Education Reform: Aesop Warns of Republican Tomfoolery

beaverWatching the Republicans go after public education in Michigan reminds me of one of Aesop’s more obscure, but profoundly important, fables . For some reason this fable was never included in any of the many collections of the old Greek’s stories. I ran across it some years ago when I was digging around the stacks at the University of Michigan’s Graduate Library. If you’ve ever been in this building, you know it is a world unto itself. “Data” is stored here in dusty volumes that only graduate students, intent upon discovering some nugget that will propel them towards that elusive thesis for that haunting dissertation, will ever pick up.

I was doing that very thing…wandering aimlessly and hoping that something would fall off a shelf in front of me and give me the inspiration to get going on my scathing expose of the World Bank and its projects in various African countries. But nothing fell that day (or any other for that matter.) As I was prone to do after hours of breathing book dust that was probably around when Gerald Ford was stumbling around campus, I took a seat by the window so I could watch the frisbee players running around on the diag. It made me feel quite superior to silently chastise them for wasting their time out there when they could just as easily be wasting it in here with me.

My eye was drawn to a folder lying next to the chair that seemed even more ancient than the books standing guard around it on the shelves. I think it must have been the sheer age of it that caused me to pick it up. The folder was entitled “Aesop’s Failed Fables: Lessons Time Forgot.” Inside the folder was plenty of evidence that this was what was left of someone’s life work. Years of research and annotations on obscure Greek texts, left abandoned in the library, created a chilling epitaph for some poor soul’s attempt at literary greatness.

As I flipped through the folder, I stopped on an old text that had been translated from the Greek. The title of this lost fable apparently translates loosely as: “The Woodsman and the Beaver.” If you’re not familiar with the work of Aesop, I invite you to visit the various collections on the internet or in books. His fables use familiar people and personified animals to tell tales to which some moral is attached. Most of them are very short in length and leave us with such pithy advice as: “Gossips are to be seen and not heard”, “Birds of a feather flock together”, “Pleasure bought with pains, hurts”, etc.

I had never heard of “The Woodsman and the Beaver” and for good reason. According to the annotations, Aesop and his literary agent were forbidden to sell the rights to this story by the Athenian government who felt that people might wrongly connect the stubborn foolishness of the woodsman to them. So this fable lived in obscurity for centuries. Until now.

The Woodsman and the Beaver

A woodsman went down to the river to drink after a long day felling trees. He wanted to build a magnificent wooden structure which would change the way people lived forever. But building such a structure was hard work and while the woodsman was very good at chopping down trees, he knew very little about how to assemble them into his structure. On this day as he sipped from the river, he noticed a beaver carefully constructing his dam. He watched with great interest as the beaver gnawed through logs and carefully arranged them so they would gain strength from the other logs, twigs, and sticks already in the dam.

“Hey there, beaver!” the woodsman shouted, “Can you teach me to build like that?”

The beaver, looking slightly annoyed, replied “I can try, but my experience with humans is that they like shortcuts and the mighty rivers forgive no shortcuts.”

For the next several days, however, the beaver showed the woodsman how the strength of the dam depended on the placement of even the smallest twig. The woodsman was eager to get going on his building and became annoyed with the methodical behavior of the beaver.

“What I want are results that people can see, beaver!” the woodsman exclaimed. “If I can put the big logs together to make the tallest building in the city, who’s to notice if a few twigs are missing?”

The beaver sighed, “But counting big logs is not the measure of the dam. We know a dam is good by how the water treats it.”

“But I can’t count water or talk to water and neither can anyone else,” the woodsman muttered. “If I tell people that the water respects only the big logs we can count, that should be good enough.”

The woodsman started off back into the forest with great enthusiasm. While he really had no idea how his structure was going to work, he knew that if he built it big enough, the people would come from miles around to admire it.

The beaver took a few days off from his labors to watch the woodsman as he began to stack the big logs. From time to time he tried to offer advice.

“Woodsman, you know that the logs of the foundation must be tied together so that they offer support to each other.”

“Yeah, but if a couple of them stand alone that will be fine.”

“The material you use to lash the logs together must be itself of good quality.”

“Yeah, but it is less work to use the rope that is near by.”

“You should not add to the weight of the structure until you know it can support the weight it already has.”

“Yeah, but that takes time and time is money.”

Each piece of advice offered by the beaver was met with the same kind of response. And each response started with “Yeah, but….” as if the woodsman was conceding that he knew that his goal was far more important than the details he would need to make it work.

On the day of the grand unveiling, people came from all over the city to see what the woodsman had done. The beaver, being a little shy around humans, sat at the edge of the forest with the other animals to watch. His warnings and complaints about the structure began to annoy the other animals. “Beaver,” they said, “all your complaining means little…the woodsman has his structure anyway.”

As the woodsman pulled the rope to reveal his structure, people had only about a minute to admire it before children began to climb on it and played gleefully on its logs. The woodsman bellowed “You see, I have created the next great thing!”

The words had barely echoed back from the edge of the woods when the entire structure collapsed killing everyone around it. In his final words before succumbing to his injuries, the woodsman exclaimed “Yeah, but it sure looked pretty.”

The moral of the story: Beavers know a lot more about education reform than woodsman or Republicans.

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