The confusion of metaphor with reality is one of the fountains of the many-headed Nile of credulity, which, overflowing its banks, covers the world with miscreations
– S T Coleridge
By using two metaphors to draw attention to the dangers of metaphor, it might be argued that Coleridge has not heeded his own advice. However, looking at modern social media, the 'many-headed Nile of credulity' does seem to be an altogether appropriate metaphor for the present state of affairs. But Coleridge seems to suggest that reality is always clear and apparent so that we can distinguish it from metaphor. What if the reality is not known and all we have is metaphor?
This matters for education as we do not know the 'reality' of remembering or memory. Imaging techniques have provided us with information about various pathways in an active brain but such research has yet to provide a comprehensive description of the operation of memory, so we have to resort to metaphor in order to 'explain' what is happening.
I remember in my copy of Authur Mee's children's encyclopedia there was a sectional picture of a head showing a manual telephone exchange with operators connecting the messages from one part of the body to another. This is an instructive case as it shows that the metaphor of a telephone exchange has both positive and negative aspects. The idea of messages in and out of the brain is, at a simple level, helpful but what about the telephone operators – who are they?
In general we seek to 'explain' by seeing the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. In ancient times, people were familiar with life being associated with movement – dead people rarely move about. So when they looked at the sea and saw something in constant movement, it was not unreasonable to explain that movement as the sea being 'alive', just as a moving person was alive. This introduces us to the application of metaphor to explanation. We link a familiar thing to something novel or initially perplexing.
The notion of causality is much debated by philosophers, but in ordinary conversation the link of 'cause and effect' is frequently used as a way of explaining something that has happened. Thus in an immediate way, it was the buckling of the railway lines which 'caused' the train crash. However, the subsequent inquiry might find other causes. Perhaps the driver went through a red signal or the line was washed away by heavy rain, but in each case the 'explanation' is presented as a line of cause and effect events. In a world dominated by technology, we do not give much credence to religious or other superstitions. We do not think that the crash was caused by witchcraft or the will of god. What is the reason now for giving primacy to technological mechanical explanations?
In large measure, it is because since the 17th century we are what we have made, in the sense that we have used mechanistic metaphors of the then present to describe the process of remembering and the operation of mind. As an example, think of the way in which transport has made many 'explanations' for simple psychology. We have someone who is angry, well, 'he's only letting off steam' (early boilers had an unfortunate tendency to explode) or 'he's really gone off the rails this time'. In this context, think how the metaphors of 'tension' and 'stress' are used today to explain moods and depression – although, as far as we know, there is nothing in the brain which is actually in tension or under stress.
Technology advances and now the popular metaphor is that the mind 'is' a computer. We are born with a certain amount of 'hardware' and learning is the 'software'. I have even seen sleep described as, 'the brain's offline time for storage rearrangement'. In a number of ways, the operation of the brain 'resembles' a computer (the positive metaphor) but in many ways it does not (does your mind computer enjoy what it is doing?). We can be deceived if we stray into a metaphor's negative associations. In their book, Metaphors We Live By
, Lakoff and Johnson make the important point that any metaphor we use in a particular situation dramatically constrains our freedom to think about that situation.
A very early metaphor for mind, and particularly for remembering, was the idea of a container which could be filled with 'thoughts', just as a jar could be filled with little stones. Remembering was the selection of a particular stone (although it might take some rummaging about to find the one we wanted). This is the idea of an entity into which something is put for storage. In Charles Dicken's Hard Times
, Mr Gradgrind thinks of 'the little pitchers before him, which were to be filled so full of facts'. We think that we have progressed from these crude metaphors but we haven't. The Curriculum for Excellence talks of the four 'capacities'. The container metaphor is alive and well and constrains our approach – just look at the Scottish secondary curriculum.
Despite all the libidinous excesses of the restoration court of Charles II, a critical development for science was the founding of The Royal Society in 1660. One of its foremost early members was Robert Hooke, whose place in history as a scientist has been overshadowed by the success of Sir Issac Newton – a man who never missed the opportunity to denigrate his rivals. Hooke was excited by the properties of 'Bologna Stone', a mineral which glows in the dark. Here was a mechanical metaphor for memory, the substance takes in light energy and then returns it at a later time.
Hooke calculated the number of individual memories a person might store in a lifetime, which he estimated to be a little under two million. As part of the work with his microscope, Hooke had observed 'animals' in rain water which were no larger than one thirtieth the thickness of a human hair. This would mean that one cubic inch could contain millions of such creatures. If something similar were to exist in the brain and each could contain stored information, it would suggest that there was no lack of space for memories.
In an article probably written in 1666, Hooke considers how metaphors can be linked to 'matters of fact'. He suggests that metaphors have heuristic value in guiding research but does not make the distinction of Lakoff and Johnson that such guidance may contain hidden constrains. However, Hooke's work on memory was remarkable and paved the way for mechanical metaphors based on the science of the day.
Although superficially attractive, the computer metaphor, if used uncritically can support certain assumptions about the way in which people learn. We need to recognise that it is a container metaphor in a modern disguise. We suppose that the student is programmable and the differences between students are because of some hardware (ie, the brain) issue or different software (ie, skills). Teaching is to be like computer programming, where specific scripts are followed to allow inputs to be put into students who are then graded on outputs. Schools are computer repair shops where minds are modified to specification (ie, national standards) and evaluated against standardised performance indicators (ie, examinations). We would never allow ourselves to be misled in this way would we?
Some 50 years ago, John Dewey argued that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place. He claimed that enjoyment in learning is not a happy accident but an essential element in the desire to learn. Schools should celebrate diversity and recognise that differences between individuals are normal. We can also recognise that performance and capability are radically context sensitive. Is it possible that in subscribing to the 'mind as computer' metaphor we are applying the wrong metaphor to the design of educational institutions? Does a computer enjoy what it is doing? Do we like the 'mind as computer' metaphor because it supports so much of what we have done for years?
Students were recently criticised for missing school to go on climate change demonstrations. They recognise that their schools are not agents of social reform, but instruments of the existing social order. Developments in IT (particularly artificial intelligence) have the potential to change the existing design of secondary schools for the better. But only if they are employed to facilitate the social interaction of students and to open up for them visions of a better society. 'Unfortunately,' as Linus says in a Peanuts
cartoon, 'No-one in power is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them'.
Footnote: Hooke kept a journal of his experiments and projects. When he needed to correct or expand something he would paste a small note to the page with weak glue. He anticipated the Post-it note by some 350 years!
David Eastwood is Emeritus Senior Lecturer at