Posted by: Tom Triumph | October 4, 2009

57. The Blind Men and the Elephant: John Godfrey Saxe

This poem is not art, but it makes an important point. It will also be easy for students to understand

I was inspired to add this poem in response to a parent group’s approach to the local school board. Concerned about low test scores (a very legitimate concern) they are focused on AP courses and students not only getting into college (the high school has over 80% of graduates going to college), but the college of their choice. If the elephant is the supervisory union’s K-12 school system–and the experience of students over that time–this group is focused on the tail. If a student is not already working at a high level junior year, and possessing skills such as reading and writing, it makes more sense to look at the K-8 education than point fingers at their last years in school. The group’s leader is a consultant in getting teens into college, so she has an obvious blind spot.

There are three natural lessons that I will explain.

First, have students imagine what each of the six blind men sees. They can draw a picture. You can then find several websites that have illustrations to go with Saxe’s poem. An easy poem, it teaches a skill that can be carried over to other poems.

Second, this poem can be used for self reflection. Has there been a time where you saw things one way, and someone else could not see your point of view? Think about what you want, and what your parents will let you do. Fights with friends? Teacher gives good advice but you do what you do and fail? Point out that disagreement does not necessarily mean that both sides don’t see the whole picture. Parents may see their child’s point, but still not give them their way. Because of that, this reflection has a certain amount of subtlety. But adolescent ideas that other people have different perspectives is changing as their brains change: we call it maturity.

Third, this story has a long history before Saxe wrote this poem. A lesson on India would be enhanced by comparing the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, etc. tellings of this story. The Wikipedia version is here.

The Blind Man and the Elephant
John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Hindustan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind)
That each by observation
Might satisfy the mind.

The first approached the Elephant
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side
At once began to bawl:
“Bless me, it seems the Elephant
Is very like a wall”.

The second, feeling of his 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,
Then boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake.”

The Fourth reached out an 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 Hindustan
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!

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