Mohini The White Tiger and Learned Helplessness

I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks recently (part of a NY’s resolution), and have been struck by the number that say something along the lines of “school is broken” and “how do we make children like school?”.

There’s a sad story about a tiger called Mohini that Tara Brach tells as follows.

Mohini was a regal white tiger who lived for many years at the Washington D.C. National Zoo. For most of those years her home was in the old lion house—a typical twelve-by-twelve-foot cage with iron bars and a cement floor. Mohini spent her days pacing restlessly back and forth in her cramped quarters. Eventually, biologists and staff worked together to create a natural habitat for her. Covering several acres, it had hills, trees, a pond and a variety of vegetation. With excitement and anticipation they released Mohini into her new and expansive environment. But it was too late. The tiger immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area twelve by twelve feet was worn bare of grass.

This is only a story – see Bob’s comment below – and should not be read as a criticism of the real zoo or zookeepers. As a story, though, like any fiction, one could be read in different ways, I suppose.

In one, the cage might represent school, and Mohini’s retreat might equate to that adult refrain that students have lost the “ability to think for themselves”, have an overreliance on spoonfeeding, or even have had their creativity killed and the like. In this, like in many of those TED talks, it’s the cage that’s the problem.

In another, though, it is not the cage that is the problem but the adults. The cage might represent what a student thinks they know and like, and the habitat a world of unfamiliar but more rewarding opportunity. The sad part for me is not that Mohini retreated, but that the staff do not appear to have kept on trying to bring Mohini out.

[Picture: Smithsonian Institution]

3 comments on “Mohini The White Tiger and Learned Helplessness”

  1. I am a rabbi preparing for the Jewish High Holidays and plan on using Mohini story in my discussions. I heard it told by a Jewish spiritual leader and teacher with the lesson that we should look at the artificial boundaries we put up for ourselves. I really appreciate your last point about the part the zoo staff could have played in bringing Mohini out. It leaves me with the question to ask when I teach this, who can we ask for help to get out of our boundaries?

    Thank you for putting this out there.

  2. This story is blatantly false. Yes the United States did receive a white tiger as a gift from India in 1960. President Eisenhower received this gift on the front lawn of the White House. Mohini lived for almost 20 years, gave birth several times and was finally humanly put down. During her lifetime she was moved during the construction of her new compound to another zoo, she was not left caged up in a 12 x 12 cell! There is plenty of reliable accounts from newspapers and periodicals from this time. I’d suggest fact checking these stories before using them as illustrations in public.

  3. Thanks for putting me straight. I’d been less interested in the veracity of the story than the metaphor, but you are right – if institutions are named I should have checked. I’ve updated the post to reflect that.

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