Teaching Metaphor (with Comments on Developing Curricula in the Age of the Thought Police)


“The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873)

One of the nasty, generally unremarked features of the new national “standards” in ELA, and of the state “standards” that preceded them, is that they draw boundaries within the vast design space of possible curricula and pedagogy and say, “What is within these boundaries you may teach, and what is outside you may not.” And in so doing, they rule out almost all the good stuff–great existing material, or curricula, and approaches, or pedagogy, incompatible with someone’s (e.g., Lord Coleman’s) list. And, more importantly, they preclude all material and approaches that might be developed in the future that happen to be incompatible with that list.

I will give a single example to illustrate the general principle, but one could do the same for most of the other “standards” on the bullet list.

At several grade levels in the CC$$ for ELA, there is a literature standard that reads, in part, that the student is to be able to explain “how figurative language affects mood and tone.”

Now, given a topic as rich as figurative language is, doesn’t that “standard” strike you as oddly constricted, or narrow, and even immature? It does me. Why effects of figurative language “on mood and tone” in particular? Why should we be having students think and write about effects of figurative language on the mood and tone of selection after selection in lesson after interminable lesson, year after year? Why not treat any of the thousands of other topics we might consider under the general heading of figurative language?

As an alternative to that “standard,” let’s consider just one topic related to one variety of figurative language. The variety we shall consider is metaphor, and the topic is conceptual framing.

Thinkers as diverse as Emerson, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Borges, Sapir, Whorf, Burke, Hirsch, Derrida, Lakoff, and Kovecses (one could list many others) have all written, to various ends, about how metaphor is one of the fundamental means by which we understand the world. Our ways of conceptualizing the world are to a large extent metaphorical. Language is absolutely shot through with metaphor. And most of the metaphors we use we use unconsciously. They are sometimes called “dead” metaphors.

If you think carefully about the last four sentences of this essay, you will discover that they are heavily (that’s a metaphor) dependent (that’s another) upon metaphorical conceptual framing. The word Let’s depends upon a conceptual frame of a coming together of you, the reader, and me, the writer–a frame that equates consideration of a topic with physical meeting. Topic, of course, comes from the Greek topos, or “place.” Another metaphor. The word ends employs a conceptual frame in which a process of thought is treated as a journey or as a physical object with a beginning part, a middle part, and an end part. The word figurative belongs to a large class of metaphors that describe statements and thoughts as shapes (e.g., “The argument centered on Eliot’s last poems”).  The words fundamental and understand relate to a conceptual framing of ideas as parts of structures–ground on which to stand or overarching shelter. The metaphorical frame of shot through is clear enough: ideas are projectiles. And conceptual framing and dead metaphor are, of course, examples of themselves. The phrases are self-describing. They apply to themselves. In the argot of analytical philosophers, they are autological terms.

Emerson, in the essay “Language,” Chapter 4 of his book Nature (1836), makes the claim that all abstract thinking has its roots in the concrete, is at root metaphorical. He gives the examples of the word right, as in “the right way,” having the literal meaning of being on a straight path, of spirit being derived from wind, and transgression being derived from crossing a line. So common is such metaphorical conceptual framing that Nietzsche, in his  influential, in-your-face early essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” (1873), speaks disparagingly of such unexamined use of such inherited, “prefab” metaphorical concept frames as the essential, or defining, human activity! Heidegger, in the essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” (1951) derives I am from dwelling on Earth, making our  expression of our very existence metaphorical in origin:

“Bauen originally means to dwell. Where the word bauen still speaks in its original sense it also says how far the essence of dwelling reaches. That is, bauen, buan, bhu, beo are our word bin in the versions: ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, be. What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is buan, dwelling. To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell.”

Heidegger’s etymologies are much disputed, but the wisdom of his general approach is indisputable.

Lakoff and Kovecses have created extensive but by no means exhaustive catalogs of metaphorical conceptual frames.

Example: debate = war:

He won the argument.
Your claims are indefensible.
He shot down all my arguments.
Her criticisms were right on target.
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.

Example: achievement = harvesting:

She reaped her rewards.
What a plum job!
By your fruits you will be known.
That market is ripe for the picking.

