us from manipulation and self-deception.

Humane education must help us develop the intellectual rigor to break free of delusion, no matter how inconvenient or unsettling it may be to do so.

CULTIVATING A MINDSET OF UNCERTAINTY

But where do we begin?

One option is to counter harmful fictions with new, kinder fictions. We could attempt to impeach prevailing narratives and collective beliefs that cause suffering, and in their place, inculcate ourselves with more humane and compassionate stories.
That might go a long way toward making positive changes.

And yet it can’t be the entire solution, because there will always remain the risk of harmful stories becoming the dominant worldview as long as we don’t see them for what they are: illusions. As long as we act without knowing why we are acting, we risk subordinating our beliefs to those of others.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else, you surrender your own integrity and become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”

So I think as humane educators, we start by cultivating the mindset of nonconformity in the face of tyranny. We develop uncertainty, because as long as we remain certain, there is no opportunity to see beyond fictions that we currently accept as fact.

We will not doubt or deny any existing or future illusions that perpetuate harmful behaviors unless we allow for the possibility of our own ignorance. We look at society, with all its dogmatic truths, and we see opportunities for change.

We understand that this could unsettle individuals and destabilize society, because everything is built upon a significant amount of unconscious prejudice and strong beliefs in perceived truths and the rightness of unsubstantiated opinions and worldviews.

And despite this collective fallibility, we accept the challenge and embrace ourselves as instruments of change, because we understand that nothing will be different unless we begin to truly ask questions and see things as they really are.

APPROACHING OUR LIVES WITH HUMILITY

Humane education also helps us understand the importance of approaching our lives with humility.

We accept that we are subject to the same laws of nature as all other living beings.

We understand that we are not endowed with unique biological gifts that enable us to determine objective truth with certainty or to avoid ever deluding ourselves.

We realize that our future is unpredictable but to a large degree will be steered by the prevailing fictions held by our species; and so we can better prepare ourselves and others for change that will come — whether it is in the direction that we think is best or not.

Lacking hubris, we strive to find out the truth, rather than holding on to the desire to believe.

Humane education teaches us to weigh the evidence before reaching conclusions and to discard propositions that are not supported by reason.

Humane education helps us to develop individual and communal integrity, despite inhumane societal, economic, and educational pressures from those in power.

Humane education promotes freedom of thought, while at the same time helping us to recognize that social constructs and false beliefs will continue to permeate our thinking without our full awareness. We realize the need to never feel certain that we fully understand ourselves or our world.

And so we engage in our work to educate others, seek change, and develop solutions with a strength of conviction derived from mindful introspection, a deep understanding of opportunities drawn from reality, and a moral framework that is built on rational and critical thinking, as well as compassion.

 

Tim Myshrall is a veterinarian with a particular interest in evidence-based medicine, biostatistics, and clinical epidemiology. He lives in northeast Ohio with his wife and daughter. He volunteers at a nearby rehabilitation center for birds of prey and co-coaches his daughter’s Science Olympiad team. He is pursuing his Master of Arts in Humane Education through IHE’s graduate program.

 

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