The Elephant in the Room

Most are familiar with the old story known commonly as “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” The tale is traced to the Indian Subcontinent from where it spread across many regions, cultures and religious traditions. Much later it was popularized in a poem by the 19th century American poet John Godfrey Saxe I (June 2, 1816 – March 31, 1887) bringing the story more prominently into the narrative of western culture as well.

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

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me!—but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the 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,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his 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 Indostan
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!

This story has been coming to my mind more frequently these days as the ambiguities and pluralities of our global society continue to converge, yielding more cultural relativism and the constant need for contextual framing. The receding of the nation-state as a means for defining commonality is becoming more obvious as information and communication technologies increasingly facilitate the connections among peoples across traditional geographic boundaries.

Recently I heard this referred to as a “many to many” reality of life in the modern world. The context for this reference was about journalism and news media as we see it now played out in a relentless 24-hour news cycle. We can be very selective about our sources for news, information and perspective to the point that we only know what we choose to follow. Accordingly, the reality we project is one of our choosing. Like those groping to define an elephant in the absence of sight, our ideas are limited by our intellectual reach in a setting with limited options for understanding.

There are important implications for education here. We live at a time when we seem to be satisfied with interpreting that which we come into contact, relying in simple answers within our existing intellectual frameworks. Yet education is intended to draw us out and enable us to rethink, reshape and redesign our understanding. It’s the equivalent of having the time and space necessary to collectively share in the experience of describing, documenting, defining and disseminating our observations with others to make us all more aware of the broader reality. It sounds a lot like a liberal education.

Any telling of this old tale would not be complete without the modern day reinvention of the narrative taken from the perspective of the elephant…

Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’ After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.

Sometimes I feel as if there are a lot of “elephants” wandering around that defy our attempts to define them – instead they define us. I am less inclined these days to define too quickly and look for the perspective of other learners to enlarge my understanding. Perhaps by embracing some shared intellectual modesty we can rely on each other to develop a shared understanding about some of the challenges we find to be bigger than our capacity to define accurately. There is safety in numbers when we are working with elephants.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



12 responses to The Elephant in the Room

Russ Goodman says:

“Shared intellectual modesty.” Love it! When was the last time anyone heard, or even thought to put, those words in the same area code with the others?

Joyce Ward says:


Don Huffman says:

The Blind Men and the Elephant story/poem/parable, like many parables which reveal the “wisdom of the ages,” strikes one as simplistic; and in a sense this is true. It deals with an immediate,single perspective which lacks the important element of time. If time were not limited, one of the blind men would might have moved around the elephant, discovered the various apparent shapes during this encounter, and ultimately could deliver a rather accurate physical description of the elephant. Likewise for the individual who with education over time has come to a knowledge of a better description of an elephant.
Education and knowledge do not permit us to assume that all opinions and initial perspectives are equal in value, and it would seem that we must consider the element of time for them to mature and qualify as valid universal wisdom.

I had to read it because it was about a elephant. I should have my book completed next year. The book is about a elephant that talks about aviation history. Hopefully, I can bring international aviation education to Central in a few years.

Thanks for the elephant insight.

Jennifer Giezendanner says:

What if those blind men had listened to one another? That would have required more than time, but this humble intellectual curiosity and willingness to consider input from others that Dr. Putnam offers. What a stimulating conversation that could have become!

Paul A. Tambrino, Ed.D., Ph.D. -CUI'58 says:

The Elephant “story” illustrates the particular peril of our postmodern age where the tyranny of autonomous reason has been overthrown, only to be replaced by the tyranny of individual preference. In the truly postmodern world, who is to say who is right and who is wrong? What counts is how you feel about it and what you do with it. In the postmodern world, religion is in, but truth is out. Indeed, apparently the only ones considered heretics in our postmodern age are those who insist that there is a truth of God’s law that underlies all of creation, that our duty as creatures of our God and as servants of our Savior is to discern that truth and then, in the light of that truth, to reform not only our personal lives, but also the very structure of the world of human knowledge and experience. We now live in a world that increasingly dismisses even the possibility of truth, a world in which even scholars increasingly place the word “truth” in quotation marks as if to question even the validity of using such a category, a world where feeling and personal choice reign supreme over God’s Word of creation and revelation. We must continue to stand in the firm belief that the foundation of God’s Word (Deus dixit) is the source of all true faith and understanding and remains the only way to honor the God who alone is the source of all that really is the Truth.