In short, metaphor does a lot of heavy lifting in our language and thought, and limiting ourselves, as teachers, to having students explain, year after year, for selection after selection, how the use of figurative language affects mood and tone is like reducing the study of the Civil War to consideration of the relative sizes of Union and Rebel cannonballs.

Suppose that a curriculum developer were to suggest to an educational publisher, today, that there should be, in a tenth-grade literature program, a unit or a part of a unit dealing with

  • common metaphorical frames in literature (cycles of seasons = the life cycle; a journey = learning, personal change);
  • how metaphors work, structurally (their parts–tenor and vehicle–and their mapping to the world);
  • how they shape thought, and the extent to which they do (note: we must reject any contention that metaphor renders certain perceptions or conceptions necessary or impossible–any strong version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis; but a weak version certainly holds, often with dramatic effect–consider the egregious metaphor of “the little woman” used by U.S. husbands in the 1950s to refer to their wives);
  • how most metaphors are dead ones–are unconsciously employed, unexamined, common linguistic inheritances; and
  • how dead metaphors that constrain thought within preconceived patterns often have to be unlearned if progress in thinking is to be made (consider, for example, how the bad metaphor of “using up energy and becoming tired during work” shaped Aristotelian mechanics and had to unlearned by Galileo and Newton).

Such a unit on metaphor as conceptual framing–often inherited, unexamined, culture-shaping conceptual framing–could be extraordinarily valuable and interesting. It could give kids tools of ENORMOUS POWER that even many professional writers and critics don’t have. And those tools would have applicability far, far beyond the classroom. Critique of conceptual framing (itself a metaphor, remember) is a powerful (another metaphor) lever (yet another) for thinking generally. Dan Dennett has suggested that use of such heuristics, such levers, such intuition pumps, as he calls them, likely accounts for the Flynn Effect–the remarkable average continuous increase in IQ over the past century. Dennett’s casual observation should be taken (a metaphor) very seriously, I think, by educators–such is the fertility (another metaphor) of his mind.

Suppose that I suggested to a K-12 educational publisher, today, that we do a unit on metaphor as conceptual framing, or even a single lesson or “special feature” (in the argot of the educational publishing trade), on the topic. Here’s what the publisher would tell me: “No. You can’t do that. The ‘standards’ [sic] say that you must concentrate on how figurative language affects mood or tone in literary works.”

In comparison, of course, the “higher standard” is, well, not higher (note the metaphor: good is up/bad is down). The “higher standard” is hackneyed and obvious and something teachers have done pretty much unthinkingly for eons, and it’s a LOT LESS interesting and powerful and important than is the alternative (or addition) that I’ve recommended. What we are told to concentrate on in the standards reads, to me, like what might be suggested by an amateur who really doesn’t know much about figurative language and how it works.

And so it is with standard after standard. We find in these “higher standards,” again and again, received, hackneyed notions. Even worse, the mediocre, the common, pushes out the uncommon and valuable: exciting alternatives are, a priori, ruled out. They are not important. They will not be on the test.

And most importantly, what will be on the test will not be normal interaction with texts that focuses, primarily, on the experiences and ideas that they communicate but rather, on figuring out which of four tortured sentences best applies to some random snippet of language of some particular “skill” from the Gates/Coleman bullet list.

Obviously, the alternative that I outlined above is just one of many possible approaches that one could take to this one topic from this one “standard”–one of many ruled out because we have been told that we must do what the “standard” says and not any of a thousand other things that never occurred to Lord Coleman.

Of course, a unit on metaphor as conceptual framing would be in line with the state of the art of research into the cognitive science of thinking and language. Such conceptual framing is fundamental to the thinking via natural prototypes (as opposed to Aristotelian natural kinds) that we actually do. And being aware of what we do, there, is extremely powerful and enriching, to one’s reading, one’s writing, and one’s thinking generally. Knowing about conceptual frames facilitates unlearning, which is the most powerful kind of learning there is.

But no. As an author of curricula for K-12 students, I am not allowed to think about such  matters now. Lord Coleman has done my thinking for me and for all of us, and we shall have new thinking when the CCSSO reconvenes its Politburo  in five years or so to issue its next bullet list. If we want changes in these “standards,” we shall have to await future orders from the Commoners’ Core Curriculum Commissariat and Ministry of Truth, appointed (by divine right?) the “deciders” for the rest of us.

