Thursday, November 17, 2011

Of received wisdom and turkeys

My subject today is turkeys--no, not the Thanksgiving kind. I am talking today about wild turkeys and received wisdom. Do we not usually call someone who is clueless or oblivious a "turkey"? I imagine we've all done that at one time or another.

But I was fortunate enough to catch a documentary last night on our local PBS station about a man named Joe who raised sixteen turkey eggs that he found. He managed to hatch them all, lost only three in their early months, and brought the other thirteen to adulthood. He was, in essence, their mother.

It is a truly beautifully made story about the raising of these turkeys, but aside from just being interesting, it carries a strong yet subtle message: challenge received wisdom.

Here's how: in spending every day with his brood, walking through the woods and examining the flora and fauna through their eyes, Joe learned that they were anything but stupid, anything but clueless, anything but oblivious. They had amazing instinctual knowledge and they had a language. They had distinctly different sounds for different animals they encountered. Our dismissive colloquial use of the term turkey is clearly rooted in a misconception about the intelligence of these birds.

So how does that connect with received wisdom? I often talk with students about historians' need to question historical truisms. What I mean by that term is stories like Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac, or the idea that Pocahontas saved John Smith, or that the Salem witch trials were merely the result of some girls' collective hysteria. If historians never questioned these "old chestnuts," how would we as a people ever learn the truth about our past?

So, the collective wisdom about turkeys being bird brains is obviously untrue (and we know that now because someone took the time to investigate it), neither Washington nor anyone threw a silver dollar across the Potomac, John Smith was probably spared because he acted bravely in the face of imminent death, and the Salem witch trials had more to do with old grudges and uppity women.

Question what we think we know. Maybe it's correct, but maybe it's not.

"My life as a turkey" on PBS