The California state Senate passed a bill earlier this year telling schools to teach "compassion and respect for both humans and animals," and add the "promotion of compassion and respect for both humans and animals" to science, history and social science books.
Why write a law like this, and what does this so-broad-as-to-seem-meaningless language mean?
And why should you care?
The author, state Sen. Jack O'Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, is a candidate for state schools chief, and this bill says a lot about him. Was this tame language covering up something untame -- insidious maybe? Or is O'Connell a believer in the sort of vague vanilla language that has plagued California education for decades?
So I called O'Connell. "I've worked with various animal organizations, and groups that promote animal well-being," he explained. He has authored several bills on animals -- to ban product and cosmetic testing on animals, to mandate counseling for anyone convicted of abusing animals and to require drivers to secure pets in the back of open trucks.
"This (bill) seemed like the next logical step."
What are schools doing wrong or not doing that this law is needed?
"I see an absence of compassion and consideration for humans or animals," he responded.
Then he continued to repeat the mantra: "This is an attempt to instill greater understanding and compassion for both humans and animals. It's the next logical step" after the counseling requirement for animal abusers.
How would school curricula change?
"We were going to try to assist teachers with promoting compassion and respect for humans and animals," he answered. "It could be a basic concept."
But surely you had some specific content in mind.
"I don't think we got that far."
So with no content in mind, 23 state senators approved the bill and sent it on to the Assembly. O'Connell says he is no longer pursuing the bill.
Meanwhile, some observers don't believe the bill was motivated by benign goodwill. National Association for Biomedical Research President Frankie Trull saw the bill as an attempt to force animal-rights propaganda into public schools.
Stanford University Medical Center neurobiologist William Newsome noted, "It's obviously a Trojan Horse for the animal-rights people to push their agendas in the public schools."
Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock explained that he voted against SB811 because, "The idea is to inject the more radical elements of the animal-rights movement into classrooms."
When I told O'Connell that some observers thought the bill would promote curricula against using animals in medical research, he responded, "They're wrong, period."
He added that it's wrong to peg him as anti-animal medical research because his bills to ban or limit product testing on animals have exempted medical research.
True, but the original language banned medical research with animals.
"The medical research was not the focus of our bill. You have to put some things in (a bill) that you know you're going to take out."
As a candidate for the office of state superintendent of public instruction, aren't you concerned about politicians writing bills to push their pet causes on the public schools?
"If trying to promote compassion for humans and animals (is a pet cause), then I'm guilty."
This puts O'Connell in the company of lawmakers who successfully pushed bills mandating California public school curricula for civil rights, human rights violations, genocide, slavery, the Holocaust and the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50. The only question is whether he did it for a political animal-rights agenda, or for a touchy-feely can't-we-all-get-along message.
So there you have it.
Either O'Connell is interested in pushing animal rights and inhibiting medical research on animals (and if he is, you can bet that textbook publishers will know if he has an anti-research bent).
Or he's just a guy who wants more resources to promote compassion and respect for both humans and animals -- with the details to be worked out later.
Quipped McClintock, "I wish him much better luck than the public schools have had in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic."