Teaching Critical Thinking: Guest Post by Jean-Christophe Vallée
Our hostess, Daniela, invited Kristin and I out to a local bar where she was meeting some friends for a veggie burger and drinks. Believe it or not we don’t go out to bars hardly at all these days so, when once it would have been the normal flow of things, this was actually a change of pace. Here we met Jean-Christophe, a grad student at L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). We had a wonderful discussion about his experience teaching a high school critical thinking class, where he explores human interactions with the rest of the animal world as the centerpiece for criticism. He focuses on nostalgia and humankind’s innate sense of compassion and how that manifests in society’s commodification of animals. The conflict of our instinct and our actions become apparent through this exploration and I am sure the students walked away with a valuable lesson.
Jean-Cristophe’s use of English as a second language is better than my skill for editing so I present to you his experience in his unedited words. I enjoyed this very much and I hope you do too. À la vôtre!
A book, a movie, perhaps a conversation with someone or even someone’s own critical mind. I believe it would be fair to assume that the individuals that convert to veganism for ethical reasons through their life have had an idea that has been planted in their minds and has grown over the years. These influences may have reached us through various ways and awakened critical thinking from our part on this subject. Putting animal empathy aside, one may wonder why anyone could possibly resist and reject veganism so harshly since it also has so many great positive impacts. Helping the environment, fighting against hunger in the world and a much healthier diet for our human body. The social phobia surrounding veganism isn’t so difficult to spot right away and is frequently linked with an individualistic society where people do not want to give away a bit of their own pleasure and comfort that is socially acceptable. The offensive reaction of these individuals is common towards vegans as they feel judged on a behavior that has never been truly wrong in their mind and they do not want to give it up just as much as they wish to not feel guilty for keeping it. I will not go into further details on this matter as I am pretty sure most readers know precisely what I am referring to. The root of this resistance is however much deeper than selfishness. Poor or manipulative education is to be blamed first. Opening someone’s eyes and critical mind on such a core subject can be difficult past a certain age depending on the education this person had. The main issue is the fact that most people build their personality around certain concepts and ”truths” that they are taught at a younger age. The concept of ”right and wrong” is heavily influenced and someone defines one’s self within these boundaries. When someone has been taught to ignore and ridicule animal suffering, that cow milk is good for them because it gives them calcium, that meat is good for them because it gives them proteins, associates these foods with traditions or a comforting feeling and some nostalgia from their childhood, that certain animals are evil through children books and so on, being faced with a completely different reality can be very difficult to accept. The same way some people can’t accept the death of a loved one, facing the facts about veganism and being honest with themselves means the death of a part of their life, their thoughts and beliefs in exchange for a new beginning. Death being one of the biggest fears, no wonder so many people are reluctant to such life changing truths.
So why am I bringing up some of these pretty obvious human reactions? I bring this up because I am part of the people that may help to wake up the new generations’ critical minds before it is too late for them. Every person’s role is important towards veganism and some actions made can normally help out a few animals in immediate need or work towards prevention in order to save many more in the future. For example, someone working at an animal shelter, breaking in to free some more or adopting an animal that risks to be put down if unwanted saves or helps the life of these few animals in a formidable and concrete way. On the other hand, someone leading the debate on an intellectual level, writing books, giving speeches, making documentaries or teaching does not save lives of animals in immediate needs but helps towards a long term staying change to ensure that these situations cease one day or diminish at the very least by waking up people’s critical minds or giving arguments for people to back up their ethical standpoints. I am currently a university student in my second year of a 4 year program in order to teach a class that is called Ethics and Religious Culture in the province on Québec (eastern Canada). This class focuses on a mix of Ethics and Religious content in order for students to understand others better and live in better unity. I had my second internship before Christmas and met Kristen and Ethan, in Montreal through some of my friends, who asked me to make a guest post for their site. I taught to students of around 15 to 18 years old (about 140 of them) and was given the possibility to pick whichever subject I felt like teaching them. Since the internship was only for about one month, I had each group for about 4 or 5 periods and I made a project based off the following: ”Should the animals be used as a resource or as a living being towards which we should have some empathy?”
The project went very well and beyond my expectations. High school teaching in my opinion can be one of the best places in order to have a serious impact on long term social changes. The students are too young in primary school in order to be capable of getting into more complex ethical subjects while once they’re out of high school, a lot of these students drop out and will not be available anymore for this kind of mind opening. The age is perfect in order for them to be able to grasp the basis of veganism while having some resistance to it but being a bit more open minded due to the fact that they have not yet fully forged their identity and can still question certain things (authority, propaganda, etc.) High school is obligatory until 16 years old over here and this gives the opportunity to reach any type of student (rich or poor and no matter their personal career interests). Unfortunately, since veganism is not widespread and socially accepted as something ”good” the same way the fights against homophobia, violence towards women or racism, I must remain rather neutral when teaching students about this subject and pretend like the lies from dairy and meat, fur or leather industries can be valid and acceptable. I must have a softer approach and make sure that no one feels discriminated through his or her own opinion. I however have the opportunity to expose some facts and undo some of the myths. I have the opportunity to plant a seed in their minds, a seed that shall grow over the years, to wake up their critical mind and help them start a personal reflection.
