Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

A friend linked to an article at the HuffPost that began,
"Never try to teach a pig to sing ... it wastes your time and annoys the pig."

My voice teacher had this quote by Robert Heinlein on a sign in her studio.
I've also seen that quotation ascribed to Mark Twain, and I think it's likely that Heinlein got it from Twain; he often expressed his admiration for the old man, even made him a character in one of his early stories, though he preferred not to think too much about Twain's fierce anti-imperialism and anti-racism.

I might have liked Heinlein's maxim when I was in high school, and a lot more unsure of myself and my place in the world. But now I think it's evil. Seriously. And why? Because not many people try to teach a pig to sing; the quotation is meant to apply to human beings, and it assumes that you know in advance who the pig is. I'd like to think this is too obvious to say, but in reality you don't know that. By the time someone has shown their inability or refusal to learn from you, you've already broken the maxim.

Surfing over the Internet, I've been surprised to see how many different ways this adage has been interpreted. Maybe I'm taking it too literally. In the HuffPost article above, I couldn't figure out why the author included it. To one writer it means that "there are times when you just can't reach certain people. You can shout 'til you're blue in the face, but that pig is never going to sing!" To one self-styled skeptic it means that there exists "a strange race of people who believe in angels but not in germs ... a carnival freak show of intellectual, rather than physical anomalies ... [who] almost destroyed my faith [!] in human reason. ... I tried to understand them, but I failed." Who is the "pig" in that example -- the incomprehensible people, or the one who failed to comprehend them? Several writers interpreted after the fact: the people you were trying to reach weren't interested in learning, ergo you were trying to teach a pig to sing. I suspect that most often it's an after-the-fact, ass-covering, sour-grapes excuse for one's own failure. As Xeroxlore in hierarchical organizations, it's popular among lower-level flacks who've been assigned jobs they want to claim were impossible to begin with; and often enough they may be right. But the maxim turned up, described as "silly" and "just for fun," on this page of inspirational Quotations About Teachers and Learning, which I find disturbing.

Herbert Kohl, the teacher and writer, once wrote an article called "I Won't Learn from You: Thoughts on the Role of Assent in Learning", about some reasons why some people refuse to learn things that someone else things they have to learn. In many cases that might be reason enough right there: someone is trying to impose his or her will on you, without regard for your interests or even your needs. Kohl believed "that such not-learning is often and disastrously mistaken for failure to learn or the inability to learn." Rather than engage other people's wishes, interests, and needs, how comforting to dismiss them as mere pigs who shouldn't have been allowed into your classroom in the first place.