We tend to form opinions based on our own shallow understanding of issues but in reality, we should look at the bigger picture.
MOST of us would have heard the old folk tale about the blind men and the elephant when we were children. The story which originated in the Indian sub-continent is about a group of blind men who came to an elephant and touched it to learn what the animal was like.
The one who touched only the leg decided that the elephant was like a pillar and the man who touched only the ear said it was like a fan.
In the same manner the elephant was described as a rope, a spear and wall by the others who had touched only the tail, tusk and side of the elephant. When they compared notes later based on their own experience, they had an argument.
This was a story that many of us grew up with and the meaning we deduced from it was how we should never be too quick to draw conclusions about something without having looked at it from different angles and without considering other possibilities.
The story also reflects instances when people pronounce judgments on certain matters, make sweeping statements and generalisations without seeing things in their entirety.
Many of us have been guilty of this at some point. Although it goes against our better nature to form opinions based on shallow perspectives tainted with some form of prejudice, it is very easy to be drawn in during “policy, programme or person-in- authority-bashing” conversations.
In the company of others who are equally or more disgruntled with certain aspects of the service, it seems almost impossible not to make generalisations based on subjective experience even when our better senses tell us that we are not being fair or seeing the whole picture.
Without doubt, there are times when we have been particularly dissatisfied with directives that are handed down to us which we know through experience are impractical, ineffectual or simply not worth the time and effort.
However, in our disgruntlement, we often tend to run the whole education system down. From curriculum content, assessment methods, to the appointment of people in authority, we find something to criticise.
At our worst we may have even made comments about the incompetence of educational planners, the haphazard implementation of new assessment systems, the unsuitability of chosen texts or school administrators’ lack of vision and commitment.
The whole education mechanism, we declare, is faulty, officers only have self-interests at heart, everyone “up there” is inept and bungling, policies are half-baked or ill-considered, students are unmotivated and so on and so on.
But later, when we have time to reflect, we realise that a lot of what has been said was just venting of frustrations borne out of subjective experiences.
And to ourselves at least, we have to admit, albeit grudgingly, that perhaps not every policy was completely misguided, perhaps not every officer in authority incompetent, and maybe not every programme unworthy.
In fact, many of our conclusions may have been based on a very narrow perspective or shallow experience, pretty much like the blind men and the elephant.
And yet despite being guilty of this myself on a number of occasions whether by agreeing or failing to disagree with flawed arguments against the education system, comments which are weighted with invalid or unsubstantiated inferences, or statements that reek of prejudice, I still get annoyed and defensive when the tables are turned.
Comments and complaints
When comments which put teachers in a bad light are made by other education officers or by the public, it almost puts my own back up.
I take offence for instance when sweeping statements are passed about how teachers seem to complain about everything. I know for a fact that this is not true as not all teachers do that (complain).
And if there are complaints from teachers after the proposed implementation of a certain policy or directive, then perhaps there is something there which is not quite right and needs looking into.
Well, even if the elephant itself is not like a rope, to those who will never get to experience the whole elephant, the tail becomes important. The subjective experience even if it does not represent the whole is still true to the person experiencing it. However, as Greek philosopher Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
In this context, it may be a good idea to take a few steps backward and get a better view of the whole picture.
See the whole elephant for what it is. Instead of focusing on the specifics all the time, we may also need to pay attention to where everything is really heading. Which in turn begs the question, are we really heading anywhere?
What happens if after so much of driving and so many miles covered, we are once again told to change direction?
The misgivings may be justified and our own personal experiences continue to whisper doubts into our ears even as we take the wheel.
And so sometimes it is a back and forth thing.
We want a comprehensive representation of the entire education scene and where exactly our place is in its mechanism.
And yet at times we feel that what is portrayed is not exactly what our personal experience tells us.
The blind men and elephant story though ancient, has had continued appeal in many cultures throughout the centuries and many adaptations have been made including those for poems, plays and movies.
One adaptation even inverts the story in a joke where six blind elephants want to find out what men were like. The first elephant feels the man and declares that “men are flat”.
The other elephants feel the man and concur that men indeed are flat. Although it is just a joke, it may be something to think about the next time we reflect on what’s happening in education here.
It may also be good to remember these final lines from 19th century poet John Godfrey Saxe’s famous poem based on the same story :
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong! Mallika Vasugi The STAR Home News Education 8 February 2015