Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Talking-Bear Zombie Apocalypse


     When I was a kid, Yogi Bear was a very popular cartoon character. As a child, I had no idea that the cartoon bear was named after the celebrated, Yankees baseball player, Yogi Berra. Even to this day, Hanna-Barbera (the animation studio that created Fred Flintstone, George Jetson, and Scooby Doo in addition to Jellystone's most notorious picnic basket swindler) vehemently denies they named their conniving brown bear after the baseball legend, but it's hard to believe that in 1958, when H-B studios introduced TV audiences to Ranger Smith's woodland nemesis, that Berra (by then a three-time American League MVP) was not what they had in mind when they choose to lop the “ah” off of Berra in naming their character. While it's easy to understand why Hanna-Barbera did not want to pay any royalties to an already wealthy sport hero, it's nearly impossible to accept that the phonetic similarity between the two names is mere coincidence. As Thoreau famously wrote in the fall of 1854 after some dairymen had been accused of watering down their product, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
     Throughout my elementary school days, Saturday mornings were magical: no school and, for a few sweet golden hours, cartoons. I guess you would have to be pretty close to my age to appreciate the magic of Saturday morning cartoons in those days. Today, people can watch cartoons at any time day or night by pulling up a YouTube video, popping in a DVD, or turning to a 24 hour cartoon cable channel. But in my childhood, we could only see cartoons on Saturday mornings or (if we were lucky enough to get to go to the movies) sometimes between the feature film and the coming attractions. The other thing that made cartoons magical while I was growing up in the 1960's is that the studios in those days were not under any governmental dictates to make their products “educational” for kids or “palatable” to parents. No one in those days needed to learn anything from the hijinks of Bugs Bunny, who regularly dabbled in cross-dressing, or Yogi, a bear who felt no need to consider the ethics of filling his stomach with the contents of some random stranger's "pic-a-nic basket." Today producers who make all the new cartoons have to consider their “educational value” because somehow in the past 50 years, American Society has been brainwashed into believing that every single moment of a kid's childhood needs to be “educational.” Do you want to know why American Society is so fascinated with the “zombie apocalypse”? It's because it's already happened, but instead of a virus that makes people stumbling morons that have an appetite for brains, it's a meme that says our kids are only as smart as their last test. In the movies, zombies hunger for brains; in our current “educational climate,” our students hunger for authentic learning.
     The reason I started this post off by talking about Yogi Bear is that his catch phrase was “I'm smarter than the average bear.” That fact that Yogi walked around in a hat and a necktie and he could talk was certainly a tip off that he was intellectually superior to the typical hibernating/honey-loving North American Ursidae, but let's remember that it was Yogi's own self-assessment; Yogi Bear never actually took a standardized test to demonstrate that his intelligence lie above the 50th percentile. Smokey the Bear also wears a hat and can talk so Yogi isn't unique in either his fashion or vocal abilities, but I think it would be pretty safe to predict that compared to most bears we would find in the woods, both Smokey and Yogi would completely skew the bell curve if they were ever tested. Notice, by the way, that while Smokey and Yogi both wear hats, neither wear long sleeve shirts; that's because the 2nd Amendment protects their rights to show off their arms.
     The point about Yogi being smarter than most bears is that even if it's true, in the grand scheme of things it does not really matter much, if at all. The average bear doesn't have the intellectual or verbal capacity to consider its ability to acquire and apply knowledge, and even if through some massive, immediate mutation, all bears gained the capacity to think about their relative intelligence compared to the other bears they know, bears would still be too concerned with surviving hunger and hunters to care. Even if bears are capable of learning to ride bicycles (as some circus bears do), that particular ability has little relevance to surviving in the woods (let's face it, there are plenty of redneck hunters who would love nothing more than to shoot a bear off a bicycle if they had the chance, but I digress).
     As far as humans are concerned, being smarter than the average bear doesn't mean squat. Even in his cartoon world, Yogi does not get any real respect for his verbal, fashion, and problem-solving abilities. He still has to steal from humans to stave off the unrelenting appetite of his bear anatomy. A bear needs around 20,000 calories a day to prepare for hibernation; that's a lot of picnic baskets to purloin especially if you've got a little sidekick to feed. Why Yogi keeps Boo-Boo around defies his supposedly superior bear-intelligence – the only thing Boo-Boo seems to offer is criticism for not buying into Ranger Smith's propaganda that talking bears need to abide by human law. No, Boo-Boo, no; bears should stick it to The Man. Bears have no representatives in human legislatures; bears need to be bears and have their own moral codes based upon their own obligations to each other. Yogi needs to tell Boo-Boo that following the Man's law will only get his head sent to a taxidermist and mounted above Ranger Smith's fireplace.
     So what do cartoon bears have to do with the current slow death of modern education? Just this: there is an important difference between education and propaganda. Education is a human right to knowledge and understanding that will help people both secure their economic prosperity and understand their social obligations to each other; propaganda is information designed to control the thinking of others to manipulate them into making decisions against their own best interests. Real education teaches people to think for themselves; propaganda teaches people not to question what they are being told and that if they end up crushed by a system run for the betterment of an elite few, then its their own fault for not learning to move their pegs quickly enough to the few holes allowed by the system.
     The educational system of the United States has been taken over by the corporate propagandists who both supply the standardized tests and then turn around and sell the remediation materials for the students who fail to achieve at their “acceptable” levels. State governments have been hypnotized by the money being offered by the testing corporations to believe that “the harder we make the tests, the more the students will learn.” I may be only slightly smarter than the average bear, but I have 30 years of classroom experience, and if there is a single thing I know about education, then it's that no one learns anything because it may or may not be on a test. People acquire knowledge because they become engaged in the material based on a wider variety of psychological motivations. Telling students that they will need to know something because it will show up on a test someday is not only the most disengaging method for providing content, it offers fear and anxiety as a reason to learn something. Fear and anxiety not only make for poor inducements to learning, but they suck the life out of children and turn them into zombies only capable of choosing the one right answer out of four on multiple choice questions. These zombies do not hunger for the brains of others; they hunger for understanding. Perhaps they hunger the most to know why they can't be allowed to grow up and learn at their own pace instead of being told how inferior they are for not learning at some mythical rate predicted by a chart with an up-sloping diagonal line.
     There is a simple solution to the madness that comes from “the harder the test, the more they will learn.” State governors and their legislators need to be required to take the tests they are now requiring for high school graduation, and their scores need to be reported on a government website (just as teachers evaluations based on their own students test scores are now being required). This would bring a great dose of sanity to the insanity of the corporate testing machine who increase their profits through requiring more frequent and more difficult exams that require schools and parents to shell out more for remedial materials. A testing corporation's hunger for money is analogous to a bear's hunger for calories – but that's the type of thinking governors, legislators, and departments of education need not worry about – no one is making them accountable to the new, harder tests that they are requiring. Here's another question they apparently do not need to answer: if a state's dropout rate is already more than a third of the student population, who is really being helped by making it more difficult to graduate? If you answered “C,” the corporations who believe that only money can do the real talking in American politics, then you were correct. Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.


