About education – and a parrot

parrotOnce upon a time a parrot flew into a palace garden. This was a very silly bird. He sang songs all day long, fluttered to and fro with great excitement and performed loony dances around the females of his kind. On top of this, he created a mess out of half-knibbled fruits, which he had dropped below his nest made from stalks and twigs. The king decided this was unacceptable. “This bird”, he cried out, “is absolutely useless and a disgrace to my garden!” He called his minister and ordered: “Educate him!”

The king’s nephew was given responsibility over the matter and he, in turn, ordered a circle of wise men to attend to the bird and its education. After broad discussions, the men concluded that the bird’s sloppy and simple nest could not but lead to a sloppy and simple mind. They decided to summon a goldsmith who went and crafted a beautiful golden cage for the bird. The bird was put into the cage and the entire court was baffled by the beauty and functionality of the thing. “Such a lucky bird!”, people said, and the goldsmith went home with a large sack of gold.

A lettered man was summoned to educate the bird. With a puff of his pipe he said: “Just a few books will not suffice.” The king’s nephew ordered writers to come to the palace and they copied the books, rewrote books, made summaries of books and wrote additions to books and soon enough all these writings grew into a veritable mountain. All who saw this said “Bravo! A true tsunami of education will soon unfold here!” The writers were given heaps of golden coins and, satisfied, they too went home.

The nephew was always busy with matters concerning the maintenance of the cage. Repairs were needed on a regular basis. Adding to this was the cleaning, brushing and polishing of the cage. Everybody said: “It is very clear that things are moving ahead!” People were employed to attend to the cage and also hired were supervisors of these people and also supervisors of these supervisors. Each of them received ample rewards and everybody had a happy and joyful life.

There were also faultfinders. They said: “The cage looks beautiful alright, but nobody cares about the bird! Shouldn’t you let the bird out of his cage now and then, so that he can sing and express his creative talents?” When the king heard of this he summoned his nephew. The nephew said: “Your Majesty, everything is just fine. Just ask the goldmith, the lettered men, the supervisors. These faultfinders simply do not have enough to eat. The acid in their stomachs has come up and has clouded their eyes.” It all became crystal-clear to the king and the nephew was given a beautiful gold necklace to wear around his neck.

There were also faultfinders. They said: “The cage looks beautiful alright, but nobody cares about the bird!”

The king wished to see for himself the lightning speed at which the educational process was evolving. And so one day he appeared with his court dignitaries at the Grand House of Education. Trumpets sounded, drums were beaten, clarions echoed and hymns were sung. “What do you think?” the nephew asked. The king was greatly satisfied. He prepared to leave and as he was climbing into his carriage, a faultfinder, who was hiding behind a bush, called out: “Majesty, have you seen the bird?”

The king was startled. “Oh, I almost forgot! I did not see the bird after all!” And he entered the building once again to have a look at the bird. “Very excellent”, thought the king. The teaching method was so overwhelming that he could almost not see the bird itself. It actually seemed rather irrelevant to look at the bird. The king understood that the circumstances for learning were ideal. There were no stalks and twigs in the cage , no fruit and only a little cup of water. There were just heaps of paper shreds taken from the books, mixed with a mash of seeds. A portion of this was regularly shoved into the bird’s beak with a pen. There was no more room inside the bird’s beak to let even a squeek escape, let alone a song. Everybody agreed: a very pleasing spectacle.

Days went by. The bird grew weaker and weaker. The supervisors were hopeful. But still – as you would expect with bad habits – the bird sometimes gazed at the morning sun, made some efforts to jump up and down while it forcefully flapped its wings. Immediately the blacksmith came down and crafted a wonderful heavy chain. And with one expert move he also clipped the bird’s wings. People shook their heads. “See that? In this country the birds aren’t just stupid – they’re ungrateful as well.”

One day the bird fell ill. Nobody knew exactly when this had happened. The faultfinder spread the sad tidings. The king asked his nephew what was the matter. The nephew answered, “Majesty, the bird’s education has finished.” The king asked, “Does it still jump?” “No,” the nephew answered. “Does it still flutter to and fro and perform loony dances? ” “God forbid!” the nephew answered. “Does it still sing and fly?” “No.” “Bring the bird to me. I wish to examine him.”

And the bird was brought to the king, along with its supervisors. The king poked the bird with one finger. The bird did not move and remained quiet. The shreds of paper in its belly just rustled softly. Outside, in the early rays of the spring sun, the chatter of newborn chicks could be heard. And the wind sighed.

(based on a story by Tagore)

This story by Rabindranath Tagore, which he wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, has always stuck with me. I tried to retell it as best I could, only omitting the following: in the original story the parrot dies. I did not want to go this far. My aim was to end with something more hopeful in mind. The poor parrot fell victim to the ego’s of a king and his court dignitaries who could only look at the situation from the viewpoint of their own familiar perspectives. Our society erects beautiful buildings for the purpose of education and spends a lot of money on educational programs. It assemles committees who put together learning objectives and outcomes originating from their own viewpoints, but it seldom has the needs of the learners in mind. The story represents a sad warning, almost 100 years old, against an unbalanced and shortsighted educational system, which threatens to deprive children of their natural, innate creative potential and self-expression.

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