Most are familiar with the old story known commonly as “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” The tale is traced to the Indian Subcontinent from where it spread across many regions, cultures and religious traditions. Much later it was popularized in a poem by the 19th century American poet John Godfrey Saxe I (June 2, 1816 – March 31, 1887) bringing the story more prominently into the narrative of western culture as well.
The Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!—what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
This story has been coming to my mind more frequently these days as the ambiguities and pluralities of our global society continue to converge, yielding more cultural relativism and the constant need for contextual framing. The receding of the nation-state as a means for defining commonality is becoming more obvious as information and communication technologies increasingly facilitate the connections among peoples across traditional geographic boundaries.
Recently I heard this referred to as a “many to many” reality of life in the modern world. The context for this reference was about journalism and news media as we see it now played out in a relentless 24-hour news cycle. We can be very selective about our sources for news, information and perspective to the point that we only know what we choose to follow. Accordingly, the reality we project is one of our choosing. Like those groping to define an elephant in the absence of sight, our ideas are limited by our intellectual reach in a setting with limited options for understanding.
There are important implications for education here. We live at a time when we seem to be satisfied with interpreting that which we come into contact, relying in simple answers within our existing intellectual frameworks. Yet education is intended to draw us out and enable us to rethink, reshape and redesign our understanding. It’s the equivalent of having the time and space necessary to collectively share in the experience of describing, documenting, defining and disseminating our observations with others to make us all more aware of the broader reality. It sounds a lot like a liberal education.
Any telling of this old tale would not be complete without the modern day reinvention of the narrative taken from the perspective of the elephant…
Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’ After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.
Sometimes I feel as if there are a lot of “elephants” wandering around that defy our attempts to define them – instead they define us. I am less inclined these days to define too quickly and look for the perspective of other learners to enlarge my understanding. Perhaps by embracing some shared intellectual modesty we can rely on each other to develop a shared understanding about some of the challenges we find to be bigger than our capacity to define accurately. There is safety in numbers when we are working with elephants.