Trees, Fish, and Einstein
Everybody 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.
-Albert Einstein 
If you haven’t seen this quote, either you don’t have internet access or you don’t have friends that spend hours and hours aimlessly wandering the internet and posting semi-relevant links and quotes on your facebook wall. If you have seen this quote, you probably looked at it and thought “Huh. Interesting.”
Or you might have thought, “This is the problem with American education. We need to get rid of standardized tests.” That was my response the first time I saw it. I saw this cute cartoon, and I thought it was quite well drawn. Is that a question mark above the fish’s head? A hook to help it climb?
But then I was watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about schools and the dearth (death?) of creativity they create, and I remembered the quote. But not correctly. I remembered it like this:
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will think it is stupid. 
I forgot the “Everybody is a genius” part. Does that mean I don’t think everyone is a genius? No.
I think everyone has individual talents. Some people are natural-born artists, others are incredibly skilled at sports. Pelé? Soccer genius. Freddy Adu? Brilliant, amazing, talented. Not a genius. Robbie Rogers? Super brave, certainly skilled. Impressive, but not a genius.
This leads me to something that has bothered me about our education system for a while now. Every parent wants to put their kid into “gifted and talented” programs. Look at the New York City issue with kindergarten testing. Now I’m not oblivious to the harsh realities of our school systems. Rich parents get to send their kids to expensive private schools with smaller class sizes. These schools don’t have to adhere as strictly to state standards, giving these schools and their teachers more time to focus on subjects like art and music, or to emphasize topics within standard educational subjects the students will actually enjoy. I’m not oblivious to this because I lived it. I went to a small private school where we literally voted on what we wanted to study in 7th and 8th grade Humanities. 
If we go back to our fish and tree analogy, I am a monkey. Climbing trees comes easily. I got lucky in that my talents fall squarely within what our school system aims to foster. Math, Science, English; they all come easily. I “get it.” Interestingly, when I look back at my small, private school education, my worst grades by far were in Art and Chorus, where I was told I needed to focus more and put my mind to it. I remember getting those comments and being frustrated. These teachers also saw me in Math and Social Studies, they knew I was smart, they knew that I always did my best. Why were they giving me bad grades in classes that I was trying hard in, but good grades in classes I barely had to work at?
Why did they expect me to be a good artist when no-one expects monkeys to swim? 
My school was for gifted and talented students, and looking back I realize that definition was independent of species. There was definitely a fish in my class (we’ll call her Talia; she’s an amazing artist and loved Writing but always struggled in Math and Science), and I’d say there were some other types of animals too.
The education I received was wonderfully tailored. There was time for each student to get the help she needed in every subject, and there was time to prepare us all for whatever came next. We each got to pursue our own passions for the full month of January and every Friday afternoon. We learned table manners on school trips to Ashland, Oregon, and made memories everywhere from LA to Japan. Each student was recognized for the animal he or she was, and was given the appropriate challenges. Yes, fish were forced to climb trees and monkeys had to swim, but the teachers really focused on letting each student grow in the direction they wanted to.
But I was lucky, and not everyone has the opportunities I got in terms of individualized education. In normal schools, monkeys are never really forced to swim – the closest they have to get is dipping their toes in. But all the fish have to climb trees. Many of them aren’t very good at it. But some of them are.
Here’s my question, and its two-fold: What do we do about the fish that do climb trees? How should education be changed so that students entering our schools now and in the future aren’t forced to study “normal” subjects they don’t care about, and what do we do about the left-brained students already halfway through their education, torturing themselves to memorize facts for tests they’ll forget in a week?
There is an argument that can be made, and a valid one in my opinion, that every member of society ought to have a broad base of knowledge. Ideally, everyone who graduates from an American school is able to read and write, and has the basic math skills to compute tip when they go out to eat, or calculate the change they are due. But this broad knowledge needs to go beyond what current standardized tests are testing. Graduates should know a bit of world history, and maybe a smattering of a second language. They ought to know how to solve a problem they are facing, and have something to turn to in times of stress.
American high school graduates should not be mathematically inclined English speaking robots. Incoming American students are a diverse group of people, and they should leave our education system the same way. But they should have grown. Each student has a passion; the purpose of the education system ought to be to help each student find and nurture his passion. Kids are incredibly creative, and that creativity shows itself in every imaginable way, and then some. Some kids draw, some tell stories, some have an aptitude for algebra, and some for the violin. We need to stop pretending that there is a job for every college graduate, stop forcing students to major in things they don’t want to study so they’ll get a job.
I’m majoring in Chemical Physics and Political Science. (If you’re in the maths or sciences. If you’re a humanities or social sciences major, I’m majoring in Political Science and Chemical Physics.) Regardless of who I talk to, their first response is always “What are you going to do with that?” I have no idea. Not a flipping clue. I’m interested in Comparative STEM Education Policy. Or Nuclear Energy Policy. Maybe I’ll become the much-needed person sitting at the table with the politicians and scientists translating one language into the other. Maybe I’ll throw away the $200,000 my parents have so kindly spent on my education and travel the world instead. Regardless of what I want to do now or where I think I’ll end up, I’m studying things I love, taking classes in subjects I’m genuinely interested and passionate about. I have hope that my passion and dedication will be enough to get me a job. Because I’m an idealist, and I think it should.
1. Who knows if this quote is actually Einstein? The internet says so, but the internet also says Abraham Lincoln said the thing about quotes on the internet is that you cannot confirm their validity. If you don’t understand the irony here, please leave.
4. Most monkeys will cross water bodies when necessary, but prefer not to. Except these guys.