Background: About Humane Education

Humane Education, broadly defined, is about teaching the values and virtues of compassion for all species with whom we share the planet. This exhibition focuses on the visual culture used in Humane Education between the years 1880-1945, but Humane Education existed before these dates and continues to exist in the 21st century.

Humane Education has taken different forms depending upon the historical period, geographical location, and other socio-political factors. As Bernard Unti and Bill DeRosa (2003) have pointed out, support for Humane Education has fluctuated throughout its history.

Detail from Latham Foundation brochure, 1930s. Featuring artwork by John and Miriam Lemos. Collection of The Latham Foundation.

Proponents of Humane Education in the late 19th century frequently argued that it would greatly decrease crime and fix social problems. The preface to A Mother’s Lessons on Kindness to Animals, for example, notes that “habits of cruelty in the young, if not checked in time, are very dangerous, and lead to many other sins. They harden the heart against every right and proper feeling. Children who are cruel to animals will soon be cruel to their parents, brothers, and sisters; as every act of cruelty increases the will and the power to repeat it, until it becomes a rooted and settled principle…” In other words, the reach of Humane Education was thought to extend in to several areas of modern life. Because of this, strong connections existed between the Humane Education movement and other social movements. For example, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and advocates for Humane Education often found common ground. Further, many of the leaders of the Humane Education movement felt moved to correct injustices they saw in the world in a broad sense. George T. Angell, founder of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) and the American Humane Education Society (AHES), was determined to “plead for the wronged and oppressed, whether they walked on two legs or four.”

Organizations like the Latham Foundation have understood the connections that exist among the treatment of animals and the treatment of other humans. This sense of interconnectedness has informed their approach to Humane Education, something they have been advocating since 1918.

Humane Education has tended to focus primarily on children, the philosophy being that lessons on kindness and compassion learned as a child would make a lasting impression and, therefore, influence behaviour and attitudes in to adulthood. As Diane L. Beers notes in her book, For the Prevention of Cruelty,  “the solution seemed deceptively simple and enticing: teach the children, and the children would rise to heal the world” (87). This is not to say, however, that there have not been Humane Education efforts geared towards adults. One particularly striking example recounted by Beers is that of an American Humane Association-sponsored  “evangelical-style educational tour” in the Southern USA in 1919.

In the late 19th- and early 20th- centuries there was a push to have Humane Education legislated in classrooms throughout the United States, and it was Angell who led this charge. Thanks to his efforts, in 1886 Humane Education was legislated as part of the curriculum in the State of Massachusetts. Other States followed suit, however, as Unti and DeRosa have noted, this legislation was not enforced with any degree of uniformity.

Organizations like the AHES produced copious amounts of material intended to bring Humane Education to children around the world. The annual reports of the AHES detail the activities of their fieldworkers in the United States, Canada, and in many other countries. Bands of Mercy were formed, illustrated lectures were given, and several thousand copies of Our Dumb Animals, the publication of the MSPCA and the AHES, were distributed. Guidebooks for teachers gave suggestions for lesson plans and included material appropriate to all grade levels.

More Information:

Continue on to the Exhibition 


  1. I am taken aback and frustrated to find we have covered all this ground before, and have come almost full circle…here I was thinking Humane Ed was only now slowly coming to the fore — but no, it seems it was far more widespread and generally accepted over 100 years ago and all we are doing now is revisiting… sigh.


  1. […] right side of the screen to guide you. “Home” will bring you back to this page, “About Humane Education,” will provide you with some background information, and “The Exhibition,” will […]

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