Imagine if we treated lab rats like school children

Imagine the following experiment. Researchers place hundreds of rats into a large cage. The rats are then separated into groups of about 20, and each group is placed in their own partitioned space within the cage. The rats are not permitted to move around in that space; they are each assigned to a specific spot, and must remain stationary for 40-minute blocks of time. If they move from their assigned spot, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.

The rats are not allowed to socialize with other rats while they are in their assigned spots. Instead, they are given menial tasks that they must perform to a time-based standard. They have no control over which menial tasks they are to perform. If they are caught socializing with other rats during the 40-minute block of time, or if they fail to perform the assigned tasks, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.

At the end of each 40-minute block, the rats are released from their stationary positions for five minutes so they can be moved to their next assigned spot in a different partitioned space within the cage. They are allowed to socialize with other rats during the move, but if they are not in their assigned spot and performing their required menial tasks within the five-minute time limit, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.

These 40-minute blocks make up the bulk of their day, with two exceptions. For 40 minutes each day they are permitted to roam free in a designated portion of the cage that may or may not have a beam of sunlight that falls upon it. And for another 40-minute block, they are permitted to eat processed rat food.

The sequence of these 40-minute blocks do not change over the course of the year. Each day is virtually identical to the day before it, with only a slight variation in the menial tasks that the rats are expected to carry out.

How do you think the rats in this experiment would fare in terms of physical, emotional, and mental health relative to a free-range rat? Physically, they would suffer. 40 minutes of free play per day cannot offset a sedentary existence. Cardiovascular health and muscular fitness would likely deteriorate, and the rats would probably begin to gain weight. The processed rat food would likely accelerate the weight gain, unless the rats lost their appetite for food. The poor quality of the processed rat food would likely contribute to malnourishment and longer-term health complications. The rats’ physical health would be further debilitated by emotional and mental stress.

Emotionally, the rats would have been prevented from socializing with other rats for a majority of their time in the cage. Rats are social animals, and the inability to socialize would lead to harmful behaviors during the small windows of time they would be permitted to interact with one another. It would not be surprising to see increased aggression and violence from select members of the rat community, especially in their attempts to exert dominance over one another, as is common among animals that spend much of their existence being controlled by others (e.g., researchers). The emotional stress experienced by the rats would negatively impact their physical and mental health.

Mentally, large number of rats would likely suffer from depression, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, or behavioral disorder, among other negative mental health effects. Their confined conditions coupled with a lack of autonomy and control would lead to serious mental illness for a significant number of rats. The resulting mental health complications of these rats would contribute to a degraded experience for the other rats, threatening their emotional and mental health, as well.

Now imagine that these rats are children. The structures and practices outlined in the experiment mimic the conditions children are subjected to in traditional schools. If it is inhumane to subject lab rats to such an experiment, it should logically follow that it is inhumane to subject children to traditional schooling.