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 houseā€”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 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]

What is a tiger for?

Still more from John Kay’s Obliquity:

“For years I struggled with the idea that if a profit could not be the defining purpose of a corporation, there must be something else that must be its defining purpose. If business did not maximise profit, what did it maximise? I was making the same mistake as those victims of the teleological fallacy who struggled for centuries with questions like ‘What is a tiger for?’ Tigers, as we no understand, are not the product of any purposive design … Tigers are good at being tigers because adaptation has hones them to be well adapted to the daily life of tigerdom. There is not more, or less, to it than that.


A good oil company is good at being an oil company, just as a good university is good at being a university, a good harpist is good at playing the harp and a good dentist is good at filling teeth. There is no defining purpose to these activities distinct from the activities themselves.