John Butters says:

I agree. Popular culture ridicules every traditional moral value and praises everything that is sick and deadening to the soul. Feelings trump reason and sensuality of the most vulgar description triumphs over self-discipline. It wants to create a party culture, free from rules. At some point, in our society and in our individual lives, the party comes to an end. Then the adults have to come in and clean up the mess. Ask anyone who has had to work out a life with “the life of the party.” Broken bottles, broken hearts, broken dreams. Ruined health. Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”, though not about drug addiction, has a message for out time.

Don Huffman says:

Hi Paul,
Your comments are certainly pertinent to this topic, but I think we do the “Elephant in the Room” a disservice if we limit this parable to a philosophical or theological orientation. Certainly much of what we do accept as fact is derived from a scientific perspective in which the best we can do is to make a good probability statement. To call this truth is as misleading as to assign the term truth to any other area of inquiry. This in no sense diminishes the reality of revelation and belief which are at the heart of religious or theological truth, but it does require a broader definition than we often use.

Paul A. Tambrino, Ed.D., Ph.D. -CUI'58 says:

Indeed Don, the elephant parable is not to be delimited to any academic perspective. The scientific community as well as the theological community cannot operate in the post-modern world where truth is relative, multiple and subjective. All truth (regardless of academic discipline) by its very nature must be absolute, singular and objective.
It was the sociologist Peter Berger who pointed out over thirty years ago that we were moving to a world of what he called the heretical imperative. Berger argued that in the past what was true or untrue had been defined by communities based on “fact” or what is, but in the future those issues would be defined by each of us as individuals based on our individual preferences. No longer do people say, “My church, my government, my nation, my community believes this or that.” We have come to a day when people decide such things on their own. The old question, “What do we believe or think about that?” has been replaced with the personal sentiment, “How do I feel about that?”
Such a shift brings special peril for all academic endeavors (theological, philosophical, scientific, etc.) want to (or should) insist there are things that everyone who honors the truth ought to accept and affirm — whether one feels good about it or not. That brings particular peril in the postmodern age where the tyranny of autonomous reason has been overthrown, only to be replaced by the tyranny of individual preference.
Personally, I am not quite certain which peril looms larger before the academic world today – – the peril that they abandon their pursuit of truth in order to find acceptance at the table of personal relativism, or the peril that they continue their pursuit of truth and then they find themselves suffering the fate of ostracism or worse that generally befall those who dare to defy the governing intellectual fashion of the day.

Eric McLuen '92 says:

What struck me in the article was ‘We live at a time when we seem to be satisfied with interpreting that which we come into contact, relying in simple answers within our existing intellectual frameworks. Yet education is intended to draw us out and enable us to rethink, reshape and redesign our understanding’. Unfortunately many people use ‘education’ as a means to reinforce their pre-existing ideas.

The people Paul speaks of aren’t called heretics they are called fundamentalists. What the modern world has done is differentiate between faith and fact which to fundamentalists are often the same thing. In the story above by each man taking his limited exposure to the elephant as fact prevents each from actually experience the true majesty of the elephant in its entirety. By assuming they know the answer, they stop questioning and therefore stop learning.

Kent Fry says:

Dear President Putnam,

Thank you for your blog and many interesting thoughts. I graduated from Central College in 1977. You might want to check out the famous reference to the blind man and the elephant in Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, page 9 and following and then the rest of the book, but particularly chapters 13-14. Newbigin who died recently has really become a modern church father for our age influencing the theological thinking of the church in this post-modern era. He moves us beyond the typical tendency of using the elephant to neutralize the religions or truth perspectives. Of course there has to be some perspective beyond the elephant to know that each was only grasping at a partial aspect of truth.

Scott Van Weelden says:

Realizing you do not know it all is the start of true wisdom.