Zoe Weil’s TEDx Talk: The World Becomes What You Teach (Full Transcript)

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.

So, what are the effects both positive or negative of this item on me as a consumer, on other people, on animals and on the environment? Well, questions like those could be somebody’s dissertation. So to answer them today I’m just going to scratch the surface. Well, the first thing I need to do to answer those questions is look to the item itself. So I’m going to look at the label and see what it has to tell me. Well, I found out when I looked at this label that it’s a 100% cotton. It’s made in China. And I learned how to launder it. I also learned that it’s dry cleanable, in case I would like to spend 6 dollars to clean my T-shirt.

So, that doesn’t tell me very much, I’m going to have to dig a little bit deeper. And if I do some research into cotton and cotton T-shirts, I’m going to find out that cotton is a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides, many of which are toxic and we know they’re toxic because of the incredibly cruel tests that were done on animals to test them. We also discover that many of those pesticides end up polluting our soil and our waterways.

Now, if I find out a little bit more about cotton I will come across some information that it’s estimated that a third of cotton is produced in Uzbekistan where by another estimate, there are 1 million children working in those fields as slaves. Now that cotton, after it’s grown, has to be turned into cloth and then it has to be dyed because it didn’t get to be this red color out of the ground.

So if I do some research on the dye I discover that many of those dyes are also toxic and also wind up in our water stream because about 30% of the dye doesn’t adhere to the cotton, and it winds up in the water.

Then, of course the cloth has to go somewhere to be turned into a T-shirt. We know that it went to China, so if we did a little research on Chinese garment factories we would discover that many of them are essentially sweatshops, where people are working exceedingly long hours under terrible working conditions. And then finally it’s going to be transported using lots of fossil fuels so that I can buy it.

So, those are just some of the effects and some of the negative effects. The positive ones are a little bit easier to see. We know that even if there was slave labor involved in this it certainly did contribute to a lot of people having jobs, and it’s produced in a way that’s inexpensive, so that I can get lots of these in all different colors and shapes and styles, some of which might look cute on me which might make me feel good about myself. So there are some positive effects.

Now, we ask two other important questions in “true price”. We ask, “What alternatives would do more good and less harm in this conventional product, and what are the systems that would need to be transformed in order to make those alternatives ubiquitous?” Well, after the talk was over, a colleague of mine asked one of the inductees what she thought of it? And she said that it made her really angry because, this is a quote, “We should’ve been learning this since kindergarten”. I agree.

So in answer to the question, “Do I think that it’s fair to provide this form of education to our students?” I actually think it’s unfair not to provide the knowledge and the skills to our students, to our children so that they can be solutionaries for a better world.

Now, let’s say we were to actually embrace this larger purpose for schooling. What would our schools look like? Well, first of all, any of these objects could be a course in a school. And it would be a course that would be relevant to our students’ lives and their future and their health and the health of their planet. And all of the basics would serve that course, because in the process of answering those questions we would be studying math and science, and history and social studies, and economics, and politics, and language arts and many other subjects. We could have overarching themes for each year of school, one year it might be food and water, another year it could be energy and transportation, another year it could be buildings and structures, another year it could be protection and conflict resolution. We can’t live without all of those things.

So, what if the basics were in service to figuring out how we could make all of those systems as humane and sustainable and peaceful and just as possible? Last year I was driving my car and I was listening to NPR on the radio, and there was a report about an Oxford style debate that was being conducted at the New York University. And the subject of the debate was this question, “Is the United States responsible for Mexico’s drug woes?” I remember sitting in my car thinking, “That’s really a bizarre question. Because how could anything as complicated as Mexico’s drug woes be reduced to an either-or question about another nation’s culpability?” It seemed a bizarre question. But it got me thinking about all the debate teams in all the schools where kids are arbitrarily assigned one side or another of a fabricated either-or scenario, and they are taught to research it, and they’re told to argue it and win. To what end?

What if instead of having debate teams, we had solutionary teams? We had students tackling problems and competing — we love to do that — but we have them competing about who could come up with the most viable, cost effective, innovative solutions to those problems. Those problems could be ones in their own school, they could be ones in their community, they could be ones that are global problems. And those students could compete within their schools, and then they could compete with other local schools, and then they could go to states. And then, the really brilliant ideas, we could implement them.

Imagine what would happen. Imagine what would happen if we embraced this vision of schooling. What would our graduates go on to do? Well, they would do the same that graduates do today. They’d be business people, and healthcare providers and plumbers and engineers and architects, and beauticians and politicians. The difference would be, they would perceive themselves as solutionaries. They would know that it was their responsibility to ensure that the systems within their profession were just and humane and peaceful. Why? Because that is what they would have learned in school.

And if we were to succeed in actually embracing this vision, and if we were to succeed in educating a generation of solutionaries, then there is no doubt in my mind that we could solve every single problem that we face, and we would watch that happen rapidly and inexorably by this generation of solutionaries. And then, perhaps, that Star Trek world that I and so many millions of people long for could actually come to pass.

Thank you very much.


By Pangambam S

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