WE TURNING INTO A NATION OF CHICKEN LITTLES?
November 22, 2009
sent me a copy of an email that has far-reaching implications for ecological
research, the environment, and U.S. educational programs. Andrew, who
has a master's degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Georgia,
works at the Savannah River Ecology Lab (SREL) as a research professional
and participates in the SREL Outreach Program. Collectively, staff members
give more than 500 presentations and set up hundreds of live animal exhibits
at regional schools annually. In a typical year they reach more than 40,000
came from a teacher at a middle school where Andrew was to set up an exhibit
at a career fair and give a talk on reptiles of the area. It read, "Our
principal is not convinced she would like to have animals brought to the
school [that] day. She's feeling like the children would possibly catch
something from the reptiles."
explained that she, as well as the guidance counselor, "would LOVE
for the children to have this exposure." She asked Andrew to call
the principal. He did, and then sent an email to the teacher: "I
explained that the reptiles would not be a danger to the children in any
way and that reptiles have no air-borne pathogens. However, she has multiple
concerns about the health of both the children and adults and seems very
reluctant to have animals in the classrooms for this event. She indicated
that we could come but could only bring pictures of the animals."
are but one example of a larger issue that I consider of grave concern.
The sky-is-falling paranoia about what children are exposed to at school
does not apply just to plants and animals. Some schools have concerns
about visiting speakers addressing such topics as history, archaeology,
and geology. Suppose the speaker says something politically incorrect
or unintentionally threatens someone's religious beliefs, or cultural
values, or whatever else people can find to be offended about.
attitude is indicative of a disturbing trend seen throughout the country.
Paranoia--about problems that either do not exist or might happen only
under the rarest of circumstances--is adversely affecting the education
of our children. The circular irony in this particular case is that such
attitudes perpetuate ignorance about a group of animals by precluding
educational talks about them. Students, teachers, and principals are unlikely
to learn certain facts about reptiles without hands-on, or at least eyes-on,
In the principal's
defense, she may be exercising extreme caution in response to over-reactive
litigation or to oversensitive parents who do not appreciate wildlife
and are themselves unfamiliar with reptiles. These days it seems like
written parental permission is required before students can be exposed
to anything new or different. No surprise then that a principal might
recoil from allowing children to be exposed to animals as unfamiliar as
It has been
said there are no dull subjects, only dull teachers. And I have written
before about how an enthusiastic educator can make even something as mundane
as mushrooms fascinating. Because of unusually rainy weather in many parts
of the country this year, mushrooms abound, in myriad colors--yellow,
blue, red, orange, green, even purple. Should a school decree that no
mushroom can be brought into a classroom because some mushrooms can kill
you if you eat them? To me, the benefits of creating a sense of appreciation
about the mystery and wonder of the world we live in far outweigh the
almost infinitesimally small risk that a child will later go outdoors
and eat a poisonous mushroom. One might even argue that being able to
distinguish between harmful and harmless mushrooms could be beneficial.
Andrew had to decline the teacher's invitation to make a presentation
to her students. "Unfortunately, we will not be able to attend the
career fair on Friday. Our outreach program policy is to educate students,
parents, and teachers through the use of live animals, whether by handling
them or just observing them in their cages. Our inability to bring live
animals to the school prevents us from performing this service to the
best of our ability."
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