What happens when a class of high school freshmen is tasked with arbitrating who receives access to medical care and who does not for a school assignment? Well ... nothing good.
Critics are calling the project death panels, and while that particular response may be a bit too much, the blunt nature of the project does inspire a negative instinctual response. But regardless of the emotional response the experiment evokes, the project provides a quite honest appraisal of social biases and prejudices, allowing for students to engage one another in ways that most circumstances would not permit.
Students in a sociology class at St. Joseph-Ogden High School in Illinois were placed in charge of a hospital and given 10 patients in need of kidney dialysis. However, the hospital only had enough machines to support six patients, and students were told that no kidney dialysis amounted to guaranteed death. Students had to deliberate which six would receive the treatment.
It is easy to be alarmed at such a prospect. Picking and choosing who lives and who dies does not sit right with most and for good reason. Critics would seemingly have every right to be angry ... That is, until they would consider how the health-care system actually works and the power of insurance companies. Insurance companies and health care providers make decisions quite frequently to give priority to certain individuals above others. Often times, those with money receive access to quality care and thus a better chance at life, while those without it get the short end of the stick. And of course, such an assignment is pragmatic in that hospitals often times operate at above capacity, and difficult choices have to be made.
The great thing about this school project is that decisions are made by a group of students who are still coming to terms with a particular moral vision, not grown-up insurance bureaucrats who have the single mandate of maintaining company profits. "The teacher's purpose in the element of the assignment you are referring to is to get students emotionally involved in order to participate in the classroom discussion," Principal Brian Brooks says. Social biases are often times hidden, and are incredibly difficult to reveal, and that is what the assignment was attempting to highlight.
And that is the genius of such an assignment. Because people do not like to admit that they have biases, let alone admit what those biases are, an assignment like this forces them to come out. In perceived life-or-death situations, deep-seated truths tend to percolate. And it is in those moments that true engagement with those attitudes can be brought forth, through civility and honest deliberation.