Alex the parrot, Elizabeth Bennet and the soul’s code

As I read Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics and followed the discussion about this book on the English Companion Ning, I kept thinking about a growing divide amongst teachers around the question of what we’re meant to be doing in the classroom. Are we preparing kids for the next stage in their education, or is our business bigger than that? Maja is strongly of the second camp; we are teaching kids to write well, not to jump the next hurdle. The older I get, the more I see this divide as problematic and significant . I think this blog post is going to be about this divide. But, if so, it’s going to get there in a very roundabout way.


In last weekend’s Canberra Times, Ian Warden wrote a scathing review of a book called Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Warden writes:

You do have to have a heart like a pebble not to be left teary by her story of a parrot whose last words to her were: “You be good. I love you”, but you need to have a mind like a souffle to admire her whole, schmaltzy, ultra-anthropomorphic book. It offers hardly a glimpse of Alex as a bird. Instead, he’s discussed throughout as a feathered toddler.

Alex the bird had some considerable attributes; he could speak, think deductively and communicate in some interesting ways. You Tube has video of Alex working with Dr Pepperberg. But, says Warden,

… it’s not obvious why this is of enormous consequence.
Pepperberg thinks that it’s of enormous consequence because we can no longer dismiss animals as mere brutes – but does any thinking person think of birds, say, as stupid things? Don’t we marvel at them and their mysteriousness? Nothing about them is fully understood yet. The complexity of their songs and shouts and of their social arrangements! Their bewildering feats of migration! Their sensational aerobatic abilities! Birds, as birds, inspire awe in thinking people.
…Pepperberg expresses no interest in Alex’s birdness and no appreciation of birds per se.

I loved this angry review. This is how I feel about some of what goes on in our classrooms, with children being made to perform unchildlike tasks, often to please a teacher, parroting back information for which they can see no use and to which they feel no connection.


A couple of days ago, a much-valued Twitter colleague Karen LaBonte suggested that we have a look at the following YouTube video.

I found it deeply moving. As I watched those little faces live the song, I was catapulted back in time over 55 years ago when, as a very young child, the world was a place of heart-quickening wonder.

Birds as birds. Children as children.


51gNHXVR3QLI couldn’t stand Jane Austen when I was at school. Even doing an English unit at university couldn’t convince me that she was worth reading. Nothing of any consequence seemed to be happening in her novels, just rather meaningless social engagements, tame flirtations and inconsequential misunderstandings. Surely the world contained many more interesting things than these!

A month ago, inspired by Dana Huff and Heather Mason, I decided to give her another go. I’m reading Pride and Prejudice.

It’s wonderful. So much is happening, in every paragraph. Elizabeth and Darcy struggle with the same tensions which pull against each other in our own lives; between feeling and thought, passion and order, truth and convenience, intuition and reason. It’s like looking through another’s eyes at a world so unlike the world I inhabit, yet it’s so familiar. I’m up to page 300 and Elizabeth’s flighty young sister has just run away with Wickham. Elizabeth says:

… she is very young; she has never been taught to think on serious subjects; and for the last half year, nay, for a twelvemonth, she has been given up to nothing but amusement and vanity. She has been allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner, and to adopt any opinions that came in her way.

On the English Companion Ning there have been over the past months a series of discussions and blog posts [here is just one of many] about literature and its contribution to our understanding of the true, the good, the beautiful and the just. Michael Umphrey often writes powerfully and poignantly about what he feels we might have lost when we left behind a world held together by shared values and an accepted authority. I first read Pride and Prejudice in my teens during the early 60s, at a time when the incense of freedom was in the air. Was this Lydia’s world? Were we then being abandoned by a laissez-faire world to ‘adopt any opinions that came our way’? Are we continually drawn back in our imaginations and longings to the world of Jane Austen because in spite of its apparent flaws and inequalities, it describes the same world of order and authority that the folk tales and myths describe? Where might we find healthy order and authority we can trust in today’s world?


How can we understand motivation (and its shadow, lethargy)? What gives us energy? The writer James Hillman (in a book called The Soul’s Code: in search of character and calling) links motivation with an idea about individual destiny.

