I’m Reading A Book About Animal Intelligence and It Reminds Me of Teaching

I’m reading a book by George Page, the man you may recognize from the Nature series on public television, called Inside the Animal Mind:  a Groundbreaking Exploration of Animal Intelligence, published in 1999.  The information Page includes and his philosophy of animal intelligence, which is that animals can think and feel–highly controversial for people of the behaviorist tradition who argue animals have complex behaviors but do not possess cognition or emotions–have got me thinking about teaching and our public education and some troubling issues in thinking and consciousness I witnessed there.

In the back of my mind, while I was in my 11 years of field work known as Being an English Teacher, I kept observing a phenomenon with students (and, for that matter, with other teachers) that, although shadowy and unarticulated, troubled me greatly.  I even remember, in my earlier years, when my energy and outrage were more powerful, extolling my kids in a fiery lecture I dubbed “The Shamu.”

“Welcome to college!” I would say, in a kind of snarky preacher’s voice. “You will learn here to think, to actually use your mind, and it will be very difficult for you.  Why?”

Rhetorical question.

“Because most–if not all of you–are nothing more than conditioned animals trained to perform for a reward.  The public school system teaches to you pass tests, to make grades that will fulfill requirements. You were taught to demonstrate your mastery of tasks in order to win the ultimate prize, your high school diploma.  That was the goal, and you succeeded.  You have been treated like Shamu, whether you knew it or not.”

Usually, this statement perked up a few heads because no person likes being told he’s been treated like a show animal.  But, when we get right down to it, isn’t that what the American education system, and many colleges and universities, are really doing?  Can we at least own up to that?  And this isn’t an anti-education rant although I admit to believing our system has suffered and doesn’t work very well and I don’t like it–it’s not the fault of the system, it’s the fault of the culture that condoned it.  We delight when we can train others to do what we’ve been told we should train them to do.

We raise our kids to be show animals, most of our religious practices also create show animals, and we’re in a lot of complex and oftentimes weird relationships because many of us aren’t actually thinking but just performing for a particular reward, whether it be a promotion, a happily-ever-after marriage, or the approval of the communities whose acceptance is vital to us.  It’s all rather strange, now that I think about it.

At the end of “The Shamu,” I would promise my students that I would do my level best to teach them to think–“which means that you are going to have to learn to challenge my ideas“–and some students would do it, but most students just wanted to pass the class so they could get their degree and get a job and make some money.  Behavior=do what she wants to pass the class.  Reward = money.  Mostly, I gave the Shamu lecture to wake up my students, to let them know I wanted to engage in real thought, but as I’ve grown older and gotten away from institutionalized education, I am beginning to wonder if that lecture was more literal than I imagined.

So, year after year, I would struggle trying to teach students to use their own minds instead of using their brain power (deductive reasoning) to figure out what I wanted so they could make a decent grade.  Sadly, in the last few years, most students just assumed if they did the work they would make an A, irrespective of the quality of work.  Seems as if even our ever-devolving education system is creating showbiz animals comfortable with half-assing the performance.

But let me resume my initial blog before I spiral downward into my “devolution of the American” cynical teacher rant.  If I go there, it will ruin my whole day, and I do have a novel to write that is (Auntie Georgia!) more uplifting.

So here’s where it all comes together for me:  the phenomenon I observed in teaching–that most students could grasp the performance of a task if given a motivational enough reward–is the same basis that the animals-can’t-think-they-just-have-complex-behaviors camp uses to dismiss animal intelligence.  Ergo, most of what we’re teaching our young animals (human children) is not so much about how to access their thinking mind (intelligence) but to use their brain power to get the rewards they seek (behavior training).  Since I know for a fact that human animals can be broken from behavior training and learn how to use their minds, then I believe we can see intelligence operating in the minds of other animals as well.  Animals can think (but I’m not sure I want any animal mind engaging in the same thoughts as a human mind).  Where I believe the issue lies is that behavioral scientists do not consider their subjects ‘real’ because this belief may lead to–the horror! gasp!–anthropomorphism, which is a giant stigmatic no-no.  You can’t ascribe human characteristics to an animal, otherwise you’re a scientific disgrace.

I think this idea of “objectively” studying creatures with brains is really funny.  How, seriously, can you try to study intelligence without conceding to thought and emotions?  I’m not saying that the cheetah has thoughts and emotions like mine–what I’m saying is that the cheetah has them, in her own way, which I can’t possibly understand because I’m not a cheetah.  What I will confirm is that I do not think any other animate creature is in danger of self-destruction by its ability to self-reflect (as the human is), which I do think puts our emotional life and thought life in a different category.  Like comparing apples to oranges–they’re both fruits, but they ain’t the same.  But I’m not an apple that’s going to tell an orange it isn’t a fruit because it is not like me.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and also mention that oftentimes people don’t see other people as real, either.  When this happens, the ‘unreal’ people suddenly are incapable of emotions and thoughts, too, or do not deserve the rights and privileges of people who are ‘real.’  Like Jews in Nazi Germany.  African slaves.  Women who want the final say so over their reproductive ability. Gay people who want the right to marry.  Right-wing Republicans.  Liberals.  I mean, shit.  People and creatures can turn their “light” on.  Or not.  And there are a lot of people (and animals) who can turn the “light” of communion on and off at will depending on the interaction.  Some animals don’t ever turn their light on.  And some people don’t, either.

