Crusaders In The Classroom

November 01, 1989 16 min read

Maggie McCool loves animals. A soft-spoken 16-year-old from Franklinville, N.J., Maggie has been a vegetarian since she was 5, and last year she decided to stop wearing leather and wool, and to stop eating dairy products and eggs. She loves animals so much that several years ago she and her brother joined a patrol of “beaver defenders’’ to chase away hunters from a private animal refuge.

So when it came time to dissect animals in her 10th grade biology class at Woodstown High School, Maggie, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, calmly said no. “It goes against my moral and ethical beliefs,’' she says. “I just don’t think it’s right to kill animals, especially if it’s not necessary.’' She was told that she would fail the course if she refused to complete the laboratory work. But rather than back down, Maggie and her parents, Joe and Georgianna McCool, challenged the school’s policy in court--with legal help from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Last July, the local school board decided to settle out of court. Under the terms of the settlement, Maggie’s grade was changed from an F to a D, the school district agreed to pay $12,500 in legal fees to the ACLU, and students with strong beliefs against dissecting and handling dead animals now must be provided with alternative methods. “It’s more than we were asking for,’' Maggie says.

Maggie McCool may be out of the mainstream, but she isn’t alone in her convictions. Two years ago, a California high school student named Jenifer Graham also took her school to court after refusing to dissect a frog in a biology class. She won her case, and because of the attention she received, California now has a law that gives students the right to refuse to dissect, harm, or kill animals in schools.

Even the 10,000-member National Association of Biology Teachers, which until recently took no favors using alternatives whenever possible. “There is an increasing criticism and objection to dissection, coming from students, parents, and special interest groups in the community,” says Rosalina Hairston, the group’s education director. “It is high time we look at alternatives instead of doing the same thing we’ve done for the last 100 years.’'

The National Education Association, too, recently took a stand on animal rights. At its July convention in Washington, D.C., delegates passed a resoultion calling for “the humane treatment of living animals when used in experimentation and the development and utilization of reliable alternatives to such experimentation.” Another more vaguely worded resolution supports “guidelines concerning the humane use of animals in the classroom” and urges teachers to encourage “compassion and respect for all living things.”

Students refusing to dissect animals is merely one facet of a growing animal rights movement that is increasingly making its way into the classroom. Dozens of interest groups - from PETA and the Student Action Corps for Animals to the Animal Legal Defense Fund - are bringing into question attitudes and practices that many teachers have always taken for granted. And some animal rights activists who also are teachers are incorporating their beliefs into their teaching, raising questions about the propriety of teaching values in schools.

Larry Brown, an animal rights activist who teaches special education in Bradford, Ohio, makes the point that most schools have curriculam and educational materials that are biased against animal rights, much of it provided free of charge by groups such as the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the National Dairy Council, and the National Livestock and Meat Board.

“One could argue that schools are not in the business of promoting values,’' says Brown, a member of PETA and several other animal rights groups. “But far from being value-free, schools promote, if not actively, at least in subtle ways, the following beliefs: animals are ours to use as we see fit; their suffering is inconsequential; our benefit is the primary criteria governing their use; animals are simply a collection of muscles, bones, nerves, and tissues; and the use of animals is not an issue to be seriously discussed.’'

But even Brown admits there is “a fine line between promoting your own values and getting kids to think about new ideas.’' His solution is to explain his beliefs to students who ask about them, but not to overtly preach them in his classes. Brown considers himself a “resource person’’ on the subject of animal rights; both a psychology teacher and a biology teacher at the school have had Brown talk to their classes about his views. “It’s not indoctrination,’' he says. “It’s exposing kids to a subject they might not have heard about. I’m not overzealous about it.’'

Finding PETA’s national headquarters takes some doing. Tucked away in a nondescript converted warehouse in Rockville, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., the office is just around the corner from Bill’s Auto Supply and not too far from Katz’s Delicatessen, whose motto is “Meat & Eat.’' PETA may not be in the most glamorous location, but with more than 280,000 members, 65 full-time employees, and an annual budget of $6 million, even its critics--of which there are many--admit that it is a force to be taken seriously.