The concept of this individualized soul-image has a long, complicated history; its appearance in cultures is diverse and widespread and the names for it are legion. Only our contemporary psychology and psychiatry omit it from their textbooks…

I will be using many of the terms for this acorn – image, character, fate, genius, calling, daimon, soul, destiny – rather interchangeably, preferring one or another depending on the context. This looser mode follows the style of other, often older cultures, which have a better sense of this enigmatic force in human life than does our contemporary psychology, whcih tends to narrow understanding of complex phenomena to single-meaning definitions …

We cannot know what exactly we are referring to because its nature remains shadowy, revealing itself mainly in hints, intuitions, whispers, and the sudden urges and oddities that disturb your life and that we continue to call symptoms. (page 10)

In support of his idea that each of us was born was a unique calling or fate, Hillman quotes Vladimir Nabokov as follows:

Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that passed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap. (page viii)

Hillman goes on to suggest that our ability to acknowledge or sense the existence of a calling, or fate, or necessity, is a key that unlocks energetic motivation. Without it, we drift without a rudder.

David is a 15 year old student in my English class. We’re studying satire. David is no easy conformist. Earlier in the year he wrote a satire in which he lambasted our school’s traditions and values.

Last week David and a classmate gave an oral presentation as part of our study of George Orwell, and afterwards he reflected on his performance as follows

Today in class Alan and I gave our oral presentation. Leading up to it we were both talking about how bad we were at public speaking. We both felt that we hadn’t really performed that well in the past…

Over the weekend one member of my extended family asked me what I would like to be when I grew up in life and I replied ‘a lawyer’. I am very proud of my vocabulary and my ability to find flaws in other people’s arguments. A few hours after answering their question I was pondering being a lawyer and realised that one of the major distinctions between a good and a bad lawyer was the ability to present your case well. This was when I started hyperventilating (not really, I just got kind of freaked). For a moment I felt that this was the dead end for the path in my life the ended up being a lawyer. Then I realised that there was still time. There is still a lot of time left for me and time means chances, chances to improve. Now I eagerly await our class’s next oral presentation where I can try and further my dreams of lawyer-dom (I don’t think its a word but it sounds cool!)

I’ve been reading some of my classmates’ reflections on the orals and what we’ve learned from the exercise. I somehow feel as though I have learned more than them for some reason… I think it stems from how my reflection has a larger time scale than just “the next oral presentation”.

I noticed that as English classes go I am getting along a lot better in this one. I’m kind of scared though because I know that the Doc has a radically different teaching style than other English teachers. My own style of writing goes very well with this style but I can’t help but feel that once I get outside of this class (in which I feel like I’ve performed well) I will go back to mediocrity in the field of English.


It’s time to try to tie all this together.

The classroom is an alive place to the extent that it has windows to the outside world. This is fundamentally different from the idea that one stage of schooling is a preparation for the next. Students have got to know, at some intuitive or conscious level, that what they’re doing is relevant to their bigger lives: that it matters in terms of the world they already experience and will experience again as adults; and that it matters in terms of the person they are wanting to become.

Maja’s writing students know that she is teaching them to become writers, to make sense of their own experiences or to learn more about the world. They’re not becoming better writers in order to pass the next exam.

Students can behave impressively in enclosed classrooms where the focus is simply on the next assignment, the next exam or the next stage. But this kind of performance is impressive in the same way that Alex the parrot is impressive. We see little of nature’s intricate watermark.

The singing children touch their (and our) hearts and sway with the music because singing together expresses a longing for the true and the beautiful which they all intuitively feel and reach out towards.

Pride and Prejudice makes sense to me now that I’m freed from the necessity of responding to my teacher’s question about the nature of Jane Austen’s irony and can instead see, through the windows of the text, the world I inhabit.

David’s motivated molecules are excited by the sense that he’s furthering his dreams of lawyerdom.

A couple of nights ago, the day after doing his oral presentation, David sent me a message via our class Ning:

Hey Dr. Shann,I just finished the English homework and I want to do more.

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9 Responses to Alex the parrot, Elizabeth Bennet and the soul’s code

  1. tsheko says:

    Steve, there are many things to reflect upon in your post. I also hated Jane Austen (and everyone who like her, I despised) when I was at school. As an adult, the TV series brought Austen’s work to life for me in a different way. Are adolescents too young to really appreciate Austen? Your Austen comments make me home-sick for the past.

