Following is the full transcript of Zoe Weil’s TEDx Talk titled ‘The World Becomes What You Teach’ at TEDxDirigo conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Zoe Weil on The World Becomes What You Teach at TEDxDirigo
When I was 15, I asked William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on the original Star Trek series, to kiss 5000 people at a Star Trek convention. Now back then, Star Trek was probably the most important thing in my life. And like a lot of psychologists and sociologists at the time, who were trying to understand the Star Trek phenomenon, I wanted to understand it too. I wanted to understand why this show and why these characters were so profoundly important to me that I would be willing to publicly humiliate myself as a 15 year old.
Well, I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason why Star Trek has so many millions of fans is because of the future that it depicts — a future in which we’ve solved our earthly problems. Our nations are at peace, our planet is alive and thriving, we’re no longer myopic, and mean spirited, we’re part of the United Federation of Planets. And we’re actually explorers without being conquerors.
That vision has actually kept me going when I felt my most despondent about the state of the world, which is easy to do, in the face of global warming, and escalating worldwide slavery, and alarming rates of species extinction, and war, and poverty, and genocide, and institutionalized forms of oppression and cruelty towards both people and animals in a host of industries. It is very hard to imagine that we can actually create that Star Trek future. It seems so “pie in the sky”.
And yet, I’ve spent my whole adult life working toward that future. And I’ve discovered the solution, and I’m going to share it with you today. There’s actually just one system that we just need to tweak a little bit, and if we do that, we can solve every problem in the world. And that key system is schooling.
Now, there’s a deafening silence in the room. Because I realize that the word schooling is probably the most uninspiring word in the English language. But that’s because we have a very small perception of what schooling can be. If we ask people, “What’s the purpose of schooling?”, most of them are going to say something like this, “Well, it’s to provide the basics of verbal, mathematical and scientific literacy, so that our graduates can find jobs and compete in the global economy.”
So let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that every child graduates from high school, and does so, having passed their “No Child Left Behind” test with flying colors. And let’s imagine further that every single one of them is able to find a decent job, paying a livable wage, or go to college and find such a job, or go to college and graduate school and find such a job, so that we have 100% employment.
Would we think that we have been successful in our goals for schooling? I think that most of us would say, “Yes”. The problem is that many of those graduates would go on to perpetuate and perhaps even exacerbate some of those problems that I just mentioned earlier. The problem is that that purpose is too small, and it’s outmoded for today’s world. We need a bigger vision for the purpose of schooling. And I believe that it should be this: that we provide every student with the knowledge, the tools and the motivation to be conscientious choice makers and engaged change-makers for a restored and healthy and humane world for all.
Or another way of putting it, I believe that we need to graduate a generation of solutionaries.
Now, some people have asked, “Well, is this good for kids? And is it really fair to them, to burden them with the responsibility to fix all the problems that generations before them have created?” Well, to answer those questions, I want to tell you some stories about my experience as a humane educator, somebody who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, and environmental preservation, and animal protection.
I became a humane educator back in 1987 when I was looking for a summer job. And I found this program that was offering week-long courses to middle school students in Philadelphia. So that’s where I taught my first humane education courses. And I watched in amazement as these kids were transformed over the course of a week. In one case, overnight. I taught about product testing on animals one day, and I talked about how soaps and lotions and oven cleaners squeezed into the eyes of conscious rabbits, and forced fed them in quantities that kill them.
And a boy from the class went home that night and he made his own homemade leaflets about product testing. Well, he came into class the next morning and he showed them to me and he asked if he can hand them out. I said, sure, I thought he wanted to hand them out to his fellow classmates. He wanted to hand them out on the street. So while the rest of us were having lunch, he was on the Philadelphia street corner handing out his leaflets. He’d become an activist overnight. Actually, several of the kids in that class, became activists. Two of them formed a Philadelphia area wide student group that went on to win awards for their great work.
Well, that was the summer I realized that I’d found my life’s work as a humane educator, and I went on to form a humane education program where I brought presentations and courses into schools. And there was one school, a public high school, where I did an after-school course. And there was a boy in the class named Mike. He was a senior. He always sat near the front. He was really smart. He always played devil’s advocate, which I loved because I want my students to be critical thinkers about all else. In fact, I often begin presentations by telling students, “Don’t believe a word I say.”
Well, I still worried about Mike. I worried whether or not I was really reaching him. Because he never had an emotional response to any of the issues that we were discussing, and there were some pretty intense issues. Well, on the last day of class I decided to do a rather unconventional activity called the “council of all beings”, where I invited the students to become through their imaginations, another being, whether a part of nature or another animal or another person, and then just speak as this being, and talk about what’s happening to them, and talk about what they want to change, and share their wisdom.
So I was really worried. How is Mike is going to react to this kind of touchy-feely activity? But my fears were totally unfounded. Mike had become the ocean. And when he spoke, poetry just poured out of his mouth. I was stunned. When the activity was over, that was the end of the course. We were saying our goodbyes and Mike said, “Thank you, Zoe. When I look back on high school, this is what I’m going to remember.”
So yes, I believe this form of education is good for kids. Is it fair to them? Well, to answer that question I want to tell you another story. A couple of years ago, I was asked to be the speaker at the National Honor Society Induction at a local high school. And I did an activity with the audience called “true price”, in which we look at an everyday object like bottled water or a fast food cheese burger, and ask what is the true price of this item on ourselves as individuals, on other people, on other species, and on the environment? Well, that particular day I did “true price” with a T-shirt. And I’m going to do a little bit of this activity with you.