Who Was to Blame?

A short story by Anton Chekhov followed by my commentary on how cats and hunter gatherers really teach their young, and how our educational system is creating a nation of learning disabled citizens.

As my uncle Pyotr Demyanitch, a lean, bilious collegiate councillor, exceedingly like a stale smoked fish with a stick through it, was getting ready to go to the high school, where he taught Latin, he noticed that the corner of his grammar was nibbled by mice.

"I say, Praskovya," he said, going into the kitchen and addressing the cook, "how is it we have got mice here? Upon my word! yesterday my top hat was nibbled, to-day they have disfigured my Latin grammar. . . . At this rate they will soon begin eating my clothes!

"What can I do? I did not bring them in!" answered Praskovya.

"We must do something! You had better get a cat, hadn't you?"

"I've got a cat, but what good is it?"

And Praskovya pointed to the corner where a white kitten, thin as a match, lay curled up asleep beside a broom.

"Why is it no good?" asked Pyotr Demyanitch.

"It's young yet, and foolish. It's not two months old yet."

"H'm. . . . Then it must be trained. It had much better be learning instead of lying there."

Saying this, Pyotr Demyanitch sighed with a careworn air and went out of the kitchen. The kitten raised his head, looked lazily after him, and shut his eyes again.

The kitten lay awake thinking. Of what? Unacquainted with real life, having no store of accumulated impressions, his mental processes could only be instinctive, and he could but picture life in accordance with the conceptions that he had inherited, together with his flesh and blood, from his ancestors, the tigers (vide Darwin). His thoughts were of the nature of day-dreams. His feline imagination pictured something like the Arabian desert, over which flitted shadows closely resembling Praskovya, the stove, the broom. In the midst of the shadows there suddenly appeared a saucer of milk; the saucer began to grow paws, it began moving and displayed a tendency to run; the kitten made a bound, and with a thrill of blood-thirsty sensuality thrust his claws into it.

When the saucer had vanished into obscurity a piece of meat appeared, dropped by Praskovya; the meat ran away with a cowardly squeak, but the kitten made a bound and got his claws into it. . . . Everything that rose before the imagination of the young dreamer had for its starting-point leaps, claws, and teeth. . . The soul of another is darkness, and a cat's soul more than most, but how near the visions just described are to the truth may be seen from the following fact: under the influence of his day-dreams the kitten suddenly leaped up, looked with flashing eyes at Praskovya, ruffled up his coat, and making one bound, thrust his claws into the cook's skirt. Obviously he was born a mouse catcher, a worthy son of his bloodthirsty ancestors. Fate had destined him to be the terror of cellars, store-rooms and cornbins, and had it not been for education . . . we will not anticipate, however.

On his way home from the high school, Pyotr Demyanitch went into a general shop and bought a mouse-trap for fifteen kopecks. At dinner he fixed a little bit of his rissole on the hook, and set the trap under the sofa, where there were heaps of the pupils' old exercise-books, which Praskovya used for various domestic purposes. At six o'clock in the evening, when the worthy Latin master was sitting at the table correcting his pupils' exercises, there was a sudden "klop!" so loud that my uncle started and dropped his pen. He went at once to the sofa and took out the trap. A neat little mouse, the size of a thimble, was sniffing the wires and trembling with fear.

"Aha," muttered Pyotr Demyanitch, and he looked at the mouse malignantly, as though he were about to give him a bad mark. "You are cau--aught, wretch! Wait a bit! I'll teach you to eat my grammar!

Having gloated over his victim, Poytr Demyanitch put the mouse-trap on the floor and called:

"Praskovya, there's a mouse caught! Bring the kitten here!

"I'm coming," responded Praskovya, and a minute later she came in with the descendant of tigers in her arms.

"Capital!" said Pyotr Demyanitch, rubbing his hands. "We will give him a lesson. . . . Put him down opposite the mouse-trap . . . that's it. . . . Let him sniff it and look at it. . . . That's it. . . ."

The kitten looked wonderingly at my uncle, at his arm-chair, sniffed the mouse-trap in bewilderment, then, frightened probably by the glaring lamplight and the attention directed to him, made a dash and ran in terror to the door.

"Stop!" shouted my uncle, seizing him by the tail, "stop, you rascal! He's afraid of a mouse, the idiot! Look! It's a mouse! Look! Well? Look, I tell you!"

