Michael Fields, a science teacher in the Au Gres school system in Arenac County, Michigan, recently showed his fifth grade students an undercover video produced by Mercy for Animals (MFA). Depicting horrific cruelty toward pigs and piglets in a facility providing meat for Tyson Foods, the video reveals animal abuse in modern agricultural facilities that is not only legal, but all too common.
Upset that their 10-year-old children were shown such graphic footage, some parents brought their concerns to school administrators. The school board disciplined Mr. Fields with a six-day unpaid suspension. Case closed.
Unfortunately, this case should be wide open for a much deeper analysis of what topics we should be teaching students and at what ages. We must diligently explore how and when we teach children about critical real-world issues of injustice and cruelty in which we are complicit as a society and as individuals.
As a humane educator with more than 25 years experience teaching young people about the interconnected issues of human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation, I believe that Mr. Fields should not have shown his fifth graders the MFA video. Such footage isn’t age appropriate and could easily traumatize children. It could also overwhelm and then desensitize them to animal cruelty, inhibiting rather than encouraging personal evaluation of their food choices and engagement in community and legislative action to extend anti-cruelty protections to pigs.
Yet, ten-year-olds should learn about where their food comes from, and food production ought to be among the topics taught in school. There are few systems more intricately and intimately connected to personal and planetary health, justice, and ethics than agriculture. And few personal choices have as big an impact on our collective well-being.
Which is why the decision to suspend Mr. Fields for six days misses the mark.
Here’s what should happen instead:
The students who were shown the MFA video must be given the opportunity to discuss and grapple with that footage with caring, informed mentors and teachers (including Mr. Fields) who can help them process their thoughts and feelings, learn more about agricultural norms , and understand the role they can play in protecting animals from abuse. As Joan Baez said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” If Mr. Fields’ students are experiencing trauma from what they saw, they need to be provided with positive outlets for participating in meaningful change.
The school faculty, board, PTA, and administration can and should use this situation as an opportunity to assess how and when to teach students about issues that affect their lives, as well as to evaluate curricula and pedagogy for relevancy and meaning in today’s world.*
The school can and should consider its own complicity through the school cafeteria, not only in animal cruelty, but also in environmental destruction and human rights abuses, and engage with students who have now been, albeit inappropriately, exposed to the issue through the MFA video. In this way, the school can turn an unfortunate situation into an opportunity to make positive changes.
The Superintendent of the Arenac County schools said it’s the school’s job to protect students’ physical, mental, and emotional safety. Much mental and emotional safety comes when children learn to have agency, to contribute meaningfully in the world, and to cultivate qualities such as integrity, compassion, and kindness. Teaching about relevant ethical issues that are related to students’ everyday lives provides just such an opportunity, as long as the issues are presented age-appropriately and with a solutions-focused lens that enables youth to successfully tackle the systems that perpetuate injustice and cruelty. Physical safety comes in large part when students’ health is protected, which makes the unhealthful foods offered in most school cafeterias ironic in this context.
Several years ago, I began a presentation to a class of fifth and sixth grade students by asking them to share what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. Their list filled a white board. They already knew about a multitude of grave threats, challenges, and abuses in the world. What they didn’t have was hope that these problems could be solved.
In fact, when I asked them to raise their hands if they thought we could solve the problems they named, only six of the forty-five children did so. Alarmed, I quickly shifted my presentation and asked the children to close their eyes and imagine themselves at the end of a long life, living in a much better world. I described clean air and water, a future without poverty and war, a world in which we treat each other and other animals with respect and compassion. Then I invited them to imagine a child asking them this question: “What role did you play in helping to bring about this better world?” With their eyes still closed, I asked them to silently answer the child’s question and to raise their hands if now they could imagine us solving our problems. This time nearly all raised their hands. Hope restored, I carried on with my presentation, the goal of which was to engage them in the exciting and meaningful work of creating positive change in the world.
While Mr. Fields demonstrated poor judgment in showing his students graphic depictions of violence and cruelty, most ten-year-olds have been exposed to extreme images of violence through films and TV, video games, and news reports. Being immersed in so much casual violence, often meant simply to entertain, may inure them to issues of justice and produce apathy rather than agency and cynicism rather than practical hope. It’s our job as a society and through schooling to ensure that students receive the knowledge, tools, and motivation to both care and to be solutionaries.
Mr. Fields’ decision to show his students graphic footage of cruelty, and the reprimand that followed, must not be the end of this discussion. Instead, I hope the Au Gres school district will make Fields’ error in judgment the beginning of a necessary conversation about the purpose of education in today’s world and the importance of teaching children – in age-appropriate ways – how to be engaged and informed problem-solvers for a better future for all.
* My new book, out in March, The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries, provides many resources for doing this.