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War! Metaphors are Damaging Our Schools

In this piece, Tales from the Classroom team member Dr. Tim Price examines how metaphors of war and factories have shaped and continue to shape our schools...and not for the good.

The Power of Metaphors

A few years back, I was approached by one of our high school’s international students, a sophomore from China who had come to our school to graduate, to get into a good American college, and to do his parents proud. He came to see me after one of our English classes, during a unit on Hamlet if I remember correctly, and humbly asked me, “Dr. Price, I need your help. Will you please teach me how to do metaphor?” He went on explaining to me that, “I can do math and science better than anyone here, but everybody else knows how to talk metaphor, and I want to be able to do that too.” The desperation in his voice and yearning in his eyes told me that he was serious about this - as serious as he was about the theoretical mathematics course he designed for himself because he had already done all that our school had to offer in the discipline. “Of course,” I said, and thus began a year-long tutelage in which I tried to help this young man understand what I had known for a while, and that he was just discovering: that metaphor is as powerful a tool as any mathematical theorem, scientific dictum, or historical axiom.

I am proud to say that at our graduation, when it was his turn to speak, he chose to sing an original song, one chock full of metaphors about love, loss, friendship, and gratitude. After a few minutes of a beautifully awkward performance, he took a long pause for some water, and when everyone, thinking that he was done, began to cheer, he calmly yet assertively spoke into the microphone, “Hold your horses people…I am not done yet”, and then continued on for another three minutes. No one could bear to cut him off.

In this memorable moment, not only was I reminded of the power of metaphor, but also that it can provide a very telling glimpse into the mind and soul of the person using it; it is both transactive and transpersonal, transformational and transcendent. Metaphor not only has a special utility in the sharing of ideas and emotions, but it also has the unique ability to be both pragmatically useful and definitively abstract. The word itself, drawing from its Greek root forms of ‘phoresis’ meaning ‘to carry’ and ‘meta’ meaning ‘over’ or ‘beyond’, denotes for us a way to not only understand another human being, but also delve deeper into one’s innermost self.

Metaphor, for example, allows us to share the most profound of human emotions and sensibilities in a way that others can understand, if not also experience. It can do things that mere words or logical propositions cannot. For instance, rather than, “I love you so very, very, very much,” one could use a simple metaphor in “I love you to the moon and back.” While the former is effective in that it is finite and easy to grasp, it on the other hand, says very little. The latter, however, says so much more, and in many ways, is even easier to grasp. In this case, while the speaker’s love is still somewhat bounded by the image of the moon, its distance from earth, and the rate at which that distance can or should be reached, it also provides just enough freedom in interpretation for both the speaker and recipient to actually experience that love in the moment. The metaphor, in a sense, creates the love itself. In any case, whether it be poetic, in passing, or in the context of a Hallmark greeting card, metaphor is a beautifully liberating mechanism with which we can freely, yet within reasonable and understandable bounds, communicate on the level of body, mind, and spirit. That all being said, what happens when metaphor is abused? What happens to it when it becomes part of our clichéd language, or worse, part of the rhetoric we use to politicize our lives and relationships? What happens when they no longer evoke love, but fear, loss, anxiety, darkness? What happens when schools get ahold of them?

The Factory Model Metaphor for American Schools

The factory metaphor for schools has long been part of our educational history. With the Common School movement, first in 18th century Europe, then finding its way into America by the mid-19th century. Educational historians often give credit to Horace Mann for this important innovation in American schooling, which in its design can also be argued, was the first movement in the standardization of education. As the world became more and more industrialized, and as factories demanded qualified workers to fill them, schools took on much of this burden. Similar to an assembly line, schools were designed to create homogenous, finished ‘products’ (or, rather, students) out of the ‘raw materials’ of their minds - the more efficient the process, the more dependable the product. In many ways, the accountability ‘measures’ that we see and feel today can also be traced back to this factory model of schooling and in the education of teachers themselves. Much of it focused on training teachers in similar teaching approaches so that each student might have a similar experience in his or her respective classroom, and thus bring those standardized skills back to the ‘real world’ in a very practical sense. In this way, it was a very pragmatic model of schooling, one that worked in many respects given the needs of the time.

However, the factory model also created for us a powerful metaphor, one that we perfected in the 20th century, and have trouble transcending in the 21st. Much of the language we unconsciously use in education today can also be traced back to this movement. A ‘grade’ not only denotes how we classify and categorize kids, but also is the way in which nuts and bolts were identified for their fit. The focus, as it was then and still is today in many communities’ school buildings, was to create efficient, uniformly standardized environments for learning that would, in turn, create efficient, uniformly capable young adults capable of keeping up with the demands of a rapidly changing world. I imagine that part of the draw this model was that in this rapidly changing, even tumultuous, world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that ‘uniform’ and ‘efficient’ didn’t sound too bad to most. We crave stability and security even if we know it may stalemate our efforts at progress.

