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  • Writer's pictureMadhusudan

Parrot’s Training (Short Story)

Here’s an insightful translation of the story in modern times by Manish Jain, sharing about the dangers of current education system.

I would like to share a story that I adapted from the Nobel prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, in which he warned us of the dangers of McEducation for All almost 75 years ago. In The Parrot’s Training, we are told of a golden cage that is built to imprison the wild and uncivilized parrot so that she can be properly educated by the king’s pundits. In addition to the 3Rs (Reading, writing, arithmetic), she should also learn who is the Boss as well as be familiar with all the latest global brands. First, the teachers tried stuffing the bird with pages of the official textbooks. That didn’t work. Then a UNICEF project came with all kinds of child-friendly and joyful techniques. They also taught the parrot about child rights. No improvement. Then the World Bank gave a loan to the king (with austerity conditionalities of course) to build a bigger cage with a nice toliet. Still, no difference. Then the OECD came with the PISA standardized tests and new a national policy white paper was written. Harvard researchers were invited to conduct studies on the parrot’s brain and multiple intelligences. Nothing worked. Then Apple gave it an iPad and a free high speed wifi connection. She even got her own facebook page. But the parrot was not allowed to leave the cage despite her obvious distress. In fact she was scolded for being ungrateful and impertinent. Anti-depressants drugs were prescribed. As the parrot was overstuffed with information, she internalized her label as a ‘slow learner’ and a ‘failure’ and lost her power of self-designed learning. She became totally dependent on the cage. Her dreams were reduced to being a rat in the rat-race. A deep loss of purpose ensued. Slowly her spirit withered away. In the end, a lot of people made a lot of money on the parrot’s education, everyone benefited except the parrot. The time has come to more deeply understand the nature of the cage and its impact on each of us and our communities in both the South and the North – beyond what the World Bank economists tell us. It is important to crack open and re-examine our definitions of progress, success, happiness and to look at how our imaginations for social action have been colonized by the cage. We also need to question the assumption that, if we keep adding more and more stuff onto the cage, we can actually fix or transform it.

– Manish Jain, Shikshantar Andolan

Parrot’s Training – Rabindranath Tagore (Source)

Once upon a time, there was a bird. It was ignorant. It sang all right, but never recited scriptures. It hopped pretty frequently, but lacked manners. Said the Raja to himself: ‘Ignorance is costly in the long run. For fools consume as much food as their betters, and yet give nothing in return.’ He called his nephews to his presence and told them that the bird must have a sound schooling. The pundits were summoned, and at once went to the root of the matter. They decided that the ignorance of birds was due to their natural habit of living in poor nests. Therefore, according to the pundits, the first thing necessary for this bird’s education was a suitable cage.

The pundits had their rewards and went home happy. A golden cage was built with gorgeous decorations. Crowds came to see it from all parts of the world. ‘Culture, captured and caged!’ exclaimed some, in a rapture of ecstasy, and burst into tears. Others remarked: ‘Even if culture be missed, the cage will remain, to the end, a substantial fact. How fortunate for the bird!’

The goldsmith filled his bag with money and lost no tune in sailing homewards. The pundit sat down to educate the bird. With proper deliberation he took his pinch of snug: as he said: ‘Textbooks can never be too many for our purpose!’ The nephews brought together an enormous crowd of scribes. They copied from books, and copied from copies, till the manuscripts were piled up to an unreachable height. Men murmured in amazement. ‘Oh, the tower of culture, egregiously high! The end of it lost in the clouds!’ The scribes, with light hearts, hurried home, their pockets heavily laden. The nephews were furiously busy keeping the cage in proper trim. As their constant scrubbing and polishing went on, the people said with satisfaction: ‘This is progress indeed!’ Men were employed in large numbers and supervisors were still more numerous. These, with their cousins of all different degrees of distance, built a palace for themselves and lived there happily ever after.

Whatever may be its other deficiencies, the world is never in want of fault-finders; and they went about saying that every creature remotely connected with the cage flourished beyond words, excepting only the bird. When this remark reached the Raja’s ears, he summoned his nephews before him and said: ‘My dear nephews, what is this that we hear?’ The nephews said in answer: ‘Sire, let the testimony of the goldsmiths and the pundits, the scribes and the supervisors be taken, if the truth is to be known. Food is scarce with the fault-finders, and that is why their tongues have gained in sharpness.’

The explanation was so luminously satisfactory that the Raja decorated each one of his nephews with his own rare jewels. The Raja at length, being desirous of seeing with his own eyes how his Education Department busied itself with the little bird, made his appearance one day at the great Hall of Learning. From the gate rose the sounds of conch-shells and gongs, horns, bugles and trumpets, cymbals, drums and kettledrums, tomtoms, tambourines, flutes, fifes, barrel-organs and bagpipes. The pundits began chanting mantras with their topmost voices, while the goldsmiths, scribes, supervisors, and their numberless cousins of all different degrees of distance, loudly raised a round of cheers. The nephews smiled and said: ‘Sire, what do you think of it all?’ The Raja said: ‘It does seem so fearfully like a sound principle of Education!’ Mightily pleased, the Raja was about to remount his elephant, when the fault-finder, from behind some bush, cried out: ‘Maharaja, have you seen the bird?’ ‘Indeed, I have not!’ exclaimed the Raja. ‘I completely forgot about the bird.’

Turning back, he asked the pundits about the method they followed in instructing the bird. It was shown to him. He was immensely impressed. The method was so stupendous that the bird looked ridiculously unimportant in comparison. The Raja was satisfied that there was no flaw in the arrangements. As for any complaint from the bird itself, that simply could not be expected. Its throat was so completely choked with the leaves from the books that it could neither whistle nor whisper. It sent a thrill through one’s body to watch the process. This time, while remounting his elephant, the Raja ordered his State ear-puller to give a thorough good pull at both the ears of the fault-finder. The bird thus crawled on, duly and properly, to the safest verge of inanity. In fact, its progress was satisfactory in the extreme.

Nevertheless, Nature occasionally triumphed over training, and when the morning light peeped into the bird’s cage it sometimes uttered its wings in a reprehensible manner. And, though it is hard to believe, it pitifully pecked at its bars with its feeble beak. ‘What impertinence!’ growled the kotwal. The blacksmith, with his forge and hammer, took his place in the Raja’s Department of Education. Oh, what resounding blows! The iron chain was soon completed, and the bird’s wings were clipped. The Raja’s brothers-in-law looked black, and shook their heads, saying: ‘These birds not only lack good sense, but also gratitude!’ With text-book in one hand and baton in the other, the pundits gave the poor bird what may fitly be called lessons!

The kotwal was honoured with a title for his watchfulness, and the blacksmith for his skill in forging chains. The bird died. Nobody had the least notion how long ago this had happened. The fault-finder was the first man to spread the rumour. The Raja called his nephews and asked them, ‘My dear nephews, what is this that we hear?’ The nephews said: ‘Sire, the bird’s education has been completed.’ ‘Does it hop?’ the Raja enquired. ‘Never!’ said the nephews. ‘Does it fly?’ ‘No.’ ‘Bring me the bird,’ said the Raja. The bird was brought to him, guarded by the kotwal and the sepoys and the sowars. The Raja poked its body with his finger.

Only its inner stuffing of book-leaves rustled. Outside the window, the murmur of the spring breeze amongst the newly budded asoka leaves made the April morning wistful.

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