National Collegiate Honors Council

 

Date of this Version

Fall 2003

Comments

Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 4:2, Fall/Winter 2003. Copyright © 2003 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.

Abstract

Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? Each man touches a different part of the animal (its side, trunk, tusk, leg, ear, and tail) and pronounces his find a wall, a snake, a spear, a tree, a fan, or a rope. As the poet Godfrey Saxe (1816-1997) wrote of the blind men in his retelling of this ancient Indian parable, “Though each was partly in the right, they all were in the wrong” (Galdone, 1973). This allegory quickly encapsulates the benefits, and the challenges, of seeing, or not seeing, something through multiple perspectives—in short, it illuminates the perils of hasty reductionism.

Consider that when people ask “Can I see that?,” 99% of the time what they truly mean is “Would you please hand that object to me so I can hold it in my own hands and turn it around, to see and feel and otherwise experience all sides of it?” This is what most of us mean by “seeing”: looking at something not from a distance or from one angle but closely, from all perspectives. Then, too, blind people do “see” with their hands, just as infants and toddlers “see” objects with their mouths. You can conduct your own “elephant” exercise in the classroom, both with blindfolded and “sighted” students, preferably using an unusually shaped or otherwise complex and unfamiliar item that cannot be described or understood from a single perspective.