Founded in 1980 by Alex Pacheco and Ingrid Newkirk, PETA takes the position that animals are not to be eaten, experimented on, or worn as clothing. PETA’s tactics include direct-mail campaigns, protests, and boycotts. Last year, PETA organized a boycott of Benetton, the clothing manufacturer, after learning that the company was testing a new line of fragrances by applying it to the shaved skin of rabbits. As a result of the boycott, Benetton agreed to stop testing its products on animals.

Protests and boycotts have long been the mainstays of PETA’s activities, which are chronicled in the group’s bimonthly magazine, PETA News. But PETA is stepping up its efforts to get its message into the classroom: Last year, the organization started a magazine called PETA Kids, written for children in elementary and junior high schools and sent to all of its members. And PETA has two “outreach coordinators’’ who, upon request (usually from sympathetic teachers), will talk to classes about animal rights.

Cam McQueen, one of those coordinators, says she and her colleague visited several schools a month last year, tailoring their presentations to the age level of the students. For a class of 5th graders McQueen might put together a packet of PETA literature for each student, show a videotape about factory farming, and then lead a class discussion. “I think it’s real important for kids to know how they can make a difference,’' she says. “I don’t think it’s real useful to bombard them with horror stories unless you can say, ‘Look, this is how you can make a difference. Every time you sit down at a dinner table you can make a vote for or against the animals.’

And who, if anyone, presents an opposing viewpoint? “A lot of schools have some sort of written policy where if you bring in one side you’ve got to balance it with the other,’' says McQueen. What do parents think of McQueen’s presentations? “I don’t know,’' she says. “I always think that I’m going to hear from them the next day, but so far I never have. So they seem to be O.K. with it.’'

McQueen says that PETA plans to hire someone to deal exclusively with educational matters. “It would be so great,’' she says, “to have someone who could make a concentrated effort to get into the schools and not wait for invitations.’'

“We put PETA Kids together because we had such an overwhelming demand for it,’' says Newkirk, PETA’s 40-year-old director. Newkirk, an articulate woman with a quiet yet impassioned voice, freely admits that PETA wants to inspire activism among children. “We try to gear all this toward ‘getting involved,’ like picking up the trash along the riverbank or looking for tangled fishing wire--things children can do without spending money. We try to teach them to have a keen eye so that when they are engaged in other activities they will see and notice that an animal is in trouble or there is a potential hazard for an animal.’'

But picking up trash along the riverbank is one thing; telling kids not to go to McDonald’s (because, among other reasons, PETA claims the company buys more beef than anyone else) is something entirely different. The Spring 1989 issue of PETA Kids features a two-page tirade against McDonald’s, complete with a poem titled “McDoomsday.’' (Sample verse: “Before you bite into your ‘Big Mac,'or give your ‘McNugget’ a crunch,

Think of the COST and the PAIN That went into making McLunch.’'

Newkirk justifies juch provocative tactics this way: “Our goal is making children think in a caring way, and you never know where that path is going to lead you. You might end up not stepping on ants and putting them outside and watching them go about their business. You might end up as a pure vegetarian, opposed to confinement farming. You might stop wearing leather, or whatever. Those are all personal choices that eventually somewhere down the road I would very much hope that children would make.’'

Patty Finch, director of the National Association for Humane and Environmental Education, thinks that PETA’s educational materials are not very educational at all. “I would say their materials are indoctrination, not education,’' she says, adding that PETA Kids “is not the kind of magazine I would want in my house. I think it would be too disturbing for kids.’'

The NAHE, a division of the Humane Society of the United States, publishes its own educational materials for students and teachers, all of which promote, in Finch’s words, “respect for each other, the animals, and the earth.’' NAHE’s newspaper for students, KIND News (KIND stands for Kids In Nature’s Defense), touches on many of the same issues that can be found in PETA Kids, such as animal dissection and vivisection, vegetarianism, and the treatment of farm animals. But while PETA Kids will have an article openly promoting vegetarianism, KIND News will have an article about teen idol River Phoenix, in which he discusses why he is a vegan (someone who eats or uses no animals products whatsoever).

