Three educational problems: the case of eating animals.

Author:Rice, Suzanne
Position::Critical essay

In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer asks: "What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?" (2009, p. 252). Foer is concerned with both human animals and with other animals (cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, tunas, among other species) that many humans eat. His book discusses human practices such as raising (and catching), butchering, selling, and eating such non-human animals, and it also discusses the lives of these animals that are used for human consumption. So the truth to which Foer refers is large and complex. But at the heart of this truth are several facts: before animals are eaten they almost always experience confinement, fear, and pain, and, of course, death. One other fact: in most of the modern world, humans do not have to eat other animals in order to be healthy. Yet as reported by Foer, in America alone, more than ten billion land animals are slaughtered for food each year (2009, p. 15). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in 2009 (the same year Foer's book was published) Americans consumed over 4.8 billion pounds of sea animals (NOAA, 2010, n.p.).

School lunch in modern America contributes significantly to the misery of farm animals and fish, both directly and indirectly. At a cost of over $ 1 billion per year (Farm Sanctuary, 2013), the Agricultural Marketing Service, which is the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency that buys agricultural products for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), purchases millions of pounds of meat, poultry, and fish, contributing directly to animals' misery and death. Indirectly, by serving animal flesh for lunch-typically without teachers' or administrators' comment or critique-schools help to normalize meat eating for millions of school children. Before exploring whether and/or how schools might address meat-eating practices, including school lunch, differently, I examine three types of animal eaters in connection with the truth to which Foer refers. Both parts of the discussion that follows are preliminary, to be deepened and refined in subsequent work on this topic.

Types of Relations between Meat Eating and Knowledge

Foer suggests a great number of important questions concerning the relation between knowledge and conduct, particularly where the consumption of meat, poultry, and fish is concerned. First are those who are simply ignorant and have no knowledge about the relation between the meat they consume and the animals from which it is derived (mostly young children). Second are those who are willfully ignorant about the meat they consume and the animals from which it is derived; they know (at least in part), but turn away from the truth to which Foer refers and continue to eat animals (mostly older children and adults). Third are those who "know the truth" and continue to eat meat, but are troubled in varying degrees by their consumption (also mainly older children and adults). It might be said that these meat eaters are incontinent, in the sense that they act in ways that go against their better judgment.

There are other types of relations between knowledge and conduct among those who eat animals, but the three mentioned above are common, and it is to these I turn for further discussion.

Simple Ignorance

Simple ignorance, conventionally understood, is a state in which a person lacks awareness, information, or knowledge. There is nothing inherently problematic with simple ignorance; indeed, it is a necessary precondition for education. It may not be the case that human infants are bom "blank slates," but it is certainly true that they lack the knowledge upon which survival, let alone thriving, depends. It is therefore not surprising that in both formal and informal contexts, education, particularly in the elementary years, is concerned mainly with simple ignorance, as parents, teachers and other educators seek to provide what is lacking in children's awareness, knowledge, and the like. Not all knowledge is seen as being equally worthy or appropriate; and deciding what ought to be provided also entails deciding what not to provide.

In connection with Foer's question, it should be noted that there are some, perhaps a significant number, who do not know the truth about eating animals. Young children, in contrast to adolescents or adults, are the most likely to be ignorant of the particulars connected with meat eating. Children, by and large, have no way to clearly or accurately connect the meat, poultry, or fish they eat with the animals from which it is derived. This is due in part to children's isolation from contexts where they would normally acquire knowledge about factory farming and related aspects of meat, poultry, and fish farming. Relatively few children today see the shoe-box sized cages in which chickens are confined, usually with their beaks cut off, or the veal crates too small for calves to turn around; only youngsters raised on farms have heard the screams of animals being castrated or branded. (As they get older and have more first-hand experience in the world and more access to media, this lack of lived familiarity with animals raised for food becomes less an issue in terms of ignorance.)

Children's (and adults') ignorance of the animal-meat connection is also cultivated. The meat-eating adults in children's lives are surely loath to tell youngsters that such childhood favorites as hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken nuggets, and fish-sticks come from the flesh of cows, pigs, chickens, and fish. As noted previously, when animal flesh is served as part of school lunch, it is hard to imagine that its origins are mentioned, let alone discussed. The "patty" or "nugget" simply appears on the tray. Given that the animal-based foods children typically like most-and that appear with the greatest frequency on the school lunch tray--look nothing like any animal on earth, it is not surprising that youngsters fail to connect, say, fish-sticks with actual fish. It is also not surprising that most children do like these foods so much; these are the foods they have been taught to like through advertising, repeated exposure, and in some cases through the association of the meat with a toy, an in the McDonald's "Happy Meals."

The meat, poultry, and fishing industries also do their part to keep children (and the general public) in the dark. Advertisements show cartoon laughing cows and dancing tunas and industry spokesmen have developed code to obscure the realities of life, pain, and death experienced by animals used for food. Animals are "processed," not killed and butchered; and their flesh is called by myriad pseudonyms that are innocuous sounding, if not positively cheerful.

Willful Ignorance

The very young will be unlikely to know the truth about eating animals because they, for the most part, are cut off from certain experiences. Older children, and certainly most adults, have at least some such experience; in varying degrees, they do know the truth about eating animals. Yet most of these knowers close their eyes to this truth: they are willfully ignorant.

Familiar proverbs and other sayings, many of which use sight and light metaphorically, offer a clue about the phenomenon of willful ignorance:

"Love is blind."

"He'd rather bury his head in the sand than see an ugly truth."

"There're none so blind as those who will not see."

"He turned a blind-eye toward corruption."

In a recently published book, Margaret Heffernan (2011) provides a brief history of the concept of willful ignorance, (which she refers to as "willful blindness"--the title of her book) as well as an astute and evocative account of the implications of such ignorance in numerous scandals, crimes, and man-made environmental disasters. While there are, no doubt, similar ideas rooted in other traditions, Heffernan traces the concept of willful ignorance in Western thought to a nineteenth century legal case, Regina v. Sleep. As she reports, a judge in the case ruled that the accused could not be convicted for possessing government property unless he knew that the goods in question came from the government or he had "willfully shut his eyes to the fact" (Heffernan, 2011, p. 3). The basic idea here is that if we could have known, should have known, then we are culpable when we act as if we did not know.

In psychology, willful ignorance is seen as a kind of "cognitive dissonance," a condition famously theorized by Leon Festinger (1962). According to Festinger, we strive for consonance, harmony in our cognitions, and when that breaks down, the resulting discomfort typically drives us seek such balance anew. In a state of willful ignorance we avoid or reject evidence that contradicts existing attitudes and beliefs, thereby maintaining a relative state of cognitive consonance or harmony.

Failure to see the infidelity behind the proverbial lipstick on the collar, the serious illness behind the persistent cough, or the impending financial ruin behind...

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