What do I most remember from my high school biology class? It is the smell of formaldehyde and the feel of the rubbery skin of a frog sliding under my not-too-sharp dissecting knife.
This teenage rite of passage widely persists, but is there any good educational reason for the frogs to be offered up? It is true that there is no substitute for getting to know what it is like to cut into flesh, to see organs in their natural places and so forth, but why is this important for high school students?
Since 1987, some California schools have used computerized dissections. (And some schools allow the squeamish to opt out.) Now nine-year-old Gabriel Cruz, of Smithtown, Long Island, has convinced his school to do the same. His reason is simple: “I didn’t want to do it. I like frogs. I didn’t feel it was right to do.”
Sometimes the right thing isn’t what you want or don’t want to do. But in regards to dissecting frogs by children, the revulsion Gabriel feels when he thinks about cutting open a frog leads him to the right conclusion.
Not everyone agrees. An environmental educator on Long Island is quoted in Newsday saying, “Virtual labs are increasing in popularity, but our staff believes they don’t provide nearly the same experience. There is a lot of sensory information that you don’t get when you do virtual labs. I don’t know educationally if they are the best way to go.”
Surgeons learn their skill best on a corpse. There is no adequate substitute for the human body. And children who go to environmental centers because they have a special interest may well learn best by dissecting animals that have died of natural causes.
But it is another matter to raise millions of frogs for the sole purpose of dissection by high school students. Good textbooks and on-line simulations are good-enough substitutes for the real thing for the average high school student.
Routine frog dissection is a holdover from an era that thought little about the humane treatment animals. Looking back on my day with the dead frog, I think that the real purpose of the class was to test our courage. It was a lesson in desensitization, the wrong lesson to teach if you are concerned about a moral world.