Pyotr Demyanitch took the kitten by the scruff of the neck and pushed him with his nose against the mouse-trap.

"Look, you carrion! Take him and hold him, Praskovya. . . . Hold him opposite the door of the trap. . . . When I let the mouse out, you let him go instantly. . . . Do you hear? . . . Instantly let go! Now!"

My uncle assumed a mysterious expression and lifted the door of the trap. . . . The mouse came out irresolutely, sniffed the air, and flew like an arrow under the sofa. . . . The kitten on being released darted under the table with his tail in the air.

"It has got away! got away!" cried Pyotr Demyanitch, looking ferocious. "Where is he, the scoundrel? Under the table? You wait. . ."

My uncle dragged the kitten from under the table and shook him in the air.

"Wretched little beast," he muttered, smacking him on the ear. "Take that, take that! Will you shirk it next time? Wr-r-r-etch. . . ."

Next day Praskovya heard again the summons.

"Praskovya, there is a mouse caught! Bring the kitten here!"

After the outrage of the previous day the kitten had taken refuge under the stove and had not come out all night. When Praskovya pulled him out and, carrying him by the scruff of the neck into the study, set him down before the mouse-trap, he trembled all over and mewed piteously.

"Come, let him feel at home first," Pyotr Demyanitch commanded. "Let him look and sniff. Look and learn! Stop, plague take you!" he shouted, noticing that the kitten was backing away from the mouse-trap. "I'll thrash you! Hold him by the ear! That's it. . . . Well now, set him down before the trap. . . ."

My uncle slowly lifted the door of the trap . . . the mouse whisked under the very nose of the kitten, flung itself against Praskovya's hand and fled under the cupboard; the kitten, feeling himself free, took a desperate bound and retreated under the sofa.

"He's let another mouse go!" bawled Pyotr Demyanitch. "Do you call that a cat? Nasty little beast! Thrash him! thrash him by the mousetrap!"

When the third mouse had been caught, the kitten shivered all over at the sight of the mousetrap and its inmate, and scratched Praskovya's hand. . . . After the fourth mouse my uncle flew into a rage, kicked the kitten, and said:

"Take the nasty thing away! Get rid of it! Chuck it away! It's no earthly use!"

A year passed, the thin, frail kitten had turned into a solid and sagacious tom-cat. One day he was on his way by the back yards to an amatory interview. He had just reached his destination when he suddenly heard a rustle, and thereupon caught sight of a mouse which ran from a water-trough towards a stable; my hero's hair stood on end, he arched his back, hissed, and trembling all over, took to ignominious flight.

Alas! sometimes I feel myself in the ludicrous position of the flying cat. Like the kitten, I had in my day the honour of being taught Latin by my uncle. Now, whenever I chance to see some work of classical antiquity, instead of being moved to eager enthusiasm, I begin recalling, ut consecutivum, the irregular verbs, the sallow grey face of my uncle, the ablative absolute. . . . I turn pale, my hair stands up on my head, and, like the cat, I take to ignominious flight.


So how do cats really teach their young?

I was told the following: In the beginning, the mother cat brings to her hungry kitten a dead mouse for it to eat. After it becomes accustomed to this food, the mother cat brings a mouse that is just barely alive. Then the mother cat, brings progressively more lively mice for her kitten to chase, play with and eat. If the mouse manages to escape, the mother cat recaptures it and brings it back in a more disabled state making sure her kitten achieves success. In this way, the kitten develops its skills in hunting and killing mice, so that it can survive. The mother cat never punishes her little kitten. We humans have much to learn from this mother cat.

Watch a YouTube video of a cat catching a mouse. Notice how it seems to like to play with it before finally finishing it off:

Actually, hunter-gatherers educate their children in the same way a mother cat teaches her kitten, simply by letting them play most of the time and allowing them to imitate the adults and teach themselves! There is no formal educational system, yet they manage to grow up and become self-sustaining adults. Peter Gray conducted a survey of anthropologists and reached 3 general conclusions:

Conclusion 1: Children in hunter-gatherer cultures have to learn an enormous amount to become successful adults. To become hunters, boys must learn how to identify and track the two or three hundred different species of birds and mammals that their group hunts. They must learn how to craft the tools of hunting, such as bows and arrows, blowguns and darts, snares, nets, and so on (the precise list depending on the culture). And, of course, they must develop great skill in using those tools. To become gatherers, girls must learn which of the countless varieties of roots, nuts, seeds, fruits, and greens in their area are edible and nutritious; when and where to find them; how to extract the edible portions; and how to process them. In addition, all hunter-gatherer children must learn to build huts, make fires, cook, fend off predators, predict weather changes, navigate their hunting and gathering grounds, treat wounds and diseases, assist births, care for infants, maintain harmony in the group, negotiate with neighboring groups, tell stories, make music, and engage in the various dances and rituals of their culture.

