“I now think twice when I look in the mirror.”
Wes Leid remembers the advice Leo K. Bustad, late dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, offered him when he was hired at Washington State University 22 years ago. “You may not think you teach ethics, but you teach ethics every day of your life in your interactions with others.”
“You need to explore why you believe what you believe,” Leid says, “and get others to explore issues they had not considered before.”
That is what he does. And, according to students in his University Honors class, “Medical Ethics and The Holocaust,” he does it well.
This seminar explores the ethics displayed by medical communities within the countries of the Third Reich. The students analyze how decisions of organized medicine led first to the euthanasia of the physically and mentally impaired, followed by the destruction of those who disagreed with those policies, and finally to the near annihilation of European Jewry.
Leid and his students explore the concepts of anti-Semitism and racial hygiene, as well as the impact of World War I on the development of Nazi Germany’s medical policies. In examining the role of physicians and other medical personnel in supporting the events that led to the “Final Solution,” he focuses on the ethical choices one makes in addressing such agendas as genocide.
This seminar has been popular with Honors College students. Richard Law, director of the General Education Program for undergraduate students at WSU, coaxed Leid into offering his ethics course to nursing students who needed an advanced General Education elective to graduate. Last fall, Leid drove to Spokane every Thursday evening for 15 weeks to engage six upper-division nursing students in a lively dialogue. Margaret Bruya, professor of nursing, assisted in the course discussions.
Leid, who is Jewish, throws out a question to the nursing students seated around an oval table. They jot it down on a three-by-five-inch card and have five minutes to prepare a response. “Why do you believe this?” At first they are reluctant to speak, but then they open up. They benefit by listening to others, by questioning their peers’ views.
The course is writing intensive—five separate assignments, plus a 10-page final paper. Three books are required reading: The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution by Henry Friedlander, and Nurses in Nazi Germany by Bronwyn Rebekah McFarland-Icke. With the historical perspective these books provide, students respond in writing to such questions as, “Is there any instance in which life is unworthy of life?”
Leid wants students to understand what happens “when hate runs wild.” He hopes they will question their motives in everything they do, stand up for what they think is right, participate in important issues in their communities, and write letters to the editor regarding their ethical positions.
From a file drawer, he produces an e-mail message from one of his students. In part, it reads: “I now think twice when I look in the mirror. I like the idea of doing something kind for someone else every day . … Your lessons are thought provoking and life changing . … I know your class will have a lasting impact on me and those that I come in contact with. Thank you.”