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Rohit Dhankar

Background

In last one month I encountered a curious little fable doing rounds in emails and on social networking sites. It is circulated in various truncated forms and some Indian sites claim that the author is unknown. However, a little googling reveals (how authentic Google revelations are is a different matter) the fable was written by George Reavis in 1940s and is currently available in an illustrated book published by Crystal Springs Books. The complete fable is given below for those who do not know it; those who have had more than their fill of reading it can go directly to the next section.

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The Animal School: A Fable

by George Reavis

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

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The point it makes

At different times in history education system and curricula get into different kinds of ruts. The educational pendulum may swing to the extremity of uniformity and rigidity in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment etc. A sharp reaction, equally extreme, may be needed and even be very useful in correcting this extreme swing. Such reactions may come in the form of fable, slogans, one-liners, wise-cracks and so on; in addition to more reasonable critique. They serve the purpose of correcting the aforementioned swing well. This does a good job of countering excessive uniformity and rigidity.

But then some of these fables, slogans, etc. may acquire their own life beyond their usefulness, get interpreted into various ways, acquire a status of universal wisdom. At this stage they become problematic and confounding. It seems The Animal School (TAS) has entered that stage of its life.

Problems with it

In the internet gentry it seems to have become a gospel truth. There are sites that interpret it for corporate training (they can use anything, actually, for them making a point is never a rational affair, it is psychological impact they are after), pedagogues that use it to buttress multiple intelligence theory, and some make a fantastic child-centric point. Below I will try to counter some such attempts.

MI theory

First, the MI theory can hardly stand a rigorous scrutiny on conceptual and psychological grounds. The criteria given by Haward Gardner are rather loose, overlapping and do not apply properly to all varieties of so called intelligences. The book Frames of Mind perhaps did a reasonably good job of countering the equally bad concept of Intelligence Quotient, but that is almost all about it. Psychology is still struggling to understand if the various so-called intelligences are manifestations of general cognitive abilities or they are standalone independent capabilities.

Even if one takes MI theory as acceptable theory of intelligence and learning (Gardner himself did not workout its pedagogical implications initially), this theory does not say that people have only one or a few of these intelligences. The MI’s claim is that we have different kinds of intelligences and we may be better at different sets of intelligences; there is no reason to interpret intelligence only as language, mathematics and reasoning. There could be others, like, muscular, bodily-kinetic, etc. That does not mean that someone with, say, linguistic intelligence will not have bodily-kinetic or logical-mathematical. Nor does that mean attempts to strengthen by logical-mathematical intelligence will destroy my bodily-kinetic one. In TAS squirrel can climb but can not fly at all. The TAS goes much beyond MI, it tales a leap and ends in confusion.

General problems

The TAS suggests that there are as much differences in children’s interests and natural abilities as exist in eagle and squirrel. Squirrel has no ability to fly, and its body structure is totally unfit for that purpose. The eagle may struggle at climbing, but its body structure is unlikely to allow excelling in it. They have evolved that way. Do we want to suggest that humans have such natural, innate and absolutely inviolable sets of capabilities and limitations?

Most people who like this fable are also strong advocates of equality in human societies. What are the implications of acceptance of innate and binding natural capabilities for equality? Some may be good at administration and ruling and some others for scavenging; isn’t it? And from the birth, to boot. What are the implications of acceptance of such a theory on social and political equality? Are we ready to accept those implications?

Most of the world lives in democratic societies today, at least in terms of aspirations. Democracy is predicated on individual autonomy, freedom and justice. If someone is very good at music but is totally nincompoop in, say, social relations and understanding politics, how that person is going to fare in modern society? His autonomy, freedom and rights will depend on others goodwill and pity. And unfortunately autonomy, freedom and rights do not happen to be the kinds of things which others can provide this musician of ours; they have to be earned, struggled for and guarded. What kind of general abilities are required to do that? It seems, squirrel can live by climbing alone and can disregard flying; but a human being may not be able to live by music alone and disregard everything else. May be average achievement in a well defined set of understanding and abilities is not such a bad thing after all. The human excellences in particular fields have to be over and above the common abilities absolutely essential for all.

We live in a very complex society, and can not help it. That is what we are. Living in a complex society demands a wide range of capabilities; language, mathematics, science, social sciences, etc. are all parts of that wide range of capabilities. We can not do without them. Alas, our lives are not like squirrels, elephants, eagles and badgers. Our children will face much greater problems in life if they neglected the capabilities counted in general education; difficulties they face in mastering the wide range of capabilities in school are just nothing compared to what they might have to face if they neglected them.

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19th July 2013

Rohit Dhankar, Digantar, Jaipur and Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Rohit.dhankar@apu.edu.in