Mice That Roar and the journey to the Ph.D.

Mice That Roar and the journey to the Ph.D.

A Vietnamese proverb about a mouse sticking his head in the mouth of a large carnivore, at first consideration, may seem a strange way to envision the road to PhD.

“…the mouse does not know life until it has been into the mouth of the cat.”
-Vietnamese proverb

One interpretation of the Vietnamese proverb is to value life because we never know when we’re about to lose it.  In other words, enjoy the present.  That view, offered up by WikiAnswers.com, is exceptionally shallow and even misleading.

A more useful interpretation of this proverb, when seen in the context of a PhD program, is that of a multi-layered metaphor symbolizing the challenges–and changes–ahead for all of those embarking on the journey towards significant personal growth and intellectual maturation as validated by the conferral of the Doctoral Degree.

When we see the “mouse” as far more than a furry “meal on wheels,” that the proverb is in fact a metaphor for what will surely be a somewhat lengthy, and at times, risky journey toward enlightenment and discovery, the daredevil mouse becomes more akin to the “mouse that roared.”

If we “reverse engineer” (work backwards from the product to deduce the process), we find ourselves asking rhetorical questions based on the most important word in our language: why?

  • Why does the “story” begin with the mouse having been to the cat’s mouth?
  • Why would the mouse put him/herself in such a suicidal position?
  • What were the motivations behind the action?  Was it rational or was it irrational?
  • How did the mouse escape the cat?

We ask such questions out of curiosity, but also we need answers to get to the bottom of the story–to focus less on the journey and more on the destination.

What is the Truth?  What really happened to bring the mouse and the cat together. What miracle led to the mouse’s escape? Presumably, a wiser mouse, one with valuable lessons to impact to his/her fellow mice about cats and how one’s life changes after such an encounter.

Why do we need the Truth?  Why not just be satisfied with the earlier interpretation that the proverb meant to simply enjoy life?

If the “mouse” was Everyman, and the “cat” symbolized life’s developmental journey, then long-term survival will depend on finding out the Truth–“the rest of the story,” as journalist Paul Harvey often explained.  An appropriate analogy can be offered here that long-term survival in the journey to the PhD will depend on an unswerving commitment to finding the Truth about our respective areas of focus.

As a metaphor about a significant life experience, albeit an anthropomorphized mouse, the proverb has much to offer those whose future success depends on applying “critical thinking.”  If it were an onion, it would have many layers to peel.

Primary sources and critical thinking

Historians and researchers understandably place a great deal of importance on “primary sources.”  When we consult the original primary source–a good dictionary in this instance–for the phrase “critical thinking,” we can establish an important etymological foundation for understanding its relevance for all of who faced or are facing a PhD program.

The word “critical” traces its origins to Greek (kriterion, a means of judging) and krinein, to separate or choose.  In fact, the origins begin in Indo-European with the term “skeri” meaning to cut, separate or sift.  (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1981)  These roots provide a better understanding for the evolution of our word, critical.

The term “critical” can and often is used to mean an inclination to judge severely.  However, it has many more nuances and meanings that apply to us at this stage in the doctoral journey.  For example, the phrase “critical thinking,” should include the following meanings and core values (operationalized into behaviors) that reflect careful and exact judging based on thorough knowledge through detailed investigations–often accompanied by published arguments articulating the reasons and rationale behind the assessment.

The destination of the “critical thinking” journey is Truth–arrival at a level of subject matter awareness and mastery conferring an exceptional level of understanding–that understanding being characterized by:

  • agreement with fact;
  • accuracy;
  • reliability;
  • absence of equivocation; and,
  • consistency with fact and reality.

“What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires — desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

-Bertrand Russell

Typically, such journeys of critical thinking put established “truths” at risk or in peril.  They often bring us to important turning points where decisive changes are needed, thus fulfilling more of the inherent meaning of “critical.”

Intellectual courage is often tested.  Certainly, a fundamental honesty and commitment to fact-based decision making and interpretation is a necessity.  Otherwise, more of Russell’s myths will be the likely outcome.

Bensley (2006) suggests that Arthur Conan Doyle (fictional detective Sherlock Holmes) and Sir Alfred Russel Wallace (a theory of evolution), were drawn to spiritualism (a religious belief popular at the time in which the spirits of the dead can be contacted, usually through “mediums”), by a “problem with their disposition to think critically.”  His case is strong, but is weakened somewhat, in my view, by lack of any acknowledgement regarding the relative immaturity of the natural sciences during that period–the fact that while breakthroughs were beginning to be made, there was a great deal of uncertainty among even leading intellects as to what could be considered “science” or “philosophy” or “pseudo-science.”  Their flirtations with spiritualism, while partially accounted for by events in their personal lives, can also be seen as being affected by the relative immaturity of science itself at that time.   

