Shades of Gray

Stethoscope in the shape of a question mark

Modern society may seem divided along ideological lines, with opposing viewpoints unwelcome or shouted down. But not in this class.

Class Name:
Bioethics: Dilemmas

Taught in the spring by:
Monica Gerrek, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Bioethics in the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and the Institute of Burn Ethics at The Metro-Health System.

What makes this undergraduate class intriguing:
Gerrek presses students to read, interpret and debate thorny and polarizing topics week after week.

Students read opposing scholarly articles on topics including euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment and the use of animals for food and research—and then commit to a position and defend it in class discussions and papers.

"They learn pretty quickly... that they're going to be challenged," Gerrek said. "And they learn to think through not just the position but the implications."

The course—which draws many pre-med students, but also enrolls budding engineers, nutritionists and mathematicians—starts with a grounding in ethical theories, using works from philosophers including Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

The rich source material leads to lively class debates and important lessons about how to talk through issues respectfully—a valuable skill at a time when opposing viewpoints often are unwelcome or shouted down.

Gerrek also requires students to talk with someone they know outside the classroom about a contentious issue and ask that person to explain their position.

As for Gerrek's own posture in class, she said: "I just play devil's advocate no matter what position [students] take. I'm trying to get them to form their own view. And I'm trying to give them the tools with which to defend their position—and then to think about what actions they are obligated to take in society regarding their view."

—Annie Zaleski