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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Helping Students Live Big Lives

Award-winning educator and educational revolutionary, John Taylor Gatto, wrote in his book, Weapons of Mass Instruction:

“Being a mature being means living with a purpose, your own purpose: it’s about welcoming responsibility as the nourishment a big life needs: it’s about behaving as a good citizen – finding ways to add value to the community in which you live; it’s about wrestling with your weaknesses and developing heart, mind, and spirit – none of them properties of the spectator crowd.”

What I love most about this quote is its underlying call: choose to live a big life.

Living a “big life” doesn’t mean we strive for fame or fortune. It doesn’t mean we need to be the next American Idol. It simple means we live with a purpose that we determine for ourselves and take responsibility for achieving. That’s all. It’s that simple and that meaningful.

Imagine if our schools invited each student to live such a life. Not to get good grades for the sake of those grades (and the college those grades allow them to enter); not to pass No Child Left Behind tests for the sake of moving to the next grade; not to regurgitate memorized equations or dates in history because a teacher said so; but to become mature — meaning, to find our purpose and to be agents of our lives, rather than followers of someone else’s plan for us.

When I imagine schools that invite students to live such a big life, I feel a bit tingly. Can you imagine bored children in such a school? Bullies? The very air would be vibrant with possibilities, each child understanding from the earliest age that their life was so important and sacred that finding and pursuing their purpose and welcoming responsibility as nourishment were their holiest of callings.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about Gatto’s quote is that it blends individualism with community. The call to live one’s own purpose cannot be uncoupled from being a good citizen and a contributor to the community. Together these comprise the big life.

It is possible for schools to achieve this vision. Educating students to be solutionaries for a better world – the purpose that we promote at the Institute for Humane Education and in my TEDx talk – demands that we provide students with the knowledge, tools, and inspiration they need to chart their paths as contributing members of their communities and of our very planet. It invites them to take responsibility as the surest path toward their own freedom, while ensuring that they will chart their course humanely, sustainably, and peacefully. It is a vision for education that provides students with the greatest opportunities to live big lives.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach

Image courtesy of badkleinkirchheim via Creative Commons.

About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


2 thoughts on “Helping Students Live Big Lives

  1. In reading the pop reformers’ criticisms of the SOS March before it happened, I thought a lot about the “big life,” about how schools make it a commodity held away from students, and about how society makes it clear that teachers are living the greedy life rather than the big one.

    Working with kids who are chasing after safe lives on their ways to big lives is rewarding.

    The rest is throwing me for a cynical loop at present. I’m glad school is around the corner, in all its complexity, so I can teach and learn with kids again.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 8, 2011, 3:23 pm


  1. Pingback: The Imagination Killer « therightwritehaven - August 3, 2011

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