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21 May 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 5:37am

Why dissecting a frog explains nothing about life

Surely there's a better way to teach children to venerate life than the current biology curriculum?

By John Burnside

A while ago, my son asked me to help him with his biology homework. At first, as an O-level science dropout, I was a little apprehensive about this but, having assured myself that teaching methods had changed considerably since I was at school, I stupidly rushed in where angels fear to tread.

It was awful. Suddenly I was back in the dim, slightly sepia-toned “laboratory” I had learned to loathe so much. The mechanical diagrams of the human digestive system; the elevation of biological cogs and springs over any sense of a living whole; that hard-headed preparation for an objective, unsentimental state that treats Dylan Thomas’s notion of “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” as just so much hokum. Oh, how I remember that “objective” state and how quickly I learned that it was opposed not to the error of sentimentality, as such, but to feeling itself.

The case in point, for my generation, was the inevitable frog dissection. Those reluctant to take up their scalpels were seen as squeamish or “girly”. Even though I didn’t fall into this category, I do recall how empty and unsatisfying the procedure felt as I peeled open the skin and poked inside. Where was the life? Where was the energy? All I could see was a slur of tissue and, although I admit that some of it was rather pretty, my main sensation was of something casually, yet determinedly, reduced.

Now, I am sure much has changed since my days in fourth form. Officially at least, the education system is more sensitive than it once was (though, mysteriously, casual violence among young people continues to rise, with 43 per cent experiencing some form of bullying in 2015, according to the latest survey). I feel confident that only a few old-school biology teachers deliberately encourage their students to think of life as just so much machinery. Yet at the same time, I confess to being haunted by a notion – picked up from reading Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Carl Sagan and others – that we all too often miss out on one genuinely scientific principle that Carson advances in her final book, The Sense of Wonder:

Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the subject of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

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That our bullying figures are so high may well be an indication that we are failing to arouse in our children the feelings of love for other living creatures that Carson so eloquently invokes – and the outcome can be disastrous. According to a paper produced in 2014 for the US National District Attorneys Association, one “study of 23 school shooters reported that ten (or 43 per cent) had a background of animal cruelty, 90 per cent of those incidents were ‘up-close and personal’ attacks on animals, and 70 per cent of the animals were unknown to the abuser (not a family pet)”.

Granted, school shooters occupy the extreme end of the spectrum, but it seems to me that our general failure to venerate life may be at the root of many forms of violence, from routine mockery and assault in the playground to Jeffrey Dahmer and Anders Breivik (both of whom had histories of “up-close and personal” violence against animals). What is the point in learning the functions of the spleen when we lack empathy? In knowing without appreciating? We can do both, surely – but my memories of tedious memorised diagrams and puddles of matter on a cold dissecting board suggest that there has to be a better way.

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This article appears in the 18 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster