Book Review: ‘Humane Education’ by Helena Pedersen

Humane Education: Animals and Alternatives in Laboratory Classes. Aspects, Attitudes and Implications by Helena Pedersen

A Book Review by Tracey Hamilton


Pedersen - Humane EducationHumane Education by Dr. Helena Pedersen, an accomplished author and researcher at Malmo University in Sweden, is an excellent resource for educators and students alike, as it explores animal experimentation as a teaching and learning method by presenting an historical overview of the practice and a theoretical analysis from educational perspectives, student perspectives, and animal and sustainability perspectives. Pedersen adds to this study many personal stories through direct quotes from those who support and those who oppose the use of dissection and vivisection in education in order to give the reader a solid background from which to understand the importance of considering replacing animals with alternative methods for educational purposes. Easy to read and comprehend, this book is accessible to any person who finds themselves questioning the ethics and function of animal use in education. This book can help students to know they are not alone and encourage them to voice their concerns about performing dissections and vivisections, as it takes much courage and effort to conscientiously object to this common practice. It can also aid educators in not only understanding students who are opposed to using animals as learning tools, but also in deciding whether or not to offer alternatives, such as interactive physical models, CD ROMs, and videos, in their classrooms.

Pedersen compiles current data from the (largely Western) world in her critical analysis, examining various statistics, surveys and recent movements occurring in Europe, the US, and Australia that aim at bringing alternative methods to animal use at all levels of education, from high school to post graduate studies, such that the reader sees the extensiveness of this issue. Examples of this include working with teachers who are supportive of respecting students’ rights and offering them alternative learning tools, fighting through the system through letter writing and discussion of their rights as students until they were heard, or even successfully going through the court system, as some have had to take the route of claiming their moral values on animals as part of their creed, which is protected by human rights legislation. Through direct quotes from students, Pedersen illustrates that many of them are disturbed by the harm they are expected to cause for educational purposes – either directly through the acts they are to perform themselves or indirectly through supporting the cruelty that the animal has gone through before they arrive dead or alive at the school – and are deeply frustrated with having to try to get through their education without violating their ethical beliefs. They describe the risks they have had to take by conscientiously objecting such as receiving lower grades or being marginalized and looked down upon by their teachers and peers and labelled “squeamish“, “emotional” and “weak”. This is something that does not generally get a lot of attention and Pedersen’s book serves to expose this serious issue that must be addressed.

The educators who support the use of animals in education claim that it is necessary for making “good scientists,” as it gives students hands-on experience with animals. One quote from such an educator that Pedersen discusses is very striking:

“Does removal of a cat’s tail change its center of gravity? … Dissection provides the platform for thoughtful observations, and is not just a vehicle for naming the structure pierced by pin No 16. Dissection, properly done, provides the opportunity for students to practice and develop the observational skills that all good scientists should have.” (p. 50)

This quote demonstrates the underlying belief systems about human-animal relations that underlies the educational institution as it currently stands: animals are here for humans to use without restriction as we have absolute dominion over them. Why do we need to know whether chopping off a cat’s tail changes his or her center of gravity? This example makes it sound like any kind of experiment, no matter how cruel, is justified for educational purposes, which in turn makes it clear that we need to question the practice. Pedersen states that there is a “hidden curriculum” (p. 36) or an “implicit messages conveyed through education” (p. 110), where students are having their attitudes about various research methods shaped and are being socialized to be desensitized to animal suffering in order to be initiated into the scientific community. The kinds of experiments being done in education is traumatic to some students, making this a vital topic to examine critically. As Pedersen explains, many students are told by their educators that they should not be studying biological science if they are not prepared to dissect and perform vivisection; thus, they are left with choosing between conforming and going against their moral values, switching programs out of the life sciences, or dropping out of school altogether. As Pedersen notably points out,

“this is a reason for addressing the question of what kind of scientists the educational system aims at producing, and whether part of this aim should be that some students… are in practice locked out from careers in the life sciences because of their ethical values” (p. 111).

This may be the take away message of the book. To some students, the animal being used is not just an object to be used for observation. Rather, they are subjects of a life who suffer pain and needless death. This is done not to gather important new knowledge, but to demonstrate and support learning and understanding of already known facts.

At the end of her study, Pedersen makes some suggestions for moving towards more humane education.  In addition to making students aware of their right to alternative learning tools and making such alternatives available to them, she recommends having discussion in classes about the ethics of animal use in education, including where the animals come from and how to handle them properly. However, her biggest endorsement is clearly to move towards the complete replacement of animal use in education. Overall, Humane Education is an interesting and informative book that raises awareness about the importance of questioning the purpose and ethics of animal experimentation in education.