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Education and Other Animals: The Emergence of New Programs

By Visiting Animal — June 18, 2013

The emerging field of animal studies is changing the scope of things for the animal rights movement. There is no one better than Paul Waldau to ruminate on the future of education and how it will benefit animals. Our Hen House is thrilled to welcome this esteemed scholar, thinker, and author. We’re eager to share with you Paul’s thoughts on “the emergence of new programs” in animal studies.


Education and Other Animals: The Emergence of New Programs

by Paul Waldau

Walk with me for a few moments in order to see something remarkable – if one notices non-human animals and then takes them seriously, one sees a brighter possible future for formal education in modern, industrialized societies. I write about education because this is a realm that almost everyone in today’s societies acknowledges as central to our future. This recognition is not new – for example, in 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States in perhaps its most famous decision of the 20th century said, “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.”

The foundational nature of formal education, which can be distinguished from informal education in the family, with friends, and as an active participant in the everyday life of a community, has led many people to fight over how we should shape the education of our children. Today, that debate is as sharp as ever. In what follows, I end with news about education that most will find to be inspiring. But to get to why these developments are so good, even great, I first need to walk you through some terrain dominated by bad news.

Over the years, many people have been extremely critical of formal education – the social critic Theodore Roszak in his 1968 essay “On Academic Delinquency” spoke about higher education and concluded, “Let us admit that the academy has very rarely been a place of daring.” More harshly and much more famously, the Enlightenment philosopher Helvetius at the end of the 18th century suggested in his book A Treatise on Man that “humans are born ignorant, not stupid – they are made stupid by education.”

One could be forgiven for wondering if Helvetius’ accusation is truer than ever today. Consider one recent media report – in 2012, the Texas Republican Party incorporated into its official platform a sentence opposing the teaching of “critical thinking skills” in education. This is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which is that critical thinking, a synonym for careful, humility-driven thinking, is the foundation of all science-based work and, just as importantly, all ethical reflection. The reason given by the Texas Republicans for their repudiation of critical thinking was that enabling a student to think carefully challenges “the student’s fixed beliefs” and “parental authority.” As an educator, I can assure you that critical thinking is the single most important skill needed by students to become responsible adults, secure meaningful jobs, and take responsibility for their own actions and life-influencing choices.

Beyond the modern calamity of adults insisting on forms of education that have the inevitable result of dumbing down their own children, school-based education in the 20th century created other, even more severe problems. Consider the very foundations of the “formal education” to which most of this article’s readers were subjected when young – what Helvetius said about 18th-century education making 18th-century students “stupid” turns out to have been, sadly, true of a lot of the 20th century’s formal education (and, even more sadly, of much 21st-century education). Specifically regarding animals, this situation is so because basic features of 20th-century formal education deprived students in a number of ways. We were not taught, for example, to use the correct scientific language of human animals and non-human animals, even though we learned that humans are vertebrates, mammals, and even primates (all animal categories). We were, in fact, taught to talk of humans as separate from animals. Similarly, we were not taught to talk of humans as great apes (we are, in fact, the fifth of five great ape species, which include orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos as well).

Beyond immersing us in peculiar and very antiscientific language habits, our school-based education deprived us of a range of strikingly important benefits that humans derive from being informed about and familiar with basic tenets about our non-human neighbors. Here, I’m not going to list the extraordinarily important benefits on the other side of the ledger – that is, the non-human side – walk with me a little further and you’ll see why. The human-focused benefits of thinking more honestly and carefully about non-human animals were lost because of self-inflicted ignorance – denying our kindred connections with, for example, primates and other mammals fostered narrow-minded education that failed to develop hearts and minds sensitive to these fellow animals. Because both mind and heart are needed to develop forms of compassion and character that strengthen our moral abilities, our formal education dumbed us down, making us ill informed (Helvetius would say “stupid”) not only about our non-human neighbors but about citizenship in a more-than-human world.

Other benefits were lost by this ignorance-driven, arrogantly detached form of education, such as the true openness of spirit that can prompt rich, responsible human awareness and imagination that, in turn, enrich the human mind and creative impulses. Above all, such openness and realism enhance key reflective capabilities like critical thinking that enable students to squarely face and solve quandaries in many challenging contexts, including purely human-centered ones. Simply said, reality-based education (and this includes the realities of other animals) creates one opportunity after another for each student to think of who she or he really is, to self-actualize as needed through self-transcendence, and thereby to connect to more than herself or himself and eventually to a larger, human and more-than-human community.

The by-products of the 20th century’s impoverished education about the living beings who share our world are, then, tragically, far worse than a calamity like the 2012 denial in Texas of the value of critical thinking. Why? Because the way most 20th-century citizens in “advanced” countries were educated about animals when in school has promoted, and now anchors, very dysfunctional forms of human-centeredness. Our education in many ways desensitized us, making us not only bad citizens but, worse, effective, and habitual, vandals of the whole earth.

These features and other bad consequences of contemporary education have led to myriad forms of human selfishness described as “the exceptionalist tradition” in my recently published Animal Studies: An Introduction. So narrow-minded as to be dysfunctional, this tradition is based on claims of humans’ superiority that keep adults today from being realistic about other animals’ abilities. This tradition also keeps us from taking responsibility for the many harms that our worst forms of human-centeredness are doing to non-human individuals, their communities, and entire species. The upshot is that we do not notice well, and certainly do not take seriously, our consumerist self-indulgences, self-aggrandizement, arrogance, and much more, all of which anchor the ignorance-driven forms of human-centeredness that prompt so many of our species to commit what might be called the fallacy of misplaced community – that is, the notion that the human species alone should be our focus.

