The World Becomes What We Teach: An Interview with Zoe Weil

Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he interviewed Zoe Weil for his column in Psychology Today (PT).

It is my great pleasure to offer this interview with Zoe Weil, cofounder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE) and one of the world’s leading humane educators. For many years she has been a role model for me and for countless others. Here’s what she had to say in our interview.

Why and when did you cofound the Institute for Humane Education (IHE)? 

I had been a humane educator for many years before cofounding IHE, offering presentations in schools, leading assembly programs, teaching afterschool courses, and witnessing the powerful impact humane education had on young people. Students launched school clubs after a single presentation. Some became activists overnight.

One 12-year-old boy, who took a week-long summer course I taught in 1987, hand wrote leaflets after learning about product testing on animals (in which products are dripped into the eyes of conscious rabbits, smeared onto animals’ abraded skin, and force-fed to them in quantities meant to kill). He distributed his leaflets on a Philadelphia street corner during our lunch break the next day. I couldn’t help but wonder how the world might be different if – in age-appropriate ways – young people learned about the connections between human rights, animal protection, and environmental sustainability not just once from a visiting humane educator, but infused into their school curricula daily.

I cofounded IHE in 1996 in order to propel the humane education movement forward and prepare educators and activists to teach about global ethical issues. We wanted to offer not only free resources, workshops, and classes, but also to create the first graduate programs in comprehensive humane education.

Through an affiliation with Antioch University New England, we currently offer online Ed.D., M.Ed., M.A., and Graduate Certificate programs in humane education. These are the only programs of their kind in the world. We also have an award-winning free resource center that includes our Solutionary Guidebook for educators and a brand new guidebook for youth and changemakers, How to be a Solutionary, which offers a step-by-step process for solving problems in ways that are good for people, animals, and the environment. 

You’ve earned graduate degrees in Theological Studies and English Literature, and you’re certified in Psychosynthesis. You’re also a nature photographer. How did these interests lead to your work as a humane educator? 

I love our beautiful Earth and the myriad species who reside here with all my heart. From the time I was very young I adored animals and was bereft when I witnessed or heard about animal suffering. When I learned about slavery and the Holocaust in school, I couldn’t fathom how we could do such things to one another.

My interest in literature, religion, and psychology stemmed from my desire to make sense of what we value, how we think, and our capacity for both astonishing altruism and astounding cruelty. My circuitous path to my career as a humane educator makes sense in the context of wanting to help build a more humane world, which I believe begins with understanding the human species and then focusing on education.

As for nature, it keeps me grounded and joyful despite all the destruction and suffering that humans perpetuate. When I photograph the natural world, I am simultaneously tingling with excitement and in a state of serenity.


Please tell readers about your pioneering ideas about people becoming solutionaries. 

Young people generally care deeply about suffering, cruelty, and destruction. They want to make a difference. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily change their personal behaviors (or have the parental support to do so). While making personal choices to do the most good and least harm is important for many reasons, including integrity and credibility, we are never going to create a just, humane, and sustainable world solely through personal choice-making. There are too many systems impacting our ability to make compassionate, sustainable decisions. For example, we can’t easily avoid fossil fuels, unsustainable mining for electronic devices, or sweatshop and slave labor embedded in the global production system. Therefore, we need to create changes in our energy, economic, political, production, and other systems so that they are sustainable and just.

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