In the Fall/Winter 2006-07 issue of Greater Good Magazine, authors Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo describe the concept of the “banality of heroism.” Philip Zimbardo is famous for his Stanford Prison Experiments conducted in 1971 in which participating college students were randomly assigned the role of prisoners or guards. Similar to the “blue eyed/brown eyed” classes taught by third grade teacher Jane Elliot in the late 1960s, these experiments revealed how quickly humans can become either perpetrators of cruelty or, conversely, powerless yet enraged victims of persecution. From these experiments, and others like them (such as Stanley Milgram’s obedience to authority studies), the concept of the banality of evil was born, explaining a host of atrocities.
In the Greater Good article, however, the authors invite readers to consider the reverse: how might we promote the banality of heroism and the heroic imagination. They write: “Our society needs to consider ways of fostering heroic imagination in all of its citizens, most particularly in our young.”
In the context of MOGO, it might be phrased this way: “We need to discover the key to inspiring people of all ages to want to do the most good and the least harm.”
In Humane Education programs and classes, one component is offering accurate information so that people have the knowledge base to make informed, conscious, compassionate decisions and solve problems wisely. But they must also have the motivation and inspiration to choose MOGO, or in Franco and Zimbardo’s words, have their heroic imagination fostered. Humane education employes another component – instilling the 3Rs of Reverence, Respect, and Responsibility in order to inspire recipients to become ordinary heroes. What we revere, we tend to protect. If we can offer people, especially young people, opportunities to experience reverence for others, whether people, animals, or the natural world, they will naturally seek to protect those others. This reverence leads to respect and responsibility as we grow older, are exposed to more relevant information, and are provided with opportunities to make wiser, more compassionate choices.
Reverence-building activities can be as simple as watching a film or reading a book about an ordinary hero, hearing a story about someone who faced persecution but chose not to hate the perpetrator (such as Nelson Mandela), spending time outdoors with a magnifying glass, visiting a sanctuary for animals who’ve been abused and later rescued. These are the kinds of experiences we need to offer children so that ordinary heroism can take root. They are not hard to incorporate into curricula, or give our own children as parents, but we need to make such education the norm, not the exception.
You can find other ideas for reverence-building, and for incorporating humane education into your life, in my books: Above All, Be Kind: Raising a Humane Child in Challenging Times (for parents) and The Power and Promise of Humane Education (for educators).
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