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Jack Smith

Dissecting the issue of one student's principles, there's only one conclusion to leap to: She's right

May 07, 1987|JACK SMITH

I must say that I fully sympathize with Jenifer Graham, the 15-year-old Victorville high school girl who refused to dissect a frog.

When told that she must dissect a frog in her biology class, Ms. Graham simply put her foot down. She said, "I don't believe in unnecessarily killing and maiming animals."

Almost all of us who have been through an American high school have had to face that crisis. The dissection of frogs is as inescapable a tradition in high school as gym class and the senior prom. It's something we have to do.

I still remember the queasy anxiety with which I approached the dissection of my frog. I say my frog because obviously only one student can dissect any particular frog. A frog has only one liver, one heart, one brain, and so on, and once these objects have been removed, the frog must be discarded.

As I remember, I never did dissect my frog. I stood at the dissection table next to a girl who not only didn't mind dissecting frogs, but did it with zeal. I finally handed her my scalpel and said, "Would you mind doing this for me?" And she did it with a gratified little snort. I used my willing accomplice thus throughout the procedure.

I confess that my reasons for not wanting to dissect my frog were not moral or humane. They were emotional. I was too squeamish to enjoy groping about in the entrails of a deceased amphibian.

Ms. Graham's refusal was based on higher principles. She simply did not want to be a party to the taking of a life, even if it was only a frog's.

We know that the student does not actually have to take the frog's life. The frogs are brought to the schoolroom already dead and marinated in formaldehyde. The killing has been done at a higher level, or perhaps a lower level. The carcasses are probably supplied to the school by a commercial grower who grows frogs for dissection, which is not much unlike growing cattle for the table.

Ms. Graham obviously feels that, like a vegetarian who refuses to eat meat, she is not innocent of the frog's death merely because she did not kill it. As a biology student she is the ultimate reason for that series of events that culminate in its dissection. (Ms. Graham is, by the way, a vegetarian, which suggests that her principles in relation to the frog are genuine.)

If it were simply a matter of relieving Ms. Graham of the requirement because of her principles, I see no reason why the school authorities should not do so. The notion that a student must dissect a frog to receive a passing mark in biology, or to graduate from high school, is absurd.

There is nothing in her biology class that she can't learn without dissecting a frog, including what a frog's liver looks like. She may never know what a frog's liver feels like; but that is not necessary.

Ms. Graham is quite right when she suggests that she could learn just as much from models or computer graphics as her fellow students learn from the dissection of a frog. It seems incredible, in fact, that a school would resort to a dead frog, formaldehyde, forceps and scalpels in this age of computer graphics.

Just what does dissecting a frog prepare a student for? How many of Ms. Graham's fellow students are going to become pathologists, vivisectionists, or even surgeons? If any are, I should think they could begin their hands-on training at a later date. Why should a high school student learn how to dissect a frog merely to become a homemaker, a football coach, a computer programmer, a lawyer--or, for that matter, a doctor? How many doctors have to know how to take out a patient's liver?

There is something about the dissecting of frogs in modern classrooms that smacks of hazing. I suspect that biology teachers love to watch their students shudder. It is a rite of passage; an ordeal that the teacher has endured, and that, in turn, his students must endure.

Most revealing of the school's antediluvian position is the rejection of Ms. Graham's principles on the ground that they do not spring from any "organized religion." She was asked to bring a note from her minister.

If a note from a minister can get Ms. Graham excused from dissecting a frog, surely it can get her excused also from the study of evolution and Shakespeare on the grounds that evolution is godless and Shakespeare is obscene.

Why should Ms. Graham's principles be despised simply because they are her own?

Meanwhile, the school superintendent had offered what he evidently thought of as a compromise. He said Ms. Graham would be excused from dissecting, but her record would reflect that she had passed the course without participating in that ancient ritual.

Ms. Graham rightly refused to accept any such so-called compromise. They cannot make her dissect a frog, but they would put it in her transcript that she refused to dissect a frog, thereby advising college admissions boards that this one here is a tough cookie.

On second thought, I would advise Ms. Graham to go ahead and accept the compromise. It might actually help her get into some enlightened college that was eager to admit bright, conscientious and courageous students.

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