Reflections on a TOK Presentation that made me think

Old castle
A few days ago one of my students had her TOK presentation which sparked a thoughtful classroom discussion that filled nearly two periods. For me, as a TOK teacher, both the presentation and the follow-up discussion were a great enjoyment: both reflected the “TOK spirit” of a balanced insightful exploration of the topic.

It’s TOK presentation time. And this presentation started a thoughtful discussion in the classroom. The presentation analyzed different ethical approaches relating to the controversial Body Worlds Exhibition. There are several Youtube Videos online if you want to inform yourself a bit more (search for “Body Worlds”). As a matter of fact, I do recommend you to have a look at the exhibition’s Web site so that you know what I’m talking about. The exhibition shows preserved real human bodies, presented in an artistic way to the public. The corpses are “plastinated”. In this process the body liquids and fats are replaced by plastic. This is a way of preserving the body, and it is important to understand that they do not show plastic models. The specimens are displayed in a way that makes them appear very alive, engaged in various activities, such as sports.

I myself have seen the exhibition several years ago and I have to admit that I have never seen anything comparable – in my view, truly a highly fascinating and highly educational exhibition, especially for someone who is interested in anatomy. It made me marvel at the complexity (and, yes, beauty) of the human body. I was indeed impressed. Still, I do understand the associated ethical concerns, and some of the exhibits I considered problematic.

There is the “Running Man”, for example, with every muscle separated from the body and flying in the wind, really cool to look at. Or the couple having sex. Now this one caused quite a bit of stir among the students, and several were quite against this one, for a range of reasons. I also remember looking at the “chess player” pondering over a chess board – skull removed, brain exposed. They really matched the activity of the specimen with the way it’s prepared.

One criticism (not part of the TOK presentation) is that the exhibition is sexist. Men are portrayed in “strong” roles, playing basketball and soccer, while women are shown in “passive” roles, like the gracefully reclining pregnant woman with the open womb and the fetus clearly visible. The exhibition reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, so the criticism. In my view, there are more pressing issues that should be discussed, however.

At the end of the exhibition I asked myself is if the exhibition is serving science or sensationalism, or maybe both? To what extent is it even necessary to make science accessible to the public by using something spectacular?

I want to do a short flashback to the year 1993, when was a freshman at the university, studying Biology (I’ll pick up on the Body Worlds exhibition later again). Name of the course: Introducory Anthropology, the study of humans. Each student in the class room received a human skull for analysis. A real one, of course, not one made of plastic. The professor gave us the assignment to estimate the age of the person at the time of death. One way of doing this is by looking at the teeth. The more worn out the teeth are, probably the older the person, but there are other methods as well.

I do have to admit that I forgot most of the scientific things that I learned in this Anthropology course, but there are a few other things that still remember quite well. The first thing that I remember is, that the human skull was of surprisingly light weight. I was used to the heavy plastic models that they have in schools. The second thing that I remember? My skull had a clean circular hole. Was this the cause of death? A bullet hole? Some other injury? A victim of war or homicide, or an accident at work? I don’t know. Last, I also do remember the words of the professor. He said: “Treat the skulls with respect. They are from people who all lived a more or less happy life. I leave it up to you what ‘treating with respect’ means.”. The questioning look from some of us students must have motivated the professor to clarify his point: “Do not light a match inside the skull to make it glow in the dark. This is disrespectful”. His voice indicated that he was serious about it. Now this comment really came as a surprise to me. Did some students in the past really do this, light a match in the skull? Why else would the professor have chosen such an example?

Now, what is the “moral” of the story? It’s very easy to de-humanize humans when they are treated as scientific specimens. Maybe it is sometimes even necessary to block out the human aspect in order to be able to do the science in the first place, without getting too emotional. The lines between respectful treatment, indifference and disrespectful treatment, however, are lines that each person has to define individually, so the professor.

Let’s go back to the Body Worlds exhibition. The exhibition was (and still is) criticized for its “de-humanization” of people, among other criticisms. Some corpses are presented in a rather spectacular and artistic manner. A scientific or educational value is not always evident, so the criticism. But does this automatically mean that the dead are therefore treated disrespectfully? And is it morally right to put dead people on public display, even if they agreed to it? The body donation is voluntary, of course, and you have to sign a document if you want to donate your body. Should not everyone have the right to decide on how they want their body to be treated after they died? Some want to be buried, others cremated and still others want to be cryopreserved. So what’s so bad about being converted into an artwork to be displayed? Should not everyone be allowed to decide individually? Or could it even be that some people are against the exhibition, because they want to block out the uncomfortable issue of death, and therefore they try to find “rational” ethical arguments against the exhibition? I don’t know.

The makers of the exhibition are aware of these concerns and on the document there is a check box if you agree to it that the company converts your body into a “piece of art” (they really used these words) or if you want to be put on display in a more conservative manner. And yes, the makers of the exhibition were indeed creative in converting bodies into pieces art.

In any case, after the student’s presentation we discussed issues such as morality and human dignity, in a thoughtful way. I liked and enjoyed the classroom discussion for several reasons. First and foremost, it was not a debate in which different groups tried to convince the others that they are right and the others are wrong. What surprised me, positively, is that some students even changed their opinion about the exhibition while we were discussing the issues. And they openly admitted to changing their opinion. I liked the self-reflective and thoughtful atmosphere.

At the end of the two lessons, I tried to find a conclusion by asking my students the following question: “Could it be, that the ethical issues depend more on the attitude of the person visiting the exhibition than on the exhibition itself? Some people approach the exhibition with a dignified attitude towards the deceased people and with an educational and scientific interest in anatomy. Others simply want sensationalism. Maybe we should start discussing the ethics that the visitors bring along, and not the exhibition itself. Can it be that the visitors are the ones who make the exhibition ethical or not?”

The response of one student summarized it quite well. She said: “Actually this is just like the TOK essay topic ‘We see and understand things not as they are but as we are. Discuss this claim in relation to at least two ways of knowing.”

And then the bell rang…

Here are some discussion questions relating to the topic, several of which were discussed during the TOK presentation:

  • Is letting a body decay or cremate less respectful than putting it on display in this way? Is the natural way (“natural ethics”) of burial/cremation/etc. more morally acceptable than an exhibition?
  • What say do the relatives of the deceased have in this issue?
  • Why should the exhibition be more/less ethically acceptable than using dead people for dissection at medical university? What are the principal differences?
  • What role do religious views have in the ethical decision process?
  • Where should one draw the line between science and education and human dignity?
  • Does labeling something (like an exhibition) as “scientific” automatically justify it?
  • At what conclusion would a utilitarianist, a deontologist and a follower of natural law ethics arrive at? (this is what the TOK presentation of the student was based on)

1 Response to Reflections on a TOK Presentation that made me think

  1. Bandana

    I think this was a wonderful way of helping the students come to their own conclusion as they are the ones who have to carry with them the message. Indeed a insightful session.

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