And so it is by such means as I have described above that these “standards” typically limit the possibilities for pedagogical and curricular innovation. We are to limit ourselves to the backward, received, unimaginative, uninformed, often prescientific ideas of the Philistines who put together these “standards” based on the lowest-common-denominator groupthink of the previously existing state “standards.”

I’m not happy about that. Could you tell? How did my use of figurative language in this piece affect my tone and your mood?

And who cares? Wouldn’t you much rather engage what I had to say? to agree or disagree and tell me why?

I thought so.


P.S. If you wish to respond to this piece, please make sure that your response is a five-paragraph theme on how my use of figurative language in the piece affects its tone or mood, and please give at least three pieces of evidence from the piece to substantiate your claims. Do not under any circumstances address what I had to say. That would be outside the parameters for response that I have set here.

See what I mean? The Coleman approach leads to completely unnatural, inauthentic Instawriting, InstaReading, and InstaThinking instead of actual, normal engagement with texts–with what writers actually have to say. But precisely the sort of directions I just gave for your response are being repeated in text after text after text, on test after test after test, because of the CC$$ in ELA. And if that’s not completely screwy (another metaphor), I don’t know what is.

Illustration and text copyright 2014, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved. These may be distributed freely as long as the text is kept entire and is not edited and this copyright notice is retained on all copies.

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Ed Reform, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Teaching Metaphor (with Comments on Developing Curricula in the Age of the Thought Police)

  1. Pingback: On Developing Curricula in the Age of the Thought Police | Educational Policy Information

  2. Peter says:

    Exactly. One more way in which the CCSS appear to have been developed by that mediocre student in third period who didn’t really understand the lessons, but memorized just enough to pass the test. Now, twenty years later, he sort of half-remembers that there was some stuff, and it was important, so let’s put that in the standards.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh, come on– you don’t think we can actually use the standards to predict what will really be on the test, do you?


    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Not at all. But still, educators’ belief that they can leads them to distort curricula and pedagogy.


    • Bridget says:

      I can’t tell if your tone is sarcasm or not??? So I am confused as to what my mood should be???
      Of course teachers will assume that PARCC will focus on these standards…


      • Bob Shepherd says:

        I am not understanding what you are saying, Bridget. The point of the piece is that the standards tell people to focus on one topic related to figurative language when figurative language is so much broader a subject, and that focusing on that narrow topic is a narrowing of curricula.


  4. Bridget says:

    Sorry Bob. I was trying to respond to Penny. Your piece was perfectly clear to me. My pitiful attempt at sarcasm! 🙂


  5. Bridget says:

    Thanks for your insight Bob. As always, I look forward to your analysis of the standards. Helps keep me sane in this insane environment.


  6. Shulamith Bakhmutsky says:

    When teachers forced
    To teach one way
    And others not,
    When children taught
    To use the slogans
    Rather than the thought,
    Then soon the books
    Be censored and be burned,
    Then darkness will descend
    Upon our world.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alan says:

    Language, of course, is inherently figurative since words are symbols of representation. Kenneth Burke once interestingly described the basic mode by which language operated as synecdoche, when a part of a thing represents the whole.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Exactly!!! So glad you know this piece! That’s precisely why I mentioned Burke, above:

      Thinkers as diverse as Emerson, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Borges, Sapir, Whorf, Burke, Hirsch, Derrida, Lakoff, and Kovecses (one could list many others) have all written, in various ways, about how metaphor is one of the fundamental means by which we understand the world.


  8. Stephen B Ronan says:

    Just wanted to be sure you saw this belated comment/query
    I understand that the referenced materials are rather a lot to digest and your time is limited. In any event, thanks for all your great work.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ponderosa says:

    Bob, you are so right about the Commissariat metaphor. One of the worst things about Reform is the Soviet-style (or Vatican-style) centralization of thinking. With rare exceptions like your blog, I see few signs of any lively debate about pedagogy and curriculum in our vast country. There is a Party line and few can even conceive that alternative ways of thinking exist. To most, an orthodoxy, a dogma, is well and good. No red flags about such a state of affairs; in fact, it’s comforting.
    We need to teach a unit on brave iconoclasts and dissidents! Alas, the Common Core does not acknowledge the import of such a unit.

    Liked by 1 person

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