The Elephant in the Room

There’s a parable that’s been shared in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts that goes something like this:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.” – Wikipedia

While the story is about perceptions and perspectives, it’s also a lesson about how each of our viewpoints may be limited in scope, even through our best intentions. While we may see something one way, another person may it very differently. Based on our limited perspectives and the information we have, our descriptions may be accurate. But truth can be a complicated animal.

I was reminded of the elephant story recently. I was attending a presentation led by an administrator from another institution. In the presentation, the speaker discussed the pressing challenges facing education today. While he spoke broadly about K-12 education, he also outlined the significant issues facing colleges and universities in the coming years. He talked about how higher education as an industry needed to be aware of “consumers’ return on investment” and be conscious of the experiences of “the end user.” He discussed making sure that our “credentialing” reflected “workplace-ready skills” and that institutions of higher education needed to provide the “highest quality for the lowest cost.”

I have to admit my initial reactions to this speaker’s take on education was mostly one of disdain. Not that I didn’t agree with his perspectives or anything. It was just so foreign to how I viewed this awesome, communal enterprise of teaching and learning. While I tend to focus more on the interactions and transformations that happen through our educational efforts, this administrator was viewing education as a business transaction. From his point of view, education was an industry where a consumer purchases a product. And while I tend to focus on concepts like building learning communities or fostering critical thinking, he was talking about education strictly as a commercial venture. To him, higher education is a transactional experience, like a person buying a toaster. And our job as educators was to make the best and most affordable toaster we can.

I realize that I may be overly cynical with his perspective. Administrators deal with the day-to-day financial aspects of our institutions and have to see things from a much more comprehensive point of view. While educators are working with students in their classes, administrators are charged with sustaining the long-term economic viability of our institutions. And while our work may be different, they are interconnected. Like the elephant’s tail is connected to its body which is connected to its head, the magical stuff that happens inside the classroom is inextricably connected to the work being done by administrators who focus on the economics of our institutions. Returning to the elephant parable, it’s like I’m the blind man feeling the head of the elephant while they’re the ones holding on to a much different part. And though our perceptions may be very different, they’re both accurate.

I’m just glad that I’m holding on to the part I am. Some of the other parts stink.

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