Sometimes you don't even have to read the story. Just the headline can drive home the realization that our culture is in trouble.

Case in point: Sunday's Detroit News story entitled, "School autopsy tours canceled; Oakland County stops trips to medical examiner's office after kids see exam of girl from their district."

Let's read that aloud, shall we? All together now: "School autopsy tours canceled." [Emphasis added for obvious reasons].

There is so much that's wrong in this story beyond the headline that I don't really know where to begin, so I'll start with a little over-simplistic analysis just to get the ball rolling.

According to experts, the national high school dropout rate now stands at roughly 30 percent. That's right, nearly one-third of American teens do not graduate from high school. Graduation rates are even lower in our major cities. Standardized-test scores show even those who do graduate fail to master much of the secondary school curriculum, so even those who attain a diploma aren't necessarily ready for college or work.

I'm going to make a sweeping generalization here and suggest that field trips to the county morgue are perhaps not promoting educational outcomes for high school students. In fact, I'm thinking there are things a teacher could be doing in the classroom to convey the basics of life science without loading up the school bus and shuttling teenagers off to watch an actual autopsy-in-progress.

I'm sure the folks at the medical examiner's office do a fine job of sharing some interesting facts about the work they do and even include some forensic science in the mix, but mostly I'm guessing the teens who go on this field trip think it's a cool way to experience "CSI" first-hand.

But of course, that's not the worst of this story. The subhead refers to a specific field trip last March, when a group from Kettering High School in Waterford, Mich., toured the Oakland County Medical Examiner's facility. According to the published report, a 14-year-old suicide victim was due to be examined in autopsy. She also happened to be a member of the Waterford School District.

The teacher apparently polled the class - mostly high school seniors and a few juniors - and determined that the group did not think watching the procedure would be upsetting. Only one student thought he knew the victim's family; no one else had a connection. So the field trip continued, and the group watched while the young girl's body was systematically examined inside and out.

Only recently did the family of the girl find out that local high school students had viewed her autopsy. The family complained and thus the medical examiner's office canceled the field-trip program.

There's probably nothing more heartbreaking than losing a child to suicide. Then imagine you find out her autopsy is part of a field trip. The lack of respect for the dead and grieving is truly sickening.

But there's an issue that's even more troubling. This is a generation of children for whom the line between fantasy and reality seems to have been permanently blurred by the ubiquitous media that defines their experience of the world. Watching an autopsy through the window of a viewing room is no more real - or unreal - than watching it on an episode of a TV drama, and therefore, no more or less upsetting.

There's no connection to the death of a young girl if they happened not to know the family. There's no reason not to voyeuristically exploit her death or her family's private turmoil.

It's just a body. It's just a field trip.

Isn't it?

Copyright 2008 Marybeth Hicks