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Jack Smith

Learning by dissecting a frog or by computer graphics: The debate turns a tad controversial

May 19, 1987|Jack Smith

I had no idea that in defending Jenifer Graham, the 15-year-old Victorville high school girl who refused to dissect a frog in her biology class, I would stir a controversy.

I suggested that Ms. Graham could learn all she needed to know about the entrails of frogs from computer graphics, as she herself proposed, and that if she wanted to be a surgeon or a pathologist, she could do hands-on dissection later on.

My position was reinforced by my own recollection of dissecting a frog in my high school biology class. I was lucky enough to turn my project over to a girl who stood at the dissecting table beside me, and who seemed to enjoy it.

I may have erred, though, in remembering that my frog was dead. I assumed that the frogs had arrived at the school in bottles of formaldehyde, and that we students didn't have to kill them.

One reader advised me that his frog was alive, and that he had to paralyze it for dissection by severing a nerve in the back of its head, so it would feel no pain. "I remember I could feel its little heart beating," he recalled.

Adele Krasner of Northridge, a retired registered nurse, dissents from my position:

"As for how many doctors have to know how to take out a patient's liver, I would say quite a few in this era of transplants. Would you have been happy with a doctor who did your bypass surgery if he had learned it from computer graphics?"

Well, I can hardly imagine asking my surgeon whether he had ever dissected a frog, nor that I would have found a positive answer very reassuring.

Robert J. Hagin of Yucaipa also remembers that the frogs were alive. "The circa 1930 Depression Era amphibians used for dissection in the Davenport (Iowa) High School biology lab were quite vociferous, as well as sexually active. . . . "

Mark Nichols of Beverly Hills scoffs at the notion that Ms. Graham's intransigence comes from a reverence for animal life. "Would she not swat a mosquito that might give her child malaria? Would she not step on a cockroach that might crawl over food to leave salmonella bacteria. . . ? Doesn't she wear leather shoes?"

Nancy White of Glendale writes, "Everyone knows if you kiss a frog it will turn into a prince. How, then, can any young lady be required to dissect one?"

She recalls that her daughter was paired with her closest girlfriend in dissecting a frog, and when the girlfriend saw the poor thing twitch, she burst into tears and fled the classroom.

And what happened to the frog? "My daughter scooped him up in a large paper cup, brought him home and released him on my kitchen floor. I promptly had hysterics of my own, for we had a houseful of cats. The frog was recaptured, taken to Verdugo Park and lovingly deposited in a small stream."

I admit that that experience could probably not be duplicated by computer graphics.

Mrs. White adds that her daughter is now a family counselor and her friend a registered nurse, without ever having dissected a frog, and both are married to princes.

Jill Smith of South Gate, a biology teacher for the past 11 years, observes that frogs are hardly an endangered species. "The classroom value in terms of comparative anatomy, physiology and morphology far exceeds the moral issue of a frog's life. To maim means to cripple or disable, which seems a highly unlikely thing to be able to do to something which is already dead."

She seems to verify my recollection that the frogs are dead, but she says they use a safer, odorless preservative now instead of formaldehyde. I'm glad to hear it.

As for using computer graphics instead of live or dead frogs, she says that would be "analogous to learning brain surgery by mail."

She points out that I still remember dissecting my frog, but asks "What did you learn in history class that day?" Gosh, I can't even remember what I learned last Aug. 18.

Smith is annoyed by my suggestion that biology teachers like to watch their pupils shudder. "Oh, sure, I could have gone into the scientific professions like so many of my former colleagues and burdened myself by tripling my salary, being respected in the community and being considered an intellectual. But I prefer to remain in the poverty level, be besieged by gum-chewing 14-year-olds that know more about education than I do, and slandered by a prominent journalist, just for that one day, that one hour each year, when I get to watch the little buggers squirm. . . . "

In my book, Ms. Smith is an intellectual.

Janet Garber of Playa del Rey, a retired college biology and physiology teacher, says, on the contrary, "You are perfectly right to advise Ms. Graham to refuse to dissect the frog. Computer graphics could indeed teach her and every other biology student everything and more than they would learn by dissection."

Ms. Garber says there is a shortage of frogs, because so many are taken for lab classes. "The frog population could be maintained with greater success if they were reserved for students like future doctors and nurses, who really do need to know what a liver feels like, and for French chefs."

Joseph Brugman of Santa Ana says dissecting a frog "prepares a student for the reality of life and death."

This may seem like a trivial discussion, but at least we haven't been talking about Gary Hart's sex life.

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