The War Metaphor in Education

Even as Progressive education became popular in the early 20th century, creating somewhat of a more individualized and experientially valuable way of teaching and learning, this factory metaphor persisted. In fact, as the Progressivists (people focused on individualized education) and the Traditionalists (those favoring a more uniform/standardized education) began to war over educational reform and policy, the metaphor became even more contentious, becoming almost militaristic in nature. The competition between these differing groups have since created a competitive dynamic wherein one group has sought to undermine the other; instead of unifying behind democratic notions of progress, these ideological sects have entered into a warlike state of affairs. These culture wars in schooling, one that began in the early 20th century, and one that certainly persists today as more and more groups of American educators “hoist their ideological flag” (Eisner, 2002) thereby ‘staking’ their claim on one ‘standard’ or another, have further entrenched educational reform. And it is the language itself that has become so especially difficult to navigate when considering educational reform in America. Consider my word choice in the aforesaid words of ‘stake’, ‘entrench’, ‘standard’, and ‘flag’? All of these carry with them potent connotations, creating images and metaphors associated with war, violence, and turmoil. Likewise, all are militaristic in nature; in fact, the origin of the word ‘standard’ finds its original use on the battlefield where the ‘standard’ was the literal marker identifying the front line of battle – the place where the war is won or lost, and where most casualties happen. The result? Just ask a teacher, who would likely liken their experience in the classroom to being ‘in the trenches’ with their students, ‘under fire’ from administration, and caustically ‘burnt out’ and short in ‘fuse’. I always wonder, then - who or what is the ‘enemy’?

This simple, yet potent, connection between much of the terminology used regarding school reform and its militaristic past certainly makes historical sense, given that after Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, the politics of progress in schools became notably contentious. As Tyack and Cuban (1995) pointed out in their essay “Progress or Regress”, it was after Brown vs. Board that schools “erupted in conflict between contending groups,” the “media played up student unrest, violence, drugs and overcrowded schools” with “images of blackboard jungles [that] became [and have since become] etched in the public’s consciousness.” During the next fifty years, and still seen today, “strikes, collective bargaining, [and] racial disputes” began to change public perception of education and of teachers, from one of peace, democracy and progress, to that of a war, autocracy and regress. By the mid-1970’s, and particularly during the 1980’s, the public largely perceived schools as warring grounds where classrooms were the ‘front lines’, and wherein teachers and students found themselves ‘in the trenches’. These became potent metaphors not only for the public to understand schools, but also for educators and students to understand their new roles within them. As unfortunate as it was during this time in the early 1980’s, teachers and students began to finally take an identity. They began to realize that they were, in fact, ‘under fire’, being blamed as the cause of “A Nation at Risk” (1983).

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence and Education essentially did declare ‘war’ on American schools with its the publication of “A Nation at Risk” – in fact, it saw the “mediocre educational performance” of American schools as “an act of war.” With its publication and widespread readership, “A Nation at Risk” quickly became one of the most important documents in the history of American schooling, and to this day is commonly referenced by reformers in almost every stake-holding group, from politician to parent to teacher. With its controversial findings, which were then and still are “decried” for its “lack of scientific rigor,” this document created a legacy of regression for schools in America, “spurring a new wave of reform in U.S. schools” based on the widespread “push for standards” (The Jossey-Bass Reader on School Reform, 2001). With its focus on the standardization of education, it also pushed a rhetoric of ‘accountability’ on new teachers in particular, arguing for performance-based evaluation systems, wherein “poor” teachers would be “either improved or terminated” (United States National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Likewise, it built upon a rhetoric of what it identified as “excellence” with which schools, teachers, and students would be judged – a term ideologically borrowed from the corporate world. In many ways, “A Nation at Risk” became a manifesto for anyone, anywhere, to discipline schools in any way they liked – as long as schools weren’t living up to the militaristic or corporate standards demanded of them, then they were, in effect, ‘failing’, and moreover considered a “threat” to the “very future” of the “Nation and [its] people” (1983).

The Modern Metaphor in Education

This trend in regressively thinking about schools certainly persists today. Schools are still being blamed for economic distress, and teachers’ unions have become the new target for reform. The ‘war’ has moved from one aimed at the poor and their families, to the schools that serve them. What’s more is that not only can this be seen both within the media and within public policy. More and more states have adopted merit-pay programs, and schools are being routinely closed and replaced by either charter schools or nothing at all. However, this is not at all a coincidence, nor is “A Nation at Risk” wholly responsible for the regressive opinion of public schooling seen and felt today. While the factory or militaristic metaphors may not be as perniciously potent as they once was, their legacy remains, and may even be gaining momentum once again because of today’s fascination with testing and accountability measures. We, attuned to our early-20th century roots, find ourselves in dynamic if not dangerous times, which makes these models and metaphors once again easy to say and swallow. Even our efforts at transcending them and to create schools that teach 21st century skills (there’s that word is again) and competencies (or in other words, ‘skills’), have either fallen on deaf ears or have been bastardized by a new, fresh metaphor for schooling: the ‘business’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ model. While a little more upbeat and progressive than that old ‘factory’ nonsense, you can certainly see, I hope, the connection here. We seem stuck, and despite the true and lasting use and meaning of ‘metaphor’ in that it can ‘carry’ us ‘over’ or ‘beyond’ this burden of the past, we have truly just reinvented it. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act became No Child Left Behind, which later became A Race to the Top. Most recently, most states have adopted the Common Core approach, yet when one looks at it closely (and considers the metaphorical meaning and connotation of it and its rhetorical roots) it is simply just more of the same. This reminds me of an old saying that speaks quite literally in and of itself, lending to little room for any subjectivity or metaphor: What should we call it when we do the same thing over and over again expecting different results? Insanity.

#corporateeducationreform #educationpolicy #NoChildLeftBehind #ANationatRisk #metaphors #K12 #talesfromtheclassroom