Hey, Culligan Man!

I sometimes share with my students Robert Frost’s observation that “unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you’ve had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” The reactions vary from the predictable ad hominem argument that “he’s just saying that because he’s a poet” to more nuanced thinking, but almost never anything like even provisional acceptance. Most students would never consider, say, that “natural selection” is a metaphor. Most of them, even if they have heard of a cliché, would not think of it as a dead metaphor that has been dug up by its employer for a bad job of verbal zombie work.

The danger to which we expose ourselves in being strangers to the metaphor is not a Night of the Living Dead, though bad writing and speaking do arouse horror in some of their readers and listeners. Rather, it is in an inability to produce sound thinking by metaphor or, when presented with it, an inability to get it. William James in 1890 described the mind as a “stream of thought,” an excellent metaphor and, I venture to guess, ultimately more successful than the one educational theorists favored forty years ago: that the mind is a computer.

(Except, of course, the behaviorists among them, who didn’t recognize the mind. An old joke has two behaviorists at sexual inter­course. After they are finished, one says to the other, “You enjoyed that a lot. How did I like it?” This post-coital query was probably framed by someone who at work in an education research lab claims that educated people meet behavioral objectives. He would probably shake his head walking away from Rodin’s Thinker, who clearly doesn’t amount to much.)

But sometimes we feel unsafe because we are at home in the metaphor. One metaphor around which teachers should feel unsafe is that “a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction.” The immediate reaction is that it makes no literal sense. To deliver something we must first have something to deliver, such as a bag of groceries, a report, or a water softener. “Instruction” is not a thing except as an illicit reification. “Deliver instruction” makes no metaphorical sense either. When I was seventeen I did part-time work as a delivery boy, and I can find no figurative (or literal) resemblance between teaching and that job.

When a teacher does focus instruction on a particular part of his subject, there is still no “delivery” as of a little parcel. It is not a delivery—not anything like it—to get students to understand Strunk and White’s Rule 3 (“Enclose parenthetic expressions in commas”) if they have not understood it before.

Two North American students of mine one year were about as different as it is possible for two students to be. One of them took two years to learn to write a coherent paragraph with a topic sentence and was still a bit shaky at the end of that time. She was diligent and she was attentive, but it took attention, diligence, and rewrites to produce that paragraph. She struggled to read Alan Paton. At the other end was the boy who in our school’s homegrown writing assessment was the only one for years to get a perfect score, which he got every time he took it. He could and did read Moby Dick very well. I mentioned in a previous posting that I sometimes share a piece with one class but not with others. With his class I decided to share D. H. Lawrence’s study of Moby Dick. His first reaction, a sound one, was that the study was idiosyncratic, brilliant and very exciting. His second reaction, also sound but more prudential, was to ask what would happen if he tried writing like Lawrence for his International Baccalau­reate examiners. I told him that unless he was feeling a great deal of confidence in his risk-taking, he might want to stick to a more orthodox style of essay-writing for the examiners but that he was free to try and imitate Lawrence when writing for me. He did, and his tries were very good indeed. Then, for his semester final, he practiced going conventional and did a good job that way too.  Both of these students learned something important, but it wasn’t off the shelf and I wasn’t their Culligan Man.

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