Fish, Trees, and Judgement

“Everyone is a genius. If you judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree then the fish will think he is stupid.”

This is a very famous quote. Many say it came from Albert Einstein, but the evidence for this is lacking. Still, it is a good quote. A quote that is often used in debates about standardized tests, and education in general. It is a clever statement, but I don’t believe it holds up to critical examination.

First of all, if everyone is a genius, then why do we celebrate genius so much? I am one of those people who believe in human diversity. As such, I am obligated to believe there are people out there who are geniuses, and people out there who are not. Just because you are not a genius doesn’t mean you deserve any less dignity or respect than someone who is more intellectually gifted. You don’t have to call a stupid person stupid. That would be rude. But you don’t have to call a stupid person a genius either. That would be a lie.

People trying to operate in polite society are walking on a precipice. On one side, rudeness. On the other, dishonesty. It is very difficult to walk the line in between. That is why so many people don’t even try.

Tightrope Walker

Pictured: Operating in polite society.

Second, I agree that you should not judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, but doing so would not make the fish feel stupid. The fish doesn’t care. It probably doesn’t even know what a tree is. If you are testing fish for their ability to climb trees then you are the one who should feel stupid.

If we are going to judge fish, then what criteria should we use? Should we judge a fish by its ability to swim? That seems reasonable, but still doesn’t get you anywhere. Fish are supposed to be good swimmers. Judging a fish by its ability to swim will not help you find a genius fish. If will only help you single out the deficient ones. Judging fish by their ability to swim will sort out the poor swimmers. It doesn’t help the good fish swim better, and it will probably make the bad fish feel worse.

Dead Fish

“Stupid fish. Can’t even swim…

What if we were judging fish and discovered one, just one, that did have the ability to climb a tree. Maybe it can’t climb as well as a monkey, but it still climbs somehow. What would we think of the fish then? Would that tree-climbing fish be considered a genius, or a freak? Would that change the way we view all the other fish? Would we encourage the other fish to climb, or try and force the climbing fish back into the sea where it belongs?

If there was a fish that could climb trees, what would the other fish think? Maybe they would celebrate his (or her) achievement. More likely they would ostracize the arboreal piscine for being different. Maybe the quote ought to be revised to say, “Don’t judge a fish by his ability to climb a tree, even if he is very good at it.”

climbing fish

“No climbing. You hear?”

It might be mean to say, but I don’t believe everyone is a genius. Most fish can swim, and that is nothing to celebrate. Some fish are bad at swimming, and we should look out for them. And a few very special fish can climb trees. These are the genius fish. They can do amazing, unexpected things. And they will die if you don’t force them back into the water.

Fish Dinner

These fish all had advanced degrees. A lot of good it did them…