“The weakness of a soul,” pointed out author Eric Hoffer, “is proportionate to the number of truths which must be kept from it.” As Gabennesch (2006)  in “Critical Thinking: What Is It Good for? (In Fact, What Is It?),” outlines the sharp and dangerous decline of critical thinking in America–to the level of disagreement as to its very definition–he points to what could be seen as a dangerous, collective weakening of the souls in most Americans.

Gabennesch (2006) provides a gripping recitation of examples where critical thinking has either been misapplied or perhaps even deliberately ignored in numerous publications and policy.  His lists of examples lead the reader to ask:

If “critical thinking” is the application of rigorous scientific principles where they can be applied, does the evidence suggest that the search and articulation of truth in the social sciences is being subordinated to other priorities and agendas?

Is the lack of objective “truth” in the social sciences as risky and dangerous as it is in the “pure” sciences?

Is it harder (more nuanced?) to find “truth” in the social sciences, so vulnerable to being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of variables inherent in studying humans, their psychology and sociology?

The “implications of the proverb” on a scientific level suggest the difficulties facing professionals in the social sciences when trying to strictly apply “critical thinking,” exacerbated by disagreement as to its very definition.  The numerous examples cited by Gabennesch might also lead readers to question whether enough practitioners have the moral courage needed to find the truth.  Perhaps their experience paralleled that of Sir Walter Raleigh:

“It (is) dangerous to follow truth too near, lest she should kick out our teeth.”

-Sir Walter Raleigh

On a personal and a professional level, the proverb, the subject and the readings combine to deliver a message that could be summarized into:

As a newly minted PhD student you must internalize the concepts and processes of critical thinking since only by doing so can you expect, after significant effort and application, to reach approximate Truth–the ultimate goal for all of us.  It will be more an expedition through uncharted territory with dangers and pitfalls which can only be negotiated successfully by applying the principles of critical thinking.  For many, there will come a time, perhaps more than once, when it seems as if they were the proverbial mouse having its head in the cat’s mouth.  Is not critical thinking the key to a successful escape from the “lion’s den”?  Once out of the “shadow of the valley of death,” will the endorphins kick in and we find that we will, henceforth fear no evil?  Having survived the trials, will we find life especially meaningful?

The “mouse in the cat’s mouth” proverb can also be seen as an implied metaphor–applied to the PhD quest–for the universal “theme of initiation” monomyth.  As explained by Joseph Campbell (1973), the initiate Hero, departs the normal world, seeks supernatural assistance, faces a road of trials, reaches an intellectual apotheosis having reached the fount of knowledge and imbibed deeply.  Finally, the goal is reached–the ultimate boon–the journey from novice to craftsman is complete.  The metaphorical lesson for those seeking a PhD who apply critical thinking rigorously and at times unflinchingly in the face of dangers and pitfalls, will earn the ultimate boon, the achievement of the degree.  Perhaps more importantly, mastery offers freedom from academic or intellectual “death,” and therefore the freedom to really live.

Perhaps following the yellow brick road will be worth it after all, said the mice that roared.  Perhaps the first interpretation of the proverb has validity here, as well.

If we were to consider this question from a cultural perspective that was not committed to Truth, as reached and verified through generally accepted (in our culture) scientific principles, then the mouse as metaphor would surely have a different interpretation.  This, too, is useful for us in human development, a social science–to keep in mind differences in perception that are culture-based.


Bensley, D. Alan. (Jul/Aug 2006) Why Great Thinkers Sometimes Fail to Think Critically. The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 30, Issue 4, pg. 47.

Campbell, Joseph (1973) The Hero With A Thousand Faces. New York: Princeton University Press.

Gabennesch, Howard. (Mar/Apr 2006) Critical Thinking: What Is It Good for? (In Fact, What Is It?). The Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 30, Issue 2, pg. 36, 6 pgs.

About Tracy Connors

Tracy D. Connors graduated from Jacksonville University (AA), University of Florida (BA), the University of Rhode Island (MA), and Capella University (Ph.D. with Distinction, human services management, 2013). Ph.D. (Honorary), Leadership Excellence, Jacksonville University, December, 2013. Designated a "Distinguished Dolphin" by Jacksonville University, Feb. 2, 2010.

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