Animal School

A fable written by George Reavis, then Assistant Superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools, almost 80 years ago, was  up-dated in Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989.  It describes how the animals in the Great Forest, rather than give parents the responsibility of teaching their children the skills they needed to know, decided the young ‘uns should  learn from professional teachers. So they organized a school and hired staff. 

They opted for  a standardized educational curriculum with an activity-based syllabus consisting of swimming, running, flying, and climbing. All the animals took all the subjects – it was very important that no child be left behind. Standardized achievement tests were administered to all students to ensure they were progressing satisfactorily,

The ducks were excellent in swimming; in fact, the ducks were better than their teacher. But some of the ducks made only passing grades in flying and all of them were very poor in running, and thus  were required to stay after school for remedial running practice, to the point that they had to drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until their webbed feet were very sore and they were so tired that soon they were only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that – except the ducks. 

The  rabbits started at the top of the class in running but did very poorly in swimming. Also, the rabbits insisted on hopping, and the teachers, concerned about their hyperactivity,  made them walk everywhere instead of allowing them to run or hop. The rabbits had to come in early every day for special swimming class to the point that some of the younger rabbits developed severe fur problems from spending so much time in the pool. 

The squirrels were excellent in climbing and running; in  fact, the squirrels were the best students at climbing the standardized tree. But they wanted to fly by first climbing the tree, then spreading their paws and gliding to the ground. But in flying class their teacher made them take off from the ground with the other students, and clearly the squirrels were not mastering the course material. So every day the squirrels had therapy – a flying therapist took the squirrels into the gym and made them do front-paw exercises to strengthen their muscles so they could learn to fly the right way. The squirrels' paws hurt so much from this overexertion that some of them only got a C in climbing; two even failed climbing altogether. 

The eagles were problem children. In climbing class they beat all the others to the top of the tree but they insisted on using their own way to get there and were quite stubborn about it. They said that clearly it was the goal that mattered and that it was quite right for them to get to the treetop by flying. The school psychologist diagnosed them as having oppositional-defiant disorder and developed a strict behavior modification plan for the wayward birds.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceedingly well and also could run, climb and fly a little, had the highest average and was the valedictorian. The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought against the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum,.  They apprenticed to the badger and later joined the groundhogs to start a private school. 

In some schools today, outside of the forest, we still make squirrel children try to learn to fly by flapping their paws and we punish eagles for being defiant about their right to be themselves. In other schools, fortunately,  we enjoy all children for themselves. Each squirrel is a perfectly wonderful squirrel. Each rabbit a lovely rabbit whether or not it chooses to hop, skip, roll or walk. Each eagle is allowed to be an eagle and we encourage each duck to swim rather than worrying about learning to run. 

Honey bees balance their behaviors between the needs of the community and their state of maturity, beginning with new-borns cleaning out the cells from which they have just emerged and ending with the collection of resources needed for the continuation of the species.  Whereas there are certain broad principles within which they operate,  the bees are more adaptable  than we initially realized, and will change their behaviors (the equivalent of swimming, running, climbing and flying) depending on the signals they receive from their nest mates. 

Beekeepers, and beekeeping classes, are not always as flexible, and may be dogmatic in what they determine is the ‘right’ way to keep honey bees.  Certainly nu-bees need assurance and direction, yet never to the point that they are submitted to standardized achievement tests, or accept average as OK,  or are subject to behavior modification plans, whether self or externally imposed,  to the point that they lose that vital enthusiasm and sense of awe that keeps many of us involved.   

Covey argues that driving forces (eg. the ability and desire to fly, swim, run or fly) are positive, motivate growth and change, and keep us engaged, while restraining forces are negative. Valuing differences, especially our  mental, emotional and psychological differences, is the essence of synergy, and it is synergy which best describes the activities of a bee hive.  To develop the empathy that allows us to welcome and respect differences, we first have to realize that people tend to see the world not as it is but as they are - we each visualize it through the prism of our own experiences - and the good instructor or mentor evokes and utilizes those perceptions.  The word ‘education’ is derived from the Latin educare, meaning to draw out, not to pour forth.  

An effective beekeeping instructor or mentor has the humility and reverence to recognize his or her own perceptual limitations and to harness the rich resources made available through interaction with the hearts and minds of nu-bees, not least their curiosity, enthusiasm and burgeoning passion.   He or she cannot see honey bees as they do, nor can he or she bring to the class the life experiences that each of the class members has; rather, opening up to their perspicuity adds to the knowledge, the  understanding of reality, of everyone in the apiary.  To return to the jigsaw analogy, perhaps it is the instructor’s job to put the corner pieces in place, to help the new beekeeper complete the connections between them which  outlines the puzzle, and then to step back as he or she fills in the individual pieces.  Because the final picture is not uniform - the colors, the shapes and the images are unique to each one of us. 

The alternative, as George Reeves articulated  in the 1940’s, is that we try to make everybody the same, and no-one is happy. People get hurt and their best gifts go to waste. 


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my