Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Penguins

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By: Kim Lilienthal

Of all the things I tend to talk about and care about incessantly – education equity, words and language, writing, the environment, community engagement – there is perhaps one passion that has pervaded all of these interests; one love I’ve held close to my heart for my entire life: Penguins. I think being born in January had something to do with it. The remnants of Christmas and the two impending months of winter caused me to be born into a love for penguins simply because they were everywhere. I learned how to read when I was three or four and avidly read penguin fiction and nonfiction and learned about where they lived, how they formed communities, protected each other from predators, and suffered from human environmental impact. I used to tell people my career aspiration was to become a “penguin scientist” before realizing that science is actually really difficult for me to learn about and numbers aren’t my thing. Today, I’m still an avid reader and learner, and feel confident in my ability to say that humans can stand to learn so much from penguins.

Three recent experiences in my college life guided me to this conclusion:

1. I was visiting the Auckland Museum in New Zealand the summer after my first year of college and came face-to-face with a plaster replica of a prehistoric penguin that stood almost 5 feet tall and weighed well over 100 pounds. I cried. Penguins were once formidable creatures that would have been powerful predators of the sea (probably going after more than just krill). We should respect our modern penguins because of their awe-inspiring ancestors.

2. I was in a Barnes & Noble in Midlothian, Virginia after having been treated to my first legal drink in America. I was browsing the “Great Gift” books and came across a coffee table book by Jonathan Chester and Patrick Regan called Flipping Brilliant: A Penguin’s Guide to a Happy Life. I read it, naturally, and discovered that its pages contained everything I needed to know about leadership and service. I cried. I didn’t buy the book then, but later that summer a friend gave it to me, indicating that I was meant to do something with it. I brought it on Discovery, the First-Year Summer Experience I facilitated last summer and shared a bit of penguin wisdom with the group each night to kick off reflection.

3. Someone asked me what a feather-less penguin would look like. I Googled. I came across a story about a penguin born without feathers in a zoo in China whose parents rejected him. He had a condition where his body couldn’t absorb nutrients and was therefore unable to grow feathers. Zookeepers hand-fed him and took extra care of him until he was re-accepted into the community. I cried. Multiple times. In this moment, I realized that penguins were not perfect. They have the capability of hurting each other just like humans do, but are able to recover by showing compassion and acceptance. We, too, can recover.

Inspired by these three instances, I decided to explore how penguins are threaded through the social issues I care most about, and how they might be able to teach us how to alleviate them.

Penguins on Education Equity

Penguins don’t expressly teach their young the skills they need to survive. Instead, young penguins learn together in communities independent from their parents. Eventually, by observing examples and modeling behavior, young penguins eventually make the decision to jump into the ocean to search for their own food. They learn how to swim because they are empowered to discover it for themselves. This style of education allows penguins to learn at their own pace and to apply meaningful, real-world scenarios (like not starving) to their education.

After two years of research about critical thinking and education equity, it seems like our society needs a lot more emphasis on independent learning, student empowerment, and meaningful connections between school and real life. Everyone is capable of learning, but sheltered instruction might not be the best option. Human kids should get the chance to explore, take risks, observe numerous perspectives, and decide for themselves how they best can learn.

Penguins on Words and Language

Despite there being 17 different species of penguins living today, we tend to group them all together into their primary identity – penguin. We see a picture of a penguin and say “It’s a penguin,” not necessarily “It’s a Gentoo,” or “It’s a Humboldt.” Unless maybe you’re 6-year-old me glowing with delight at my new Penguin Encyclopedia.

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Why don’t we do that with people? While embracing identity and celebrating uniqueness is essential to an inclusive society, at our core we’re still all people. Just because the Little Blue is a little less black and white than most of the others doesn’t mean it is less penguin than the ones we see in March of the Penguins (Emperors). There are far too many instances throughout history in which diminishing groups of people solely to one facet of their shared identity resulted in pervasive dehumanizing attitudes, violence, and overall social injustice. Let’s look at people as people first, and use our communication skills to discover what identities make them unique.

Penguins on the Environment

Unlike penguins, humans don’t necessarily have to worry about predators in the environment. Even in places like Australia where it seems like 90% of the wildlife could easily kill you we don’t actively avoid “predators.” Despite our privilege of being at the top of the food chain, there is a growing crisis surrounding Nature Deficit Disorder, an idea first developed by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. One of the key factors contributing to this deficit is the idea that playing outside is dangerous and risky, and children are much safer indoors. While it is certainly possible to get hurt outside by some unhappy accident, nature isn’t actively trying to eat us.

Penguins know nature is sometimes trying to eat them, but they choose to experience it fully. They know that whales, seals, or other predators are lurking in the water, but they also know they need to venture in anyway so they can eat. Sometimes, one penguin selflessly jumps in to test the waters and indicate to the others that it is safe to follow. At other times, a group of penguins may choose to sacrifice one to chance and push him in. Patrick Regan said it best in Flipping Brilliant: “It takes courage to be a leader. Are certain birds predisposed to take the plunge, or are they just unlucky enough to get pushed? We don’t know, but we do know that if no one leads, none will follow and all will go hungry.”

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Penguins on Community Building

Penguins are among the most social of all bird species and thrive on strong communities. They recognize that a community is only strong when its individual members are strong, so they try to accept all types. We all learned from Happy Feet that penguins mate for life, which is supposedly the traditional human ideal. However, many human relationships and family structures are changing, and penguins are way ahead of the times in realizing that is perfectly acceptable. Penguin parents frequently take turns raising their offspring, demonstrating that single parents, same-sex couples, or community parenting are all acceptable and valuable family structures.

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Further, migratory penguins return to the same breeding ground year after year. Regardless of where their migration patterns take them, when it is time to reunite and settle down, penguins clearly have an investment in their communities. We should do the same with our communities and hometowns – explore them, know their geography and their culture, form relationships with the individuals living there and try to nurture and sustain them.

Our communities, our identities, and our relationships could all benefit from learning a little bit from penguins. Let’s see how it goes.

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