Charitable Trust no. IT450/2001

PBO No. 130004237
NPO No. 039-611-NPO

Tel: 021 852 8160 |  Email:


PRESS RELEASE – 5th March 2019

Submitted by:

Louise van der Merwe

Managing Trustee: The Humane Education Trust

23 McLeod Street, Somerset West, 7130.

Cell: 082 457 9177


Education must reform to prevent the system churning out “second-class robots and not first-class humans” says leading economist

What happens when Artificial Intelligence (AI) gradually takes over all the jobs that keep us busy now, appropriating our livelihoods and purpose, and leaving us stranded in our own comparative deficiency?

The solution, say leading economists, lies in actively cultivating in our children that special thing that sets us apart from AI, the very thing that makes us uniquely human – our capacity for empathy and creativity.

If we don’t, says German data scientist Andreas Schleicher who heads the Education Division at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the world will be educating “second-class robots and not first-class humans.”

Schleicher believes our education system is a relic of the industrial age. He explains: “The kind of things that are easy to teach, and maybe easy to test, are precisely the kinds of things that are easy to digitize and to automate. The advent of AI should push us to think harder about what makes us human… our capacity to take responsibility, to mobilize our cognitive and social and emotional resources to do something that is of benefit to society.”

Schleicher’s call is supported by business mogul Jack Ma, former head of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. At the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland in 2018, Ma predicted “big trouble for the world 30 years from now” if education continued along its current path.

And, at the LearnIt conference held in London in January this year, global education strategist for, Giancarlo Brotto was met with applause when he said: “I want my son to come home complaining about his empathy mark!”

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, would agree.

There is growing evidence for the argument,” he says, “that instead of using the term ‘evil’, we should talk about reduced (or even absent) empathy.”

He continues: “The critical role of empathy in our society has been overlooked. Empathy is the most valuable social resource in our world… It is puzzling that in school or parenting curricula empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts, or policing, it is rarely, if ever, on the agenda. The erosion of empathy is a critical global issue of our time.”

Australian environmental philosopher Professor Glenn Albrecht predicts we will leave the human-dominated “Anthropocene era” where our emotional disassociation with the Earth has caused desolation, pessimism and distress to overwhelm the world, into what he calls the “Symbiocene era” where symbiotic science will cause a revolution in our thinking, restoring our emotional relationships with the Earth. Albrecht has a word for the mental health issues resulting from our disconnection. It’s called ‘psychoterratic’.

South African social worker Dr Magdie van Heerden believes that animals have a crucial role to play in the nurturing and development of the empathy required for healing to take place. “In today’s age of technology,” says Dr van Heerden, who specialises in the Human-Animal Bond, “animals have a greater role to play than ever before in the well-being of people.”

Technology, she says, has a real down-side. “It is ironic that while people around the world have never been more connected through social media, they have also never felt more isolated and disconnected from each other.  If you think about it, one little emoji with hands and a smiling face often replaces our very deep need for the real thing – the physical contact of a big hug.” Dr van Heerden suggests that the erosion of empathy in society is a major factor in the prevailing epidemic of anxiety and depression. “Humans have a deep-rooted need to care, and to be cared for, and this is why the nurturing and development of empathy should be a focal point in education,” she says.

“It starts with the teddy bear in the cot and with the companion animals in our homes. Most children relate easily to companion animals because they are not judgmental and if treated well, they are positive role-models for companionship, play, laughter, love, and having fun.

“Child welfare and animal welfare are intertwined and we cannot split the one from the other if we want to heal our communities and strive towards emotional health.”

South African education reformist Louise van der Merwe, managing trustee of The Humane Education Trust, agrees. As one of the pioneers of the South African Animal Rights movement, she has devoted her life’s work to calling attention to the suffering we impose on animals, and has systematically worked towards a programme for the development and nurturing of empathy in the everyday learning experience in schools everywhere.

“We are outgrowing an age that suffered the full consequences of dismissing and dishonouring the emotional self. Ours is the first era that cannot escape responsibility for its reckless abuse of nature, each other, and the beings that share this earth with us because for the first time, everything is on record,” says Van der Merwe. “Society mistook for soft or weak, some of the most powerful and unique aspects of the human experience. Historically these innate skills and qualities – empathy, compassion, kindness, creativity – have been overlooked, dismissed and even ridiculed in education.”

A humane education pilot project to test the efficacy of her Caring Classrooms programme in the development of empathy, is currently underway in two primary schools – one in Cape Town and the other in Pretoria. The project is funded by the US-based Latham Foundation, a leading proponent internationally of the imperative to make empathy and kindness central to education.

Says Latham’s Phil Arkow, Coordinator at the National Resource Center on the Link between Animal Abuse and Human Violence: “Kindness to animals is the first and truly foundational step that supports all the other steps above it in the building of compassionate and empathic communities, countries, nations and a new world ethos.”

The Centre for Animal Ethics at Oxford University has acknowledged the role of The Humane Education Trust as an educational reformer by inviting Louise van der Merwe to present the Caring Classrooms Programme at its Summer School in July 2019.  Van der Merwe believes that the Five Freedoms for Animals, as endorsed by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), should become an essential component of early childhood development in schools and educational institutions the world over, a basic learning requirement for all young learners, along with their 123s and ABCs.

“The Foundation Phase,” says Van der Merwe, “those years in a child’s life where neuroscience shows our brains to be the most malleable, is a crucial window of opportunity to teach the basic principles of ethics and integrity so that they become ‘second nature.’  The Caring Classrooms programme starts with companion animals because most young children have contact with dogs and cats. However, the learners demonstrate that they spontaneously extend their understanding of the Five Freedoms to other animals and moreover, can recall the Five Freedoms without difficulty a year after the programme. Ironically, as much as the animals will benefit from our programme, it is actually all about ourselves, our creativity to build a better world, our empathy for those at our mercy, for each other, for the environment, and all who live in it. It’s about being proudly human.”

Sources of information:

+ Quartz: ‘The Unlikely champion for testing kids around the world on empathy and creativity’, by Jenny Anderson, February 22, 2019


+ The Science of Evil by Simon Baron-Cohen published by Basic Books


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