The Nihilistic Cruelty of “Fish Is Fish”

Cracked identifies five classic children’s books with horrible hidden messages, which reminded me I hadn’t transferred my reaction to Fish is Fish to this blog. I wrote this the day it happened.

Some people think I’m mocking Stanford with these stories. Not usually; certainly not in this one. While I don’t mention his name here, the elementary teaching program director is Ira Lit, who took over responsibility for me after my grievance. He was incredibly helpful; I will be forever grateful to him. And he wrote a wonderful book on the results of a voluntary desegregation program called The Bus Kids, which I highly recommend.

Written June 27, 2008

After lunch, we were read aloud to by the head of the elementary school program.

The book, “Fish Is Fish”, tells the tale of a tadpole and minnow who were friends until the tadpole started growing legs. “Fish are fish and frogs are frogs”, the young frog tells his friend, and leaps out of the water to live on land.

He came back for a visit, telling his old friend about the amazing sights he’s seen on land: people, cows, and so on.

The fish becomes obsessed with seeing this new world, and finally determined that he would visit–legs or no legs. He leaped out of the water and instantly started to strangle. Fortunately, the frog found him and rescued him by pushing him back into the water.

Back in the water, the fish looked around and decided he liked his beautiful world. After all, Fish is Fish.

So we were read to, and then invited to opine about the learning lessons from the story. My fellow students thought the story showed about the limits of teaching. The frog had failed to properly instruct the fish on the new world and the fish’s place in it. Others offered that an important part of learning is to understand the necessary tools.

I stood all this for as long as I could, and then raised my hand. “I’m sorry, but I thought it was an incredibly bleak tale. The fish learned that some of his friends will move on and become ‘better’ people with more power and knowledge. But he can’t do that. He’s left behind. Even if he takes incredible initiative and shows extraordinary bravery, he’ll only find death if he tries for more. But fortunately, his superior friend, the evolved one, can rescue him from his stupidity and chastise him. The fish has learned that he should stay where he is and not strive for more.”

The elementary program director nods. “Yes, that’s not an uncommon reaction.”

“Phew.”

At least it wasn’t just me.

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