Animal or Vegetable?

, Deborah Lambert, Leave a comment

Chances are you might remember when most college courses about animals appeared under the heading of Zoology, Biology or Veterinary Science. But that was long ago . . .

Today, we’re living in a world where animals and humans have been lumped together in a still hazy new academic category called “Animal Studies.”

For example, this spring Harvard freshmen will be able to take a course called “Humans, Animals and Cyborgs.” A glance at the course description shows that
the seminar intends to “walk through history, examining the shifting boundaries between humans, animals, and machines,” according to The New York Times.

“We will question the boundaries and categories that we once held “natural” and we will study the personal needs, cultural norms, and historical trends that have transformed and manipulated our human category through time. The class will focus on the way in which Darwin defined the category of “human” and how that conception of humanity changed his life, and “examine the work of his contemporaries, the race scientists who were positing hierarchies of humanity that pushed some human groups into animal categories.”

“The second section of the course will examine the boundaries between humans and animals. Should we draw lines according to species groups, language ability, or emotional expression? As we define these boundaries, our relationships and the ethics that direct them become matters of debate. Should we eat, wear, or dissect animals? Should we house them, free them, or worship them?”

Other courses in this emerging field include “Animals and Women in Western Literature: Nags, Bitches and Shrews,” offered at Dartmouth last year, and “animals, People and Those in Between,” offered at New York University.

To understand this field of study more thoroughly, it helps to know that it grew out of a larger field called “cultural studies,” which has focused on “ignored or marginalized humans.”

According to The Animals and Society Institute, there are currently more than 100 courses on American campuses  that “fit under the broad banner of animal studies.”

While animals have always received attention from scholars, the reason for revived interest in the field apparently stems from the sense that “behavioral and environmental science had laid a foundation” by demonstrating that “we, like other animals, are ‘subject to the forces of nature.’”

“The most direct influence may have come from philosophy,” namely Peter Singer’s 1975 book, Animal Liberation,” which argued “against killing, eating and experimenting on animal.”                                                   * * * *
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Deborah Lambert writes the Squeaky Chalk column for Accuracy in Academia.

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