"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do”—Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977
In a small village in India lived six blind men. Each thought he was the wisest and most clever man in the Kingdom. One day a young girl led an elephant into the village. The blind men did not know what an elephant looked like but they could smell and hear it. Each blind man was determined to learn what an elephant was like.
The first man touched the elephant’s body. It felt hard, big and wide. “An elephant is like a wall” he said.
The second man touched one of the elephant’s tusks. It felt smooth, hard and sharp. “An elephant is like a spear” he said.
The third man touched the elephant’s trunk. It felt long, thin and wiggly. “An elephant is like a snake” he said.
The fourth man touched one of the legs. It felt thick, rough and round. “An elephant is like a tree” he said.
The fifth man touched one of the elephant’s ears. It felt thin and moved. “An elephant is like a fan” he said.
The sixth man touched the elephant’s tail. It felt long, thin and strong. “An elephant is like a rope” he said.
The men argued. It’s like a wall! No, it isn’t! It’s like a spear! No it isn’t! It’s like a snake! They could not agree.
Before the girl led the elephant away she was heard to tell the six blind men: “An elephant is not like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan or a rope. Each of your conclusions was wrong because you relied solely on the truth inside your personal touch.”
No blind man was able to fully capture the essence of the elephant. However, if through collaboration they could have expanded the small piece of the truth each had personally experienced, the mosaic of those individual observations would have been a complete and accurate picture of the elephant.
This blog was inspired by John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) poem capturing this Hindu fable. For a version which magically captures the wisdom and lyrical flow of his poem through beautiful illustrations please see: http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/blind_men_elephant.html