Presentation on theme: "Dissection in the classroom: a persistent practice This research paper examines the history and enduring nature of the laboratory technique of dissection."— Presentation transcript:
Dissection in the classroom: a persistent practice This research paper examines the history and enduring nature of the laboratory technique of dissection in spite of ethical and emotional opposition. Matthew Helffrich
Early history of dissection Early practitioners of dissection had to overcome religious and emotional resistance to this act. In the third century B.C. Aristotle’s anatomical findings from dissection formed the pinnacle of human understanding in this field for 500 years. Galen, in the second century A.D. published works which synthesized all known anatomical knowledge. This work was the curriculum for medical schools for the next 1000 years.
By the thirteenth century, Italian physicians began to teach dissection of human cadavers to their students in theaters built specifically for the task. Audiences would surround the examination table while the professor would instruct barber-surgeons, who did the actual cutting. This practice was continued into the Renaissance period. Dissections were watched by up to 20 students, not to gain new knowledge of anatomy, but to confirm prior knowledge. Da Vinci is an example of an artist and scientist who benefitted from dissections. He worked in a mortuary to learn human anatomy and to improve both his understanding of the human body and his ability to portray the human form.
Moving toward Enlightenment It was not until the 16th century that the Italian anatomist Vesalius began to dissect human cadavers and animals with the aim of gaining new knowledge. His explorations led to the correction of earlier anatomists’ errors. Among other things, he discovered that it is the beating heart which gives bodies a pulse. Vesalius argued that dissections were to be valued for their research aspects as well as their teaching benefits.
Increasingly, dissection became a tool for medical doctors to expand their understanding of the complexities of the human body. In the 18th century, postmortem dissections were performed in France. These led to understandings as to the causes of death, as the anatomy of the cadavers were compared to the ailments of the patient while living. Many discoveries were made. The fact that oxygen is supplied through the umbilical cord was learned by examining a tangled fetus during a postmortem autopsy. From initial misunderstandings about basic physiological functions, humans’ knowledge has increased to present levels due to the study of dissections.
What does the ancient history of dissection have to do with modern classroom practice? Current laboratory procedures in secondary classrooms are based on the ancient technique of teaching medical students skills. Both animal and human cadavers were used in the past, as they are now with pre-college students using animals such as frog and fetal pigs. At the college level biology and medical students dissect increasingly complex forms of life and for those going into the fields of medicine, human cadavers are dissected.
The progressive era The popularization of scientific knowledge such as Darwin’s theory of Evolution brought such discourse to the publics’ attention. Many progressive educators around the turn of the century desired for students to make discoveries for themselves. The anthropologist Thomas Huxley advocated for science education and specifically dissection, as a way of having students learn about the functioning of their own bodies. Herbert Spencer observed that since children are naturally curious, the discoveries that are made through dissection made them well suited to teaching biology in school.
The Natural History Conference of the Committee of Ten seems to have left out zoology, focusing instead on botany as it was felt that students would be adverse to dissection and plants were easier to study. This omission was noted by advocates of biology, and it was recommended that terms learned in dissections were necessary for thinking people to engage in the discussion of evolution and other philosophical problems. By introducing students to dissection starting with “lower” forms of life before progressing to more complex animals, students will be less likely to be repelled by dissection.
Why does dissection continue at the secondary school level, even as it is being replaced in professional medical and veterinary schools with more high tech alternatives? Dissection offers hands on experiences that confirm textbook knowledge. Dissection offers hands on experiences that confirm textbook knowledge. Through the dissection of animals, knowledge of the inner workings of the human body are gained. Through the dissection of animals, knowledge of the inner workings of the human body are gained. Dissection is an exciting and memorable experience for biology students. Dissection is an exciting and memorable experience for biology students. Models and videos cannot reproduce the tactile sensations that dissection yields. Models and videos cannot reproduce the tactile sensations that dissection yields.
Arguments against the practice of dissection Dissection of animals teaches and perpetuates the culturally entrenched ideology of speciesism, where humans are thought to possess dominion over all other forms of life. We are conditioned to this viewpoint from our earliest childhood. For example, we are fed meat before understanding that it is the flesh of animals. Because teachers are role models, they have the responsibility to help students to develop positive and compassionate attitudes about all life forms. Most students do not question the demands and realities of dissection, but act reflexively and without thoughtful self-analysis to perform what the teacher requires. Students may be forever turned away from biology and science from forced participation in dissections. While it is a common view that alternatives are inferior to dissection, there is a growing body of published works which display the efficacy of alternatives.
Few students resist dissection, though many are hesitant to participate. Few students object to dissection because they are not encouraged to. Teachers and administrators do not promote the discussion of students’ ethical and emotional concerns Teachers do not endorse alternatives to dissection. By choosing to opt out of dissections, students open themselves to ridicule, and lower grades. Offering alternatives may be embarrassing for the teacher, by forcing them to acknowledge the ethical quandary of dissection. I personally respect a student’s choice, and believe that discussing ethical and emotional opposition to dissection has great value.
In spite of these arguments, most teachers continue to dissect. Alternatives to dissection treat the animal as a reducible, complicated object, not the complex creature that it is. The alternatives disconnect students from reality and may foster habits of unreality with no emotional involvement. Dissection can be about coming to know oneself better, and confronting emotions in a mature way. Dissection best teaches such concepts as the physiology of the insides of a student’s body, the messiness and complexity of that body and the fact of the student’s own mortality. Dissections should be about understanding what our actions regarding animals are and where our responsibilities lie. While dissection os not in many state standards, New York lists in appendix A of the Living Environment that students “Dissect plant and/or animal specimen to expose and identify internal structures.”
Some final thoughts By acknowledging the sacrifice of animals for dissection, students are made aware of the value that we place on their education and the respect for the animals used to this end. It is true that many students are at first squeamish about dissecting, but we are often apprehensive about new experiences and most students quickly overcome their fears and embrace the wonders of dissection. In my opinion, dissecting leads to a greater understanding of the phenomenon that is life. Love and respect for life come not from ignorance, but from understanding.