    Your comparison of what we do to students to Alex the parrot is powerful. This is very serious. You’ve helped me change track again, and I think that’s a good thing.

  2. Pingback: Teach the child « Brave new world

  3. jennylu says:

    How interesting. I, too, did not enjoy Jane Austen when studying for my HSC. One of the reasons was because I felt that I was unable to express my opinions and have them acknowledged. I had a teacher who dominated discussion and didn’t like anyone deviating from her point of view. It sounds like you encourage student voice in your classroom Steve, something that I hope I do too. I’ve never forgotten the lessons from that Form 6 experience. I recount it often to my students, in the hope that they will always have the confidence to express their opinions and disagree when they feel a need to.

    As for your student’s comments, what a teaching moment. Savour it.

    *BTW – my students are badgering me to have your students join us in our Ning. Do you think you can incorporate ‘The Running Man’ by Michael Gerard Bauer into your Yr 10 course somehow???

  4. steveshann says:

    Tania, do you visit the English Companion Ning? Your comment about feeling homesick for the past brings to mind a number of the wonderful discussions that take place there.

    Jenny, there’s one way I think we could work it in, or at least one way that suggests itself right away … no doubt we could think up more if we need to! We give our boys the coming holidays to view a film and read the book, and then to report back. I don’t know ‘Running Man’, but I’m assuming it’s a book and a film? I could let the boys know of your students’ interest, and make the suggestion that some of them use ‘Running Man’ as their holiday study. They’ll then report back on our Ning, and your girls could join in when they’ve read book and/or watched film. Would that work?

    • tsheko says:

      Steve, I’ve only just discovered the English Companion ning through you. The discussion and support are inspiring. I’ve forwarded the link to the ning to our English teachers.

  5. Susanne says:

    “Students have got to know, at some intuitive or conscious level, that what they’re doing is relevant to their bigger lives: that it matters in terms of the world they already experience and will experience again as adults; and that it matters in terms of the person they are wanting to become.”

    So well-said, Steve. As teachers of literature we are privileged to be able to open our students’ worlds through the written word — both those words they read and those they write. Your students are lucky to have you because you so clearly help them see how their time with you matters to their lives and their worlds. I hope I do half of what your students’ comments prove you do.

  6. Maja Wilson says:

    I love how you circle round and round the irritant, wrapping it in layers and layers of pearly white! Such wonderful writing–an essay, in the truest sense of the essay. I always value the way you think through things.

  7. Rhondda says:

    This was a very thoughtful post Steve.
    I have to confess that I actually liked P&P at school (year 12) as well as Wuthering Heights, Travels with my Aunt, The Go-between, the Concubine and Henry IV, part1. I was lucky that I had English teahers who brought these works to life for me. I had great teachers who gave me a love of Shakespeare even back in Year 9.
    The teachers are so very important in helping their students find the link between the written words and their own worlds. How they respond to their students’ burgeoning ideas and thoughts about literature is also vitally important to the development of those students.
    I have talked with student who have commented they loved the book until they had “to do” it in class. Instead of opening their minds to possibilities, other worlds, times, places, these students have been put off reading and responding, which is so sad and so unnecessary. So many students have ideas and thoughts and these are interesting to listen to. Certainly debate the ideas, discuss them but make each student feel that connection and that their response is important.
    A bit os a ramble but I sometimes get very frustrated when I see young people put off reading/literature by teachers.

  8. I’ve been reading avidly back through your posts, Steve, and they set the mind whirling! So much to talk about, I don’t think I’d ever stop typing….(see how I can’t distinguish sound from print?!)
    Even as cavemen, I wonder if we learnt in two ways. Our life takes its path, and we choose its course. But random, or not-so-random, outside influences affect us deeply, and can send us off in a different direction: sometimes even change our life’s course. We learn from someone else’s experience. That wonderful word, resonance….just as when we sing and the guitar in the corner answers back, we live and a text replies. It lives in its own particular way, just for our life. Because it is just an experience, a flavour, a piece of second-hand learning written down. Reading is life written down. Life is reading as it happens. The classroom is just one key to open the door.
    Which is why a true English teacher posesses quick humour and intelligence, a wry clever ability to make print live: but also love, both for the text and for the children he or she teaches. Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.

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