Conclusion 2: Children learn all this without being taught. Hunter-gatherers do not in any formal way teach their children. If you ask adults how children learn, they will say they learn on their own through self-chosen activities— activities that we would refer to as play and exploration. This appears to be true in every hunter-gatherer culture that has ever been studied.

Conclusion 3: Children are afforded a great deal of time to play and explore. The respondents to our questionnaire were unanimous in saying that the children and adolescents they observed were free essentially all day, every day, to play and explore on their own, and this fits with the conclusions of all of the published studies of young people’s activities in hunter-gatherer tribes. Little, if any, productive work is expected of children or even of young teenagers. By their own choice, they play at the kinds of activities they need to practice. For example, boys play for countless hours at hunting, mimicking the behaviors of their fathers. With little bows and arrows, they may at first shoot at butterflies and toads and then at small furry animals near their camp. With time, they begin to actually kill some small game to add to the food supply. With further time, their playful hunting gradually becomes the productive hunting of adulthood— still done in a playful spirit.

Similarly, Jared Diamond noted in his book, "Guns, Germs and Steel", (video) that the children he encountered in the wilds of Papua New Guinea were all geniuses, so astounded was he with their incredibly intimate knowledge of their world. Tragically, many children in modern society live in impoverished environments, with little to do but watch cartoons on TV or play mind numbing video games.

And here is an astonishing and inspiring video of kids teaching themselves. Sugata Mitra installed a computer in a hole in the wall that separated his office from a slum outside New Delhi. To his delight, a child finds it, starts playing with it, and soon calls over his friends to see. Within one day, they are excitedly browsing the web. The experiment is repeated in a remote area of India, where English is not spoken. The same thing happened and in 3 months time, a whole bunch of kids have taught themselves English! No adults were present!

We are creating a nation of learning disabled citizens!

The Chekhov story just demonstrates how punishment does not work for the educational process, and indeed, just creates an anxious learning disabled adult cat or human. The late George Carlin did a humorous sketch on education which I enjoy very much:

His skit echoes the long held views of educational critic John Taylor Gatto, and I have collected some of Gatto's quotes here on my webpage: "Dumbing Us Down." It is all part of the "Domination System that needs to be dismantled. " Presidential candidate, Ron Paul, has even suggested we could save 50 billion or so by getting rid of the US Department of Education, and it's misguided attempts at bolstering educational performance through standardized testing as required by the No Child Left Behind Act. All this "teaching to the test," reduces diversity in the knowledge of our children and general populous, a surefire way to reduce our competitive advantage. Actually we would save a lot more, because this cabinet level department is reducing our productivity, not increasing it. See if you agree with the premise of this talk by Sir Ken Robinson: "Do Schools Kill Creativity?"

Ken Robinson states in the above video: "If you think of it, children starting school this year, will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue.... what the world will look like in 5 years time....Creativity now, is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status (applause). ....If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. " For more info, check out Ken Robinson's July 2008 article "The Educational System Needs a Radical Shake-Up"

What can we do?

My friend, Jan Hunt, just forwarded this heartwarming article "My Gold Medal Girl" which interviews a parent on how she raised an Olympic Gold Medal winning athlete. Notice the dialog between the child and the coach or parent, and how they empathize with the child, fulfilling the child's need for understanding, choice, acceptance and love. I wish I had this growing up! No evidence of performance anxiety, about which I plan to write another page. I recommend her website Natural Child Project which has a wealth of information on how to nurture your child with compassion and love. If you are a teacher, I also recommend "The Compassionate Classroom" by CNVC trainers Sura Hart and Sylvia Haskvitz for a wealth of information. And here is the virtual reality researcher Randy Pausch's "Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dream" where he briefly describes his childhood:

His parents were playful and still are, and I liked the anecdote that his parents even allowed him to paint his room however he liked!

Last updated 17 October 2008

Copyright © 2008 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

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