Investigating the school experience of vegan youths

A research chat with PhD graduate Meneka Thirukkumaran

Tell us about your research project.

My research addressed the assumption of schools as neutral places; specifically I was interested in challenging dominant myths about the meat and related industries by investigating how these grand narratives may be reinforced in schools (dissection, cafeteria food, marketing materials from agriculture industries, etc.). My main research question was: What is the school experience of vegan youths (age 12-18)?

My topic emerged through my own personal experiences with navigating veganism in social spaces that are not accepting of alternate views. As a teacher, I was concerned with the anecdotes, attitudes, and experiences of vegan students, but this is an area that has not been studied in existing fields of research. This topic is important as it investigates how students are marginalized through traditional (neoliberal) approaches to education, where the values of conformity, efficiency, and compliance are emphasized.

My participants were 10 vegan youths, aged 12-18 who attended public schools in Calgary or the surrounding area.  I used focus group research to collect the data.  The data were analyzed through a Critical Animal Theory lens, which comes from the field of Critical Animal Studies. Like other critical traditions, CAT seeks to liberate an oppressed group – in this case, nonhumans used in the meat and related industries.

What did you discover?

I found that students generally discussed their veganism through three interconnected domains: family, society, and school.  Students with vegan families tended to view their families as a source of support, while students with non-vegan families stated that families were usually a source of tension.  Students expressed frustration with the contradictory messages received from society – for instance, to love and care for non-humans, but at the same time to eat them.

The participants felt that schools were largely anthropocentric, or human-centered. They felt that teachers, textbooks, and the curriculum as a whole were not accurate.  Students were looking for more information on the environmental, health, and ethical implications of animal agriculture and wanted this information to be disseminated to all students.

It was also interesting that although some participants felt their teachers were accepting of veganism, it was mainly only on an individual level.  For example, a student might be permitted to do a project through an animal rights lens, but then the rest of the class would be shielded from these discussions. Students were not accommodated in cafeterias – none of the students were able to find full vegan meals (although snacks were available: chips, bars, juice). Students did not feel that nonhuman animals were respected during dissections, and although alternatives to dissection were usually offered, teachers seemed to place emphasis on live dissections.

In some cases, students were penalized for writing from a vegan perspective – for example, a student was given an “NY” (Not Yet) on a health and wellness assignment that asked students to discuss the protein in milk, and she chose to write on soy milk. Elementary students seem to have a much harder time in school than junior high or high school students:  elementary students experienced the highest level of resistance from teachers, as well as bullying from peers.

What implications might this study have?

This study has implications for both the fields of Education and Critical Animal Studies. Theoretical work does not always include student voice, and this study begins to provide a space for student concerns, beliefs, and experiences. This study is also relevant for teachers, administrators, and policy makers, suggesting that curricular reform is necessary, but also that information should be discussed in schools. As well, this study reveals a need for more nutritious and plant-based options in schools. While my study focused on veganism and the problems associated with the relationships between the meat industry and public schools, further critique could extend more broadly to capitalism and the notion of relentless profit accumulation at the expense of the earth and all its inhabitants.