A look at some of PETA’s literature makes it clear that many of the activities teachers once took for granted--visiting the zoo or the circus, for example--are being challenged by animal rights activists.

PETA on zoos: “Zoos teach children primarily that it is acceptable to capture wild animals, separate them from their families and homes, and confine them in small cages..... Please think twice about visiting or supporting the zoo.’' On circuses: “Animals aren’t toys. It is not right to imprison them and make them perform for us.’' On dissection: “We do not need to kill and cut up real animals in class. We can use models, computers, films, and pictures instead.’' On farm animals: “Animals kept in modern farm sheds are crowded and unhappy. We can be strong and healthy without killing and eating them.’'

Teachers taking their students on an afternoon field trip to the zoo seems like the most natural thing in the world. But if Ingrid Newkirk had her way, teachers wouldn’t take their students anywhere near them. Her voice seethes with contempt when she talks about zoos, which she calls “absolutely anti-educational.’' Animals in cages, she says, “don’t wish to be stared at. There isn’t anything that allows them their dignity in zoos. They are living objects of amusement, and the children come away with absolutely the wrong ideas about animals. Animals in zoos are degraded.’'

“PETA represents a fairly extreme view,’' responds Judy White, director of the National Zoo’s office of education. She says that education has become an integral part of most zoos, and while she admits that some zoos are not as good as others, the good ones “can give people respect for animals.’'

PETA makes a point of being where the action is. Last June, members of the Network for Ohio Animal Action--a PETA affiliate-- attended a meeting of the Cleveland Board of Education to support a resolution by board member James Carney Jr. that would stop the use of animals for testing purposes in the Cleveland schools. The animal rights organization had contacted Carney when it learned that a professor of pharmacology from Ohio State University was injecting guinea pigs with uppers, downers, and hallucinogens during school drug-awareness presentations. “There are plenty of other ways to show kids about the dangers of drugs,’' says Carney, whose resolution passed unanimously.

The U.S. Department of Education recently decided not to distribute videotapes of the demonstration after PETA sent several letters of complaint. The decision, however, was based on the “appropriateness’’ of the professor’s display of drug paraphernalia.

Last July, PETA had a booth at the National Education Association’s annual convention in Washington, D.C. PETA volunteers pass out leaflets at zoo entrances, circus performances, and agricultural fairs across the country. In 1988, PETA members successfully bid on five sheep being auctioned at the Montgomery County (Md.) Agricultural Fair (the organization has been highly critical of the 4-H Club).

‘Groups of this type have been very disruptive of 4-H programs at fairs and shows across the nation,’' says Russ Weathers, vice president of the program services division for the National 4-H Council. “It’s unfortunate when organizations can’t build their own case without attacking other organizations.’' Weathers says he is particularly concerned about anti-agricultural literature turning up in schools. “I know that one of the challenges for teachers is getting information that is factual and correct, and some of the materials that I’ve seen by these groups don’t fit those criteria. When you compare the lives of animals to the lives of people, you’ve gone too far.’' He then paraphrases the Bible: “God created man, and then He created the animals.’'

On a Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., Loretta Gray is sitting under a tree on the Mall, talking excitedly about values, teaching, and animal rights. Nearby is PETA’s “Animals Tent,’' which contains PETA pamphlets and a display of fur coats called the “Wall of Death.’' (One coat has a sign on it that says, “15 Rabbits Were Killed To Make This Coat.’') Gray is a PETA volunteer, and later she will join several others under the tent, passing out literature to the tourists--some quite interested, others merely curious--who stop by to see what PETA is all about.

Gray teaches math and reading at the Winston Educational Center, a public elementary school in Washington’s tough Southeast section. Her students are nearly all disadvantaged. “These children have been abused and neglected,’' she says. “We’re finding that children are guiding themselves through television, learning what’s on television and incorporating that kind of lifestyle into their own. That frequently includes sexual promiscuity, no respect for life, and violence. They accept that as a way of life, and they bring it into the classroom with them. It has a profound effect on the learning process.’'