My dog Buckley is an example of the “light” turning on, and I asked this of him when he came into my life.  When I got him, he’d learned to be dead.  I got him from a no-kill shelter that had rescued him from the needle at Brunswick County Animal Shelter.  Buckley was 8 or 9 at the time, and his “family” dropped him off at the kill shelter when they left town.  For the first three weeks of our life together, Buckley’s eyes were muted, they were closed down.  Or, I guess you could say the black gate was up.  That’s more accurate.  Behind that gate was a world, a good world, I just knew it in my gut, but he wouldn’t open the gate for me.

I kept saying to him, “you’re my dog now.  Do you know what that means?”  He did not.  He peed in the house.  He had no idea how to jump on the bed.  He stayed near me, but he was not yet open enough to bond to me.  It wasn’t like having a dog; it was like having livestock.

One day, I don’t know why, Buckley looked at me, and the lights came on.  In that instant, he knew he was my dog, that I was his person.  Everything changed, and I had access to his mind. The gate came down, and I was free to enter.  The bond was made, and he has been a different dog ever since.

And I was right.  There is a wonderful, good world in there.  Anyone who has met him will tell you that Buckley is a very gentle spirit who wants to do right although his animal nature does take over from time to time, as it should.

This same sort of occurrence can happen with children, which you know if you’ve ever worked with kids who have been abused.

[NOTE: In my experience, no creature–whether it is a human or a cockatoo–is going to give me access to its mind unless it trusts me.  If it doesn’t trust me, the best I’ll get is access to its behavior.  The worst is no access at all.  Or, the worst is its aggression, which I have experienced once or twice with potential boyfriends and zoo animals whose psyches did not allow them to trust anything or anyone.  Very sad.]

What comes to mind in regards to this idea about animal intelligence and trust, behaviorism and anthropomorphism, is a student, Matt, I taught when I was teaching the bottom-of-the-barrel kids at a public high school outside of Greenville, NC.  Matt was a problem student, the kind of student who, in the week before classes started, teachers checked their rosters to make sure they didn’t have.  He came with a reputation–the middle school called in advance to warn us about Matt.  They also called to warn us about Shaun.  And I was pulled aside by my lead teacher to warn me about Steven, who was a good kid, but his dad was an alcoholic who beat him and his face was disfigured horribly because his crackhead mom didn’t put down the pipe for one minute during the nine months she carried him.  No one would admit it, but these three boys were “subjects” in the school system.

And all three of them ended up in my 6th period English class of 9th graders.

Early on in teaching I learned that if I was going to have any sort of meaningful experience, I was going to have to learn to look into people’s hearts.  Otherwise, everyone’s an asshole, and the miracles would happen all around me and I’d be too blinded by my insecurities to notice.  If I didn’t learn to perceive what was happening behind people’s eyes, teaching was going to eat me alive.

In order to do this with bottom-of-the-barrel kids and with some animals, I have to believe that they will trust me, eventually.  I can’t tell you I liked Matt and Shaun and Steven.  I did not!  Not at first.  I couldn’t stand them, and I spent so many nights tossing and turning in my bed going through fantasies where I beat them up, or the student resource officer had to shoot them for legitimate reasons, or I verbally eviscerated them for any number of offenses they were sure to provide.

But, I went to school and I believed that they would trust me.  Because I did believe that they were reachable kids, that somewhere in there was a good world, that their intelligence surpassed their learned (awful) behaviors.  In time, it worked.  The gates came down, and I can remember the day that Matt let me into his mind.  He sat right in front of my desk, and was unsuccessfully trying to make some godawful 9th grade short story like “The Interlopers” interesting, and he said to me, “Miss Moore, I am going to do well on my vocabulary test today.  I studied last night.”

And when he looked at me, I saw that he had let the gate down, that the light was on.  And he did do well on that vocab test; he made an A.  Fine, good grade.  Yay.  But what happened in that moment was that Matt agreed to let me into his intelligence, and he ended up being one of the smartest kids in the class–not that it mattered in the Shamu World because he dropped out on his 16th birthday, and I cried, but I was right about Matt.  There was a sparkling intelligence in there, a wonderful mind, and he would have been nothing more than a caged research chimp with “Caution” on his cage if I hadn’t believed something other than what “observable behavior” indicated about him.

Just so you know, the same pattern unfolded with Shaun (who was kicked out of the high school later that year for assaulting his history teacher) and Steven, who both liked to stay after school and shoot the shit with me until their rides showed up.  I didn’t mind because even though 9th grade boys have their multitude of issues, they are usually pretty funny.  Steven stayed in school, but I moved to Winston Salem and never found out what happened to him.

So, beloved, here it is:  there is one great mind at work in the universe, and we are all a part of it, as unscientific, anthropomorphic, and ridiculous as that may sound.  Eventually, I believe we will figure that out in scientific terms, but I have my doubts about the sanctity of any discipline that adheres to the notion that nothing is True unless we can observe it with our eyes.  Many times, we have to observe Truth with our hearts, we just can’t prove it yet.  And, we are dancing elephants, talking parrots, and charmed snakes in our own ways, make no mistake about that.  I think true intelligence is when we step out of those roles, though, and I hate to admit that I don’t think many humans do.

However, I have yet to meet a bonobo monkey who has devised a rocket ship, but that’s probably because he doesn’t need one.

night night.

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About marlowemoore

I'm a writer, dancer, and naturalist living in the Tampa Bay area.
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4 Responses to I’m Reading A Book About Animal Intelligence and It Reminds Me of Teaching

  1. Howey McAuley says:

    Marlowe,
    You just made me tear up dammit.

  2. Cabel says:

    The topic of animal intelligence is interesting to me, so I read the post and I’m so glad I did. You are such a great writer and I’m glad to know you 🙂

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