Do dissections teach animal cruelty?

Connecticut students will soon be able to opt out of participation in classroom animal dissection. Earlier this month, the state legislature passed a bill requiring that students who object to dissection activities be allowed to perform an alternate assignment, as long as they receive permission from their parents.

With this legislation, Connecticut joins 10 other states that maintain “student choice” laws, and five more with informal policies (adopted, for example, by a state’s department of education).

Georgia is not one of those states with a student choice law, and thus our children do not have this freedom. Hopefully, this news from Connecticut will inspire school districts here, and perhaps even the Legislature, to consider adopting policies that give our students the option to learn anatomy lessons through activities morally acceptable to their families.

There are multiple reasons why a student may object to educational dissection in the classroom. Students may personally find it unethical to slice open an animal specimen, especially one killed specifically for an assignment. Students may also have environmental concerns — for example, objecting that frogs for dissection are largely sourced directly from the wild despite their endangered status. With these objections in mind, it seems appropriate to adopt policies that give a student the freedom to learn the same material through alternate activities consistent with the student’s conscience.

With the increasing sophistication of computer simulations of dissection, students now have adequate — and in many ways superior — educational alternatives to the dissection of an animal specimen. As seen in the increasing realism of computer-generated imagery in video games and movies, cutting-edge computer-simulated dissections offer sufficient stand-ins for the experience of hands-on dissection.

Many dissection simulations even include lessons that extend far beyond the traditional dissection experience. These can involve video and animation to show the motions of internal bodily systems — lessons impossible in the case of an inert corpse — and interactive tutorials about an animal’s habitat — again, impossible for a specimen snatched from its natural environment.

Of course, some will argue that the real value of classroom dissection is that it provides students with a memorable and visceral hands-on experience. But you can be a defender of hands-on learning in general and still oppose this particular hands-on activity.

For example, parents may be concerned that classroom dissection inadvertently teaches the wrong lessons about how we should treat animals. We should instead support hands-on undertakings less loaded with ethical and environmental issues, such as class trips, microscopes, chemistry experiments and interactive simulations.

What’s more, using computer-simulated dissection makes financial sense. By investing in dissection simulations, school districts can save money in the long run compared to the accumulating costs of disposable animal samples. Add to this the fact, several animal advocacy organizations will lend simulations to schools for little or no cost. Ideally, these savings could be reinvested in materials for other hands-on activities that are less ethically fraught.

We should not let the news of Connecticut’s student choice legislation pass by without considering how similar policies here in Georgia might benefit our own children. It is time to start exploiting the untapped potential for computer simulations in biology instruction. It is time to talk about putting the ethical choices involved in classroom dissection into the hands of students and their families.

Robert Rosenberger is an assistant professor of philosophy in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech.

Robert Rosenberger is an assistant professor of philosophy in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech. He studies how users interact with technologies, investigating topics such as educational devices, Mars imaging and cell-phone-induced driving impairment.

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