I discovered something not long ago that I find incredible. It’s been on my mind ever since. However, judging from the reaction of most people, they either already know about it, or aren’t as impressed as I am. So, I’ve taken to explaining it even more forcefully, which is like speaking louder to a deaf person.
Here’s what I learned: unlike nearly every other animal, zebras aren’t camouflaged to blend with their environment to hide from predators. Instead, they are camouflaged to blend with each other to hide from predators. This, even though no two zebras have the same pattern of stripes.
If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, why in God’s name an animal would stand out like a sore thumb in its natural habitat, this is the reason. I’ve been in the Maasai mara in Kenya, which is a reserve composed of brown grasslands and hills. I could spot a zebra a mile away. Literally. So could, I’m sure, a lion. Interestingly, there were a lot of wildebeest bones lying around, but no zebra bones.
Here’s the thing. You never spot just one zebra. One zebra would never be able to create the whirring blur that confuses hungry lions, so they travel in harems and herds. When danger threatens, they whip into a striped tumult of panting breath, pounding hooves, and dust that must be jarring for anything that isn’t a zebra.
What’s a poor predator to do? Wait. Wait for what? The thing that sets an individual zebra apart from the rest of the herd. It could be a blood stain, a strange gallop, or eyes like Marty Feldman. Once spotted, the lion, hyena, leopard, or whatever is stalking them, makes his move. At that point, it becomes a matter of timing.
The lesson? Individuality kills but conformity saves lives.
As far as I can tell (you know, because of my extensive zoological training), conformity to each other instead of the environment does three things for zebras: (1) forces greater reliance on the herd, (2) increases the grazing area, since zebras are not restricted to one type of environment, and (3) offers better protection from predators.
It didn’t take me long to make the comparison to students. Certainly, students constitute a herd, blending with each other rather than the university. But I never realized that part of their behavior was to avoid getting picked off by me, the crouching hyena. The unfortunate impact of “zebra mentality” is an attitude of non-engagement in the classroom. Don’t stand out, don’t answer questions, and–for God’s sake!–don’t make eye contact. You might as well have a red X on your forehead. You’ll be eaten alive.
On a fundamental level, behaving in a non-engaged way might work in the grasslands. It’s even highly effective for riding the D train. But for learning, especially at private-school prices, it’s definitely the wrong approach. On a deeper level, it subverts learning and turns students into passive observers as if the classroom were just another video game.
Why do they do it? I have to wonder about the educational system that brought them to the university. Many students look beaten down and suspicious. They can’t all be hungover. Is it the result of standardized teaching? Just the way students look nowadays? I suspect there’s more to it than that, because I’ve noticed that non-engagement extends beyond the classroom. They don’t seem to be excited about anything. I am reminded of Voltaire’s line about God being a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.
Frankly, I don’t understand zebras or their mentality, which is probably a good thing, because I’m a human being. Why blend when you can stand out? Why hide when you can engage? Why slouch along when you can fly? Why conform when you can be proud of who and what you are?
If what students are afraid of is taking a risk, well, guess what? This is business school. It’s all about risk. It’s like life that way.
Next class, I am going to remind them that they are not zebras. We’ll see what happens.
Photo of two zebras by Frans Van Heerden. Note to self: “I’m a holy man minus the holiness” (E.M Forster).