I went to see Project Nim at my local arts theater this morning. I never saw a trailer for the movie, just a random poster at the theater. Always on the look-out for things to enhance what I teach in class, I wondered about its merit as a classroom tool. Was it relevant? Was it interesting? Could I show it during the year or after the AP test? Yes. Yes. I don’t know why not.
Many AP teachers already know, but Project Nim was a study led by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace in which a chimpanzee was raised by humans in order to see if he would have the capacity to learn language- not just to learn certain words through modeling and reinforcement, but to put them together into grammatically correct communications. The chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky (Terrace had hoped to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory of innate human ability for language, hence the play on his name), was taken from his mother when he was two weeks old and raised as a New York boy who learned sign language to communicate with his family. The documentary follows Nim from his initial placement in the LaFarge household through his subsequent placements both during the study after its conclusion. However, rather than focusing mostly on the science behind the study, it really focuses mostly on Nim himself and the relationships that he formed with his various caretakers.
The film was interesting, and I would recommend that psychology teachers go out and see it. I had the expectation that this documentary was going to be most relevant to the units on cognition and use of language, but it ended up even more applicable to the unit on research methods and psychological ethics. It raised questions about Nim’s rights as a test subject and about the objectivity necessary in psychological science. At the least, it could spark a lively debate about ethics but could also delve into the complex relationships that human beings have with different animals as is addressed in Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals by Hal Herzog. (See this earlier THSP post about Hal and his book.)
The Chimp That Learned Sign Language (NPR, with video)
The Project Nim website (which was down earlier today)
--posted by Steve