But there is good news. As everyone has noticed, since the 1970s animal protection issues have reemerged in industrialized societies. Such concerns are, of course, an ancient human preoccupation, and they have taken many different forms – in the Western, “advanced” countries, though, the resulting achievements in human sensitivity and ethics that result from a thoughtful attendance to animals were lost in the mainline institutions (like government, religions, and education) for a very long time. Furthermore, the concern to be compassionate based on an informed recognition that we live in a multispecies world has not made it all the way back to the center of our social values. To be sure – in public policy and major political parties, these important attitudes remain marginalized, as they do in many other mainline cultural institutions.

But in the last decades, noticeably better sensitivity to some non-human animals has reemerged at different levels of our education system. Today, thus, one finds, literally, hundreds of different courses at the university level.

And here’s even better news: We are now at a point in education where we can start entire degree-granting programs. Why the creation of these programs is more important than merely making available a single course here or there may not at first seem evident – single courses focusing on non-human animal issues are, to be sure, an important sign of changing values, and Helvetius would likely have agreed that everyone can become less “stupid” by taking them.

But it is entire degree-granting programs – not single courses – that change the education establishment’s dismissal of non-human animals. Students get multiple opportunities in a program to learn about diverse, competing perspectives on many issues from a range of professors – the animal question is, after all, an extraordinary set of issues about all of the living beings outside our species and our possible relationship to them. Programs give students the opportunity to do much more detailed work, to choose how to shape their own futures in animal protection, to “question everything” in one field after another (“question everything” is the Science Channel’s motto, but notice how appropriate such an attitude is for ethics, cultural studies, and politics). Of almost equal importance is that the emergence of entire programs gives adults a chance to teach and hold positions in which they can themselves learn much more than they were ever taught.

This environment enhances learning opportunities, and that in turn enhances our sense of community with other living beings. The upshot is that, one day, our “higher education” may actually stop being a source of so many major problems and, instead, actualize the potential of formal education to become part of the solution to stopping the extraordinary harms we do to animals of all kinds, humans included.

A specific example can be found in the online graduate program leading to a master of science degree at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., for which I serve as lead faculty member. The applicant pool for the 15 to 20 spots available each year for this two-year program is deep – in 2013, even though no advertising was done, well over 100 students applied. Of those admitted to the program, a large majority are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s and already deeply accomplished in an established field (such as education, nonprofit organizations of many kinds, shelters, sanctuaries, and wildlife-based work). The Canisius program does not stand alone. Indeed, there are a number of competing graduate programs, including those at the Humane Society University, Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University, and University of Denver (and more are on the way). Furthermore, while over two-thirds of the 200 U.S. law schools (and many law programs in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Asia) now have at least one animal law course, Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., has well over a dozen such courses and a well-developed program that specializes in this topic area.

Undergraduate courses focusing on non-human animals in some way are also now much more common. The largest established program in the nation is also at Canisius College and is called “Animal Behavior, Ecology and Conservation,” but there are many other undergraduate degrees one can obtain in schools throughout the country, such as in animal studies, anthrozoology, or human-animal studies.

Education anchored in such programs can provide effective, realistic, imaginative education about other living beings that counters the bad effects of the self-inflicted ignorance about non-human animals that characterizes so much of the rest of today’s education. Perhaps most importantly, such education can be relevant to the real world and its everyday problems involving non-human animals.

When education is pertinent to specific, real-world problems, it can do two things – it can contribute to developing real-world skills that enable students to find meaningful jobs that matter, and, as importantly, it can also foster better thinking in ways that are at once scientific and ethical.

When education does this, school becomes meaningful because the content of education applies to the real, daily lives of students – in essence, such good educational dynamics are an excellent recruiting tool for getting students to lean into, rather than away from, formal education. One does not have to look far to see why. In a new book, Letters to a Young Scientist, the famous Harvard-based scientist E. O. Wilson explains his personal journey and suggests, “Life on earth remains so little known that you can be a scientific explorer without leaving home.” In fact, only about two million of Earth’s estimated 10-plus million species have been described and named. Most relevant, though, is that the vast majority of humans “educated” in mainline educational institutions have not been taught to notice other animals, nor to take them seriously.

Many today are beginning to take notice in our backyards, neighborhoods, communities, and regional, national, and international ecosystems. In the academic world, we are becoming interdisciplinary, in part because we are utilizing critical-thinking skills to unlearn the bad habits of dismissing any and all non-human animals that the exceptionalist tradition promoted through its many dysfunctional attitudes.

If we push our academic programs and institutions to do this well, we will enable graduates to get jobs in areas where they feel they are making a difference, to link up animal protection sentiments with environmental protection wisdom, and to contribute to the Earth community in many different ways. Whether this good news becomes our future is a matter of choice – indeed, as activist and author Frances Moore Lappé suggests, “Every choice we make can be a celebration of the world we want.”

Photo on main page, and photo above, are both by Chris Taylor of Wild Love Photography.


2332916Paul Waldau is a scholar working at the intersection of animal studies, ethics, religion, law, and cultural studies. He is an associate professor of anthrozoology and animal behavior, ecology, and conservation at Canisius College. Since 2002, he has taught the animal law course at Harvard Law School. Paul is the author of many books, including Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs to Know and Animal Studies: An Introduction.

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