Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. – Einstein (?)
Every time someone uses this quote, I hear the late great Reggie White in my mind. In 1998, the Hall of Famer was asked to speak to the Wisconsin State Legislature. The following is from the New York Times.
In his effort to promote racial harmony, the Packer player, who is black, said that each racial and ethnic group has its own ”gifts,” that, when taken together, form ”a complete image of God.”
But in describing those gifts, White said that blacks ”like to sing and dance,” while whites ”know how to tap into money.” He said that Hispanic people ”are gifted at family structure. You can see a Hispanic person and he can put 20 or 30 people in one home.”
Asians, he said, know how to ”turn a television into a watch.” American Indians, he said, ”have been very gifted” in ”spirituality.”
Like Mr. White’s comments, the quote seems to imply that one is ‘naturally’ abled. The talents that one has have been bestowed rather than developed. You can see the rather troubling place that can lead us from Mr. White’s words.
Stay in Your Box
The quote, while well-meaning, seems to be saying that one is given a rather limiting set of skills that one should stick to. One should not challenge the status quo. Climb a tree? Nah, you’re a fish. Stick to what you’re good at. Do fishy things, but don’t try to see beyond your pond. That’s dangerous thinking. Plus, you’ll fail. Absolutely you’ll fail. Even though you’ve never tried, you’ll fail because fish don’t climb trees.
Change “fish” to black, poor, female, ELL, or IEP and that quote gets very grimy. Very grimy. It’s the stuff that eugenicists dream of. It’s the ultimate “stay in your box because you don’t have the talents to do that” statement.
The Excuse Matrix
It also gives the “fish” an excuse for not achieving. I can’t do certain things because I’m just a fish. I didn’t do my homework because I’m a fish. I can’t do math because I’m a fish. Learn computer science? Fish don’t do that. Make movies? I’m a fish remember. Write a symphony? Fish don’t do music.
Teachers could also use this philosophy to deny opportunities to students. I’m not going to teach script writing and movie making to these fish. It’s not their talent. I’m not going use certain tools with these fish. Fish don’t do (insert skill). Fish in this neighborhood don’t do well doing (insert skill) so I’m not going to present it to them.
All Talents are Equal?
This quote is pretty Orwellian. Essentially, all talents are equal, but some talents are more equal. It infers that some talents are more desirable than others and those that have those talents are therefore more valuable. It creates a hierarchy that is “natural” and eliminates the possibility of dreaming. It’s pretty literal. Fish aren’t birds. Birds aren’t lions. Lions aren’t hippos. “Tapping into money” and being able to “turn a television into a watch” seem like a lot better talents than fitting 30 people in a house to me. However, you get what you get and don’t have a fit, right? There ain’t no changing. If you’re a cockroach, get used to scurrying when the lights come on because it’s not going to change.
We have to teach fish that they might not be able to climb trees, but they can build jetpacks. According to science, all life started in the seas. We’re all fish. Some of us we’re told by others that another reality was possible so we evolved legs and lungs and left the pond. This is what we need to teach students. You don’t have to stay a fish.
We need a coherent curriculum that is knowledge based so that students are able to very rapidly eliminate the achievement gap. We need students to be given the opportunities to not only learn the rudiments of reading and math, but also computer science, multimedia creation, science, arts, and engineering. We need to allow far more exploration and collaboration in schools so that no one sees themselves as a fish that can’t climb trees but as a school of fish that push each other to evolve into whatever they’d like.