Metaphors ‘R’ Us

Whether we articulate it or not, we all organize our understanding of the world around certain concepts and ideas. Doing so enables us to get a handle, however tenuous, on our experiences and feel that life isn’t totally random or meaningless. Whether you think of the universe as a clockwork or life as a treadmill or your spouse as a “ball and chain” you’re indulging in metaphorical thinking that helps you deal with any of those phenomena. The metaphor you use is an organizing principle and you tend to behave accordingly.

As you can see from my examples, we use metaphor at many levels in our personal lives because they help make us comfortable. But sometimes they can prevent us from acting appropriately or even, at a higher level, prevent us from seeing what’s in front of us. Metaphors can be so powerful that they cause us to reject reality–consider the pre-Copernican view of the Earth as the center of the universe, or the inability of pre-modern “doctors” to consider experimentation as a way to get to truth, relying instead on the “wisdom” of Aristotle and others who simply worked what they observed into their own world views. (Take the concept of bloodletting, related to the system of the four “humors” in the body–despite being more harmful than helpful, the concept was so powerful it took many years and many deaths before anyone thought to see if it actually worked.)

One of the most powerful recent metaphors has been of the mind as a computer. The mind has been compared to many things but the brain-computer link seems almost perfect in its conceptual mapping. Both “compute” by taking data, combining and comparing it, then coming up with new “ideas” and “concepts”; both work vary fast (although even the fastest computer can’t approach the brain at its fundamental best); both are almost infinitely capacious in their potential for storing and retrieving data; and bother even are susceptible to viruses and damage that can impair their ability to “think.”

As a result of our infatuation with the computer, we’ve actually allowed the metaphor to overtake what we know about the brain, and in doing so we have done enormous damage to education. While it makes some explanatory sense to think of the brain as a computer, it makes no real sense at all to treat children as live computers. Yet this seems to be what we’ve done in the last twenty or thirty years–roughly parallel to the rise of the computer itself. The language of education has changed, adopting from computers ways to think about thinking and how to teach children. We think of classroom learning as “information” and “data” to be “programmed” for students; we evaluate schools on the basis of “inputs” and “outcomes”; and we rely more and more on numbers from tests and surveys to tell us whether we’re doing a good job educating our children.

But this metaphor could not be more wrong, surpassing even the idea of students as factory parts embodied in the massive old high schools built in the early twentieth century. The metaphor of student brains as computers that need to be loaded with “software” shears away all the messiness and individuality of students (ironically even as we get better and better accommodating different ways of learning), and causes us to think of them as “units” or memory boards. We believe that by drilling students for high stakes tests we can make them smarter (or really, make ourselves look smarter), yet we also notice that kids hate to come to school and are bored and restless in class. But our image of them as little laptops, overt or otherwise, gets in the way and we find it hard to change course.

This idea comes to me as college admission letters go out and students make decisions about where to attend. So often students find college either a blessed relief from the straitjacket of high school or a puzzling and unpredictable maze of expectations–isn’t it time for a new way of looking at school, a new metaphor? For me, the metaphor is food.

Education has never really been a technical issue. The greatest educators, from Socrates to Dewey to everyone in between, have been passionate individuals with great swaths of messy inconsistencies in their makeups. The greatest students have been equally devoted to the life of the mind, and I don’t just mean graduate students, I mean everyone who’s ever rejoiced in a wonderful class or great book. We already use food metaphors for education, but they seem most often to turn up in recommendation letters: Johnny’s a “voracious” reader; Jackie “devours” ideas in science. It’s no accident we talk about “food for thought.” But they’ve taken a back seat to the techno images.

It would be more fruitful (see?) if we thought of ideas, experiments, field trips, and all the other things that make up schooling as rich, high-calorie food for the brain. If we did that, we’d have to re-evaluate the place of standardized testing in school; we’d have to re-think grades, too, because they are “data points,” not true evaluations of idiosyncratic individuals. I’m not suggesting we abolish these things wholesale but I am suggesting, with college preparation and eventual admission in mind, that a system that has become practically inert rediscover the pleasures that learning can provide, pleasures that are remarkably similar to what we get from a terrific meal. If the computer metaphor has resulted in the aridity of test-prep classes, couldn’t a food metaphor bring us back to the luxury of reading great literature and interacting with brilliant scientists? If we insisted on providing our children healthful intellectual meals instead of empty techno calories, wouldn’t we be laying a table second to none and feeding students instead of programming them?