How Humane Education Programs Work
Humane education programs focus on creating a just and humane world that is safe for humans, non-human animals, and the environment. Depending on the program, they may target students at any age, be delivered by classroom teachers or guest speakers, consist of one or many sessions, and focus on issues including factory farming, labor conditions in the developing world, and others. Consistent with our anti-speciesist mission, our focus below will be on programs delivered in a single session by outside speakers to high school and college students that emphasize the consequences of factory farming on animals. This type of presentation is common in farm animal advocacy.
Humane education programs are prevalent in part because several states have laws requiring or encouraging schools to provide students with humane education at certain ages.1 However, humane education can also fit naturally into social and natural science curricula without state interference. At the college level, humane education presentations take place in biology, environmental science, philosophy, and other courses. Typically, presenters or organizations build relationships with teachers and schools that invite them back each year to present to new classes of students. Presenters usually have a standard presentation or presentations that they give, but vary the material as needed to suit individual classes.
Because humane education programs depend on skilled presenters and the maintenance of relationships with teachers and schools, they are resource-intensive and difficult to scale compared to some other vegan advocacy interventions. An organization running a humane education program needs to have at least one skilled presenter with a schedule allowing them to present in classes as needed. Additionally, presentations often use Powerpoint slides, video clips, and other materials that may need to be regularly updated. Some presenters also distribute literature such as vegetarian starter guides to interested students.
How Effective Are Humane Education Programs?
Currently, ACE does not have enough information to rigorously evaluate the impact or cost-effectiveness of humane education as an intervention. Holistically, we feel that humane education is a promising intervention and worth further investigation. It targets young people, who are more receptive to new ideas and have longer to act on and spread them if they are persuaded. Humane education interventions may also benefit from the respectability of being conducted with teacher or school approval, and from peer group effects if groups of students undergo belief change together and can support each other in maintaining and acting on new beliefs. Humane educators spend more time per student than leafleters do and are more highly trained, but if their message is more likely to be internalized, this intervention could prove worthwhile.
Existing academic studies of humane education programs mostly focus on programs delivered to elementary age children. The studies are in general at small scales and have limited-term follow-up (one year maximum), and many date from the 1980s or 1990s and may not reflect impacts of current programs or curricula.2 More studies on the impacts of modern programs are needed.
The most relevant data we have comes from a survey conducted in Spring 2013 by Justice For Animals. This survey, best treated as an internal program evaluation, was given to 2200 high school and college students immediately following the presentation, and they knew it came from the group giving the presentation. Few (114) of the students filled out the survey, and of those who did, 16 self-reported having become vegetarian or vegan due to seeing a lecture. While this was 14% of the students who filled out the survey, we assume that whether a student took the survey was correlated with whether they became vegetarian, and that some students might have reported becoming vegetarian who intended to do so but did not in fact follow through. Thus 14% is an upper bound for the percentage of students who became vegetarian or vegan; until we obtain further data, 16/2200 or about 0.7% might be a suitable lower bound. These bounds are currently too wide to admit a reasonable attempt at cost-effectiveness comparison with leafleting or online ads.
ACE coordinated a study comparing high school and college students who have attended presentations about factory farming to a control group of other students attending the same schools. That study found no significant effects of presentations on diet, suggesting that humane education lectures are not among the most cost-effective ways to help animals by changing individual diet.
More Work Needs to be Done
Humane education is an interesting intervention, but its effects are not well understood. ACE recommends that more research be conducted on the results of modern humane education programs.
DeRosa, W. (1984). NAHEE special report: An annotated bibliography of research relevant to humane education. National Association for Humane and Environmental Education.
O’Brien, H. (2003). NAHEE special report: An annotated bibliography of research relevant to humane education. National Association for Humane and Environmental Education.
Laws related to humane education are on the books in at least 15 states.
Bibliographies produced by the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education in 1984 and 2003 demonstrate these trends. Our own literature search did not reveal significant changes between 2003 and 2013. For a recent example of a study of a humane education program and for discussion of other relevant literature, see Arbour, R., Signal, T., & Taylor, N. (2009). Teaching kindness: The promise of humane education. Society and Animals, 17(2), 136-148.