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Excerpt from:  “If Education is a Feast, Then Why Do We Keep Narrowing the Menu? A Critique of Pedagogical Metaphors,” Journal of College Teaching XXXV.3 (Summer, 1987):  101-106.


The significance of analyzing the metaphors that we use in education seems obvious. If we can learn to see the metaphors that shape our educational world, we may achieve new insights into some of our methods and problems. One of the most persistent and serious problems in liberal education . . . is our difficulty in achieving a tight fit between our educational means and ends. We in liberal education suffer from a rift between what we want and what we get, a rift through which our energies and effectiveness often seem to seep. 


In my view this rift is created in part by our governing metaphors, metaphors so deeply ingrained in our thinking that they remain invisible to us. If we can say, then, what governing metaphors we rely on, and, even more important, whether or not those metaphors are appropriate, we might be able to heal that rift and obtain more surely the results we want. 


The most powerful and widespread metaphor in education is also the worst. It is the mechanistic metaphor, learning is storage. This metaphor gives us the picture of the mind as a container like a box or a warehouse, a picture that turns learning into storing. Would-be brides in former days stuffed their “hope chests” and looked forward to the marriage that would allow them at last to take out the stored items and use them. Today many students, perhaps most, use a “hope chest” approach to their classes. They too are storing items and looking forward to a happy and prosperous marriage-between them and the “right” job. They don't know whether the goods they are storing will really be useful, or how long they will last. Students don't think much about the fact that most professionals divorce their jobs two or three times before they settle on the one they stay married to until retirement, but they work hard at storing away all the information they can, and hope for the best.


They see few other options. In pursuit of success—not education or knowledge—they dutifully go first to one department, storing up goods to the specified volume of mental space indicated by the college catalogue, then to the next department, and so on.


Under the authority of this metaphor, students provide proof that they are eligible for marriage to some sexy job by periodically hauling items out of their mental hope chests at test time and showing that they haven't allowed the goods to become rotten, dusty, or lost. Recall is the mechanism for showing one’s stock. Memory is in fact the primary mechanism of modem education. Students memorize and teachers test. The best fit between memory and test produces the students with the highest GPAs.