The Blind Men and the Elephant

The blind men and the elephant

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Opinion Piece written by Chair of Engagement Australia Professor Pierre Viljoen

I recently had the privilege of again attending Universities Australia’s annual Higher Education Conference in Canberra. Following the 2014 conference I was compelled to pen my musings in ‘The Naked Gun 33&1/3 – The Final Insult’, a piece which, upon reflection, has perceivably been met with ‘the sound of silence’. Nevertheless, if one can look beyond the political undertones dominating the 2015 conference – reflecting a sector at the mercy of political indecision, one simply had to be encouraged by the genuine flavour of ‘engagement and partnership’ that was present in most if not all conference sessions – hallelujah!?

In reflecting upon this, the optimist in me celebrates the ‘gentle awakening’ that has evolved around the importance and value of this work within higher education in Australia. Throughout the conference, leaders, presenters and participants spoke to engagement as being fundamentally essential and a critical enabler of mutually beneficial outcomes for universities and their partners, in a myriad of ways.

Having said that, and quite uncharacteristically, I am still a little pessimistic about our seemingly ‘playful frolicking’ around the concept of engagement or aspects thereof. At the surface level, we seem to acknowledge that engagement gets form and function in institutions and, within the broader sector, in programs and activities. However, we generally fail to recognise that there is a sector wide, strategic imperative which requires debate and moulding at the highest level, that we require rigorous institutional strategy to facilitate execution and maybe most importantly, that our staff and students, in general, are ill equipped to undertake this work effectively and in a sustainable way.

As I digest what I’ve seen, heard and experienced at this year’s conference, I find myself in mind of the poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant by American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), based on a fable that was told in India many years ago.

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 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 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!

In our context, this may serve as a timely reminder about how our sensory perceptions can lead to serious misinterpretations; especially, when our investigations of individual parts of a whole, and their role in making up the whole, are inadequate and lack co-ordination.

That aside, I was encouraged by the narrative of Professor Greg Craven, who appeared as guest speaker at the Engagement Australia satellite event on the final day of the conference.  Greg very clearly articulated the value proposition that ‘engagement and partnerships’ hold for the sector and how that has flow on effects in terms of the public good, as well as being ‘smart business’.  I also fully support his views that we cannot find an answer to this question by looking to the outside world.  This is, and has to be an Australian project focused on our students, staff, universities and Australian society more broadly.

I am of firm belief that the time is ripe to have a serious discussion on Engagement and how we position this body of work going forward. As the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland so aptly advised – if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter which path you take.  I am encouraged by the increased attention being given to Engagement at many levels, however as a sector, we first need to know where we want to go.  Once we proceed down this path, we have to be firm in our conviction that Engagement cannot simply be the 3rd or 4th ‘thing’ we busy ourselves with.  It has to be pervasive and integrated in everything we do, throughout all levels of our universities.

In conclusion, I leave you with 2 questions to ponder: firstly, are there additional ways in which we can encourage government to focus more attention on promoting the scholarship and practice of engagement; and secondly, what would our universities look like, and how well might our students and society more broadly be served, if we first ‘engage’ and then we design/develop?