  1. I have children in grade school. Currently in New York state the standardized test is a requirement for moving up a grade from 3rd grade and up. Teachers, in order to receive good evaluations, must achieve a minimum pass rate on these tests. This has resulted in a "teach the test" mentality. In the age of research, statistics, and psychology in determining how to best help a child learn, I honestly believe that my children are receiving a vastly inferior education than I did in the 1980's. It's sad that "no child left behind" has resulted in "no child gets ahead."

  2. Thanks, Dave, I couldn't agree with you more.

  3. I really enjoyed this one (and look forward to the next). Your bearcentric blog brings back many old memories of Ohio University and its role in killing and gutting a small-world mindset as well as childhood fantasies through the English, journalism and various humanities departments. Brief by comparison, teaching for a period in Southern California classrooms was a spotlight on the challenges teachers face, as well as the substantial impacts you have made. They can appear at the oddest times as one progresses (or hits brick walls) in life. Thank you, Dr. Dudding.

    From college coursework to present, I've encountered a general disdain for nature writers from other genres. I appreciate when I observe it alive and well in its own field or creeping into others. Pop culture's connections to the wild kingdom (animated or not) are irresistible. I enjoyed your analogies between cartoon bruins and the politics and perceptions of public education. Thinking back to that day you brought out your guitar, I realize that chalk boards and boring books are teaching tools best tossed aside to address multiple learning styles. After all, Yogi didn't learn English fluency, phonemic rules or spelling by memorizing his John Deere letters. Smokey didn't earn his BS degree in forest management rooted to a desk filling the wastebasket with crumpled writing assignments for Mrs. McGraw-Hill.

    Thank again! (I still can't get your songs out of my head.)


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