Comparative Perspectives from the 2015 Würzburg Winter School
Edited By Regina Egetenmeyer
The parable of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’ originated in South-East Asia from where it has widely diffused in manifold versions. One version says that six blind men were asked to determine what an elephant looked like. They then touched different parts of the elephant. A blind man who touched a leg said the elephant is like a pillar; the one who touched the tail said the elephant is like a rope; the one who touched the trunk said the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who touched the ear said the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who touched the belly said the elephant is like a wall; and the one who touched the tusk said the elephant is like a solid pipe. The parable illustrates a range of truths and challenges. It has been interpreted very differently, but it implies that one's subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth. Experience is a source for learning but often also a main barrier.
Scholars in international or even comparative adult education research sometimes encounter the very same challenges as the six blind men (cf. Käpplinger et al., 2015). Countries or regions are described simultaneously and juxtaposed. Practices in one context are often judged to be desirably beneficial, and it is often attempted to transfer these practices to other contexts. The popular benchmarking approach is based on the assumption that outputs, outcomes, or evidence can be directly compared, and that the best performers give orientation to the underperformers. Huge crowds of policy-makers, administrators, scientists, or practitioners went on pilgrimages to the best performers in order to find the Holy Grail of education, teaching, and learning there. It is a kind of paradox that nowadays the desire and willingness to adapt to simple truths might be bigger than ever. The world is increasingly complex, and we live in an era of extremes and new gruesome fundamentalisms. There seems to be a hunger for less complexity instead of an acceptance of the fact that understanding complexity is a continuous and challenging journey with many pitfalls. Tarc’s (2013, p. 21) reading of the parable is ‘that one’s understanding of the world depends upon how one is positioned and upon what “part” of reality one is “in touch with”… We also learn that despite our incapacity to perceive the whole or sense what another sees from his or her distinct vantage point, we have a propensity to cling to our own limited understandings and spend our energies convincing others of the “rightness” of our ← 9 | 10 → version of reality, rather than attempting to learn with and from the lived realities of differently located others.’
This volume is different from many books dealing with international or comparative research. It is more sophisticated, and it goes far beyond assembling papers from authors coming from different regions. The diverse teams of authors are often engaged in the endeavour of really learning from and with each other. This is valuable in many respects, as Regina Egetenmeyer explains in much more detail in her introduction. It is even more striking when reading the various interesting papers. Here, people from many different backgrounds and levels of proficiency have actively engaged in different phases of collaboration. Learning from and with each other requires time and space. It is anything but accidental that this volume is the final result of a winter school and continued efforts before and after. Modern technologies like emailing, skyping, and the like help a lot in our daily work, but physical presence and meeting people face-to-face still makes a big difference in terms of quality. The results in this volume are very impressive. The methodological approach can inform real comparative research. It could be even a kind of blueprint for future international winter or summer schools and their results. The content of the book offers a diverse richness to build on in many respects.
Overall, this book challenges one obvious but far too simple conclusion that might be drawn from the parable of the six blind men. The parable is sometimes interpreted as a plea for relativism and the subjective opaqueness of knowledge. Of course, we can, even as a group, only touch parts of our realities. And groups of people or disciplines can easily turn onto uncreative conformism. This was all well known in philosophy long before constructivism or even radical constructivism became popular as a learning theory in adult education research. Nonetheless, we as humans can communicate or even go into meta-communication. By real and engaged communication, we can learn from and with each other despite many, many misunderstandings and irritations. But even irritations can very frequently be starting points for learning if we give learning a chance and do not stick to our personal or cultural experiences, preferences, or even prejudices. Perhaps we have to irritate ourselves and others much more often, despite the sometimes assumed or acquired high levels of proficiency and the comfort of the well-established and unquestioned perceptions of our cultures and academic disciplines? For example, why aren’t there any women in the parable of the six blind men, and how did the elephant feel, being touched only as an object to be studied? ← 10 | 11 →
Käpplinger, B., Popović, K., Shah, S. Y. & Sork, T. J. (2015): Six Blind Men and an Elephant: The Futile Quest for Consensus on the Competencies Required for Good Practice. In Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASAE) (ed.): Proceedings of the 34th CASAE/ACÉÉA Annual Conference. Montreal: Université de Montréal, pp. 432–439.