Through several short videos or sites, I exposed the different points of view on whether the animal should be used as a resource or not. Always accompanying each video or text with an other one that has a point of view that goes against it, students can make up their minds more easily. For example, we have some people here in Montreal that make very popular youtube videos under the name of Epic Meal Time. These guys mix as much meat as possible together and fill it up with bacon in order to make a meal and this is something that is being popular with the youth. As a starting video, most students found this very funny and were getting hungry at the sight of it. A little dose of Earthlings about the pigs was there to set the note of this series of classes. ”Some people believe the animals should be used as a resource as they love the way it tastes… while some others believe that the amount of suffering these pigs have to go through is not worth to have a piece of bacon.” The students were free to make up their own minds. I exposed a Canadian site that makes the promotion of fur (http://www.furisgreen.com/furisgreen.aspx) and teaches people that fur is ecological, biodegradable, renewable, natural and good for the economy. This site has a great deal if fallacy arguments which I was seeing with my students and exposing in order for them to pick up on it. On the other hand, I had an animation based off the point of view of empathy with minks trapped in a cage and waiting to be put down for their fur. No need to say that the ecofur propaganda video to promote the well being of these minks with happy music while we see them in cages did not succeed with these students. Despite having powerful arguments such as written on their buttons you can order off their site that say ”Save a tree… Wear a beaver!”, the fur industry arguments were rejected by the vast majority of the students. The meat and dairy industry on the other hand was not immediately rejected as many of them could dissociate themselves with fur as they do not wear it. The students in general were stating how they were against animal cruelty and that fur is not a necessity in our current society. With a few more examples back and forth, the students were ready to get in teams for the second course where they would have to go to the computers and defend the point of view of an organization or group of people that has interests in using or defending the interests of animals (may it be people living in the great north and need it for survival, capitalistic interests, animal defense groups, nutritionists, the animal itself and so on).
During the second course, many of the students went and viewed videos that I would have personally judged to be too extreme to show in class. This raised a question… should I as a teacher intervene and prohibit them the visioning of such videos? My conclusion was ”no”. The school’s computers are setup in order to block things such as pornography and sites like youtube itself has a filter for people that are not adults yet or extreme violence. Had I told the students they should not view this content, I would have been taking a stand… and saying that it is ”wrong” to view these things, therefor the common slaughter of these animals should be banned (and like I said, I must pretend that every opinion is just as valid as an other on this subject… which ironically plays in favor of animal’s rights there). I do wish for one day for these videos to be blocked from school as it will mean that there is a social change concerning this industry.
The third course was based off the oral presentations, debates and videos to try to push each team’s point of view a little further (from Hitler that passed laws against medical research on animals in order to be able to use Jews for it to McDonald’s that had to stop buying eggs from a farm in the United States after an activist’s video had been released). On the fourth course, I had each student write up their personal opinion on that subject and then took the rest of the period to undo the most common myths. In general, most students were against animal cruelty and very offended by fur which they believe is not a necessity for us. However, when it came down to the meat and dairy industry, a lot of them were leaning more towards free range because they have been mislead and believe that meat is NEEDED in order to survive and be strong (proteins) and the calcium propaganda with the dairy is still going on. I’ve shown them examples of Shaolin monks who are vegetarians and push the limits of the human body further as well as some other examples of very muscled and healthy vegan people. I’ve finally gotten briefly into omnivorous, vegetarian and vegan diets/lifestyles before letting them know that they had a vegan in front of them (myself) which looked in no way all shriveled. I’ve went quickly over abolitionism versus welfarism approaches, free range as well as several other things.
The students were very interested in my classes in general and several teachers talked to me about it, how the students were discussing this subject in the school and even asking some teachers if they are vegetarian. I heard some basic philosophical debates start between some of them outside of class arguing about the difference between puppies and human babies (one of them telling the other that after all, humans were not always humans to start with based off the theory of evolution and that puppies should not be treated in a lesser way from this angle). I’ve seen at least about 10 of them start trying to switch over vegetarism and even one tend towards veganism while several were starting to consider it. Most students that were not thinking about this were then tending at least towards free range and meat and dairy diet reduction while those who already were around there were leaning closer to vegetarism and veganism. Only two students wrote in their texts that they do not care at all for animal cruelty out of about 140 students. This clearly shows that there might not be such a great amount of apathy in our society when it comes down to animals but rather that the current education and industry propaganda raises the youth to think a certain way. I did not try to force anything on these students and I am not sure how many of them shall go further in their thoughts about this subject after I revealed to them that the meat and dairies are just as unnecessary as the fur is (depending on how many of them will make the link that if they are so strongly against fur, that they also should be against the other unnecessary forms of animal abuse). I had some parents know about the subject I was teaching during a parent’s meeting because their children had brought up the subject at home. I was surprised to see that my guys-only group were actually touched and interested in animal ethics when we normally tend to think that guys are not very sensitive to these causes. I do not expect the majority of these students to make a switch over veganism but I definitely planted the seed in their minds and I know for sure that it will keep on growing over the years. Now it’s up to the CEGEP and university teachers, book writers and film makers to help these graduating students to make the next step after some people like me have opened their minds up to it.
Jean-Christophe is a 27 year old student currently in his second year of university at UQAM to teach Ethics and Religious Culture in Québec high schools. His university background also includes a bit of philosophy, sociology, politics and more. Working part time for Aveda salons as an assistant, he tries to make his jobs and studies match his ethical beliefs. Sometimes a very bloodthirsty and violent person… in video games only :P