The Man Who Listens to Horses is the remarkable story of how Monty Roberts, by observing horses by listening to their language of movement and gesture learned to relate to them as a friend and collaborator. In hundreds of demonstrations Roberts has persuaded wild or untrained horses to submit to bridle, saddle, and rider without any use of constraining force. Employing his own body to speak the horse's language, Roberts plays out a subtle drama of horse behavior in which he must read and respond to the horse's "utterances," right down to the fear or intelligence or curiosity shining through its eyes. Finally he turns his back on the horse and walks away whereupon this often high-strung flight animal slowly comes up to him from behind to await further collaboration. It often takes less than thirty minutes to saddle and mount a horse that has never been ridden before.
Roberts speaks of similar "join-up" with deer, and he remarks that it is always a stirring moment for him when a flight animal agrees to be touched by the human hand.
But what is going on here? How can it be that such experience is so rare for us? If we can put a man on the moon, how is it that most of us can be so blind in our understanding of the animals our race has employed for millennia? Well, as I have suggested, we may have become blind in part because we have sent a man to the moon that is, because we have been interested only in the exploration and conquering of objects, and you cannot hold a conversation with an object. We have not been taught to look for the nuances of meaning and gesture through which we can hold a delicate, yet powerful conversation with the beings of nature. Certainly computer-mediated communication has not seemed to encourage development of our more subtle conversational potentials!
There are a few things I would like to say in relating Roberts' story to education.
The first is that we've not lacked the opportunity to learn what Roberts learned. Many of the things he learned have in fact been learned before. Roberts' uncle told him how the Cherokees used to capture wild horses: at the end of an extended conversation through movement, they would walk into a corral with the horses willingly following them. A book by John Solomon Rarey in the mid-1800s created a stir throughout Europe by detailing the dramatic potentials of collaboration between man and horse. In 1858 a writer in the Illustrated London News predicted that Rarey's name "will rank among the great social reformers of the nineteenth century." But instead the book along with its insights was forgotten.
Something in our culture works powerfully against a sensitive, participative understanding of the world, often obliterating that understanding wherever it does arise. I believe that a primary task of education today is to counter this one-sidedness.
Second, the "delicate conversation" I mentioned a moment ago is not a casual exchange of information. Roberts' understanding arose from close observation of the finest details, repeated again and again while he was wholly immersed in the horse's environment. He tried to experience that environment as the horse experienced it. This is not at all the sort of knowledge, or information, that can be passed automatically from one mind or database to another.
In our drive to achieve frontal, effective power over the world, we have generally not had the patience to cultivate the very different, but no less effective powers of intimacy and sympathy. But if we want to redress the imbalance of our culture, surely this is where we must apply ourselves.
Third, Roberts loved horses. He could not bear to see them suffer, and his desire to understand them was a passion that drove him through great danger. You do not hear much about that kind of love in the contemporary arguments for ever more thoroughly wired schools.
Fourth, if there is any one place where this intimacy and sympathy, this immersion in the concrete environment of the other, this delicate reading of nuance and meaning, is most required, it is in human relations. Here the task must surely be even more complex and challenging than it is with horses. Yet one can fairly say that the future hangs upon our capacity to read the other person in his own world certainly much more than it hangs on our ability to pass information around. Where you find social breakdown, you will also find people who don't even know how to begin the process of mutual understanding that brought Monty Roberts and wild horses into fruitful engagement.
Once we recognize this, we can hardly avoid the uncomfortable sense that our society has gone quite out of its mind in making the computer the tool of choice for connecting young students to "sources of information." The computer undeniably inserts a distance between people that must be overcome. As a result it is much easier for us to objectify others to treat them in terms of our own needs. It disconnects words from the speaker, ignores much of our nonverbal communication, and occludes the larger environment that is always speaking and being spoken through us.
I am not saying that the limitations of the computer, any more than the limitations of the telescope, are insuperable. We can and must learn to overcome them. But they are hardly the obvious instruments for countering the prevailing imbalance of society. And if it is true that the twenty-first century will be the age of unimaginably sophisticated and pervasive technologies, then counterbalance is what we will need most.