Gray’s answer is to teach her students values by talking about the rights of animals. “I feel it is necessary to somehow guide them toward some kind of value system that has a positive effect on their input in society,’' she says. “Because if they don’t have positive values they aren’t going to give anything to society; they’re going to take.’' Children, Gray says, should be challenged “to see different values and to draw relationships between themselves and other creatures.’'

For example, Gray says she might show her students photos of animals in cages and try to get them to relate the photos to their own lives. Or she might pass out for class discussion PETA literature on vegetarianism. “I don’t preach to them or tell them that they should become vegetarians,’' she says. “I tell them that I am, and I tell them why, and I give them evidence about the health problems of eating meat. Those are factual things, not just my opinion.’'

Gray claims that all the information she presents to her students is fact, not opinion; she insists she doesn’t cross the line between teaching and preaching. “There have been some very brilliant persons who believe as I believe about the value of each of us on the planet. It’s not just my belief that we each have a function. It’s proven that ants have a function, beetles have a function, moths have a function, that we all have a job to do. That’s not just my belief; it’s a fact. And it’s also a fact that when we destroy different species of creatures, we are preventing their work from being done, and that impacts the entire planet, because the planet has a balance.’'

Last spring, Gray had her students write letters to District Council Member H.R. Crawford supporting a bill that would prohibit the use of carriage horses in Washington. Council Chairman David Clarke sponsored the bill after the Washington Humane Society received a number of complaints about the treatment of the horses. PETA has circulated a petition urging passage of the bill, which is now pending in the District Council’s Committee on Human Services, of which Crawford is the chairman.

Gray says that she gave her students the “facts’’ about the situation, then asked them to write their own letters. Was she using her students? “They aren’t forced to do it. They are learning writing techniques. They don’t have to write it if they oppose the bill. To use someone would be to deceive them, to trick them, to coerce without their approval, to get them to do something that they didn’t want to do. They had the right not to do it.’' One student, in fact, wrote a letter but asked Gray not to send it. She agreed not to.

Gray has the full support of her principal, Marie Marshall, who calls her “a gentle, kind person with good rapport with her students and their parents.’' Marshall encourages Gray’s teaching of “values and compassion,’' and insists that she doesn’t try to impose her views on her students. Of the carriage-horse letters, Marshall says: “She did it as a writing lesson. She gave the students background information and let them make their own choices.’'

But not all parents are supportive of teachers’ using animal rights materials in their classes. One father in Georgia (who asked not to be identified for this article) said that two years ago, when his daughter was in 4th grade, he enrolled her in an after-school class titled “How To Care For Your Pet.’' When she came home with animal rights literature that was, to his eyes, “pure propaganda,’' the father confronted the teacher at school. “I was wondering when one of you would come in to complain,’' the teacher told him. The father removed his daughter from the class. “I don’t have any objections to presenting both sides of an issue,’' he says, “but this was very biased.’'

Is there a place in schools for topics such as animal rights? “Some schools instinctively shy away from controversial topics,’' says Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. School guidelines for teaching controversial topics, he says, are “all over the place. You could call 50 different school districts and get 50 different answers.’'

Indeed, each teacher must walk the tightrope between provoking students to think and foisting one’s own values on them--and the risk of controversy is ever present.

Sam Keen, a contributing editor to Psychology Today and the author of such books as Faces of the Enemy and The Passionate Life, believes that controversy is critical to education. In a recent interview with Educational Leadership, published by the ASCD, Keen said: “The fear of controversy is a major problem in education. If I could put a motto over a school that might change it, it would be from Zorba the Greek: ‘Life is trouble; undo your belt and go out and look for it.’ If teachers aren’t in trouble today, if they aren’t getting flak from the community, then they aren’t doing their job. Administrators should protect teachers from inordinate pressure from the outside so they can raise unpopular questions, examine values that everyone in the community may not hold. Education that does not arouse is not education.’'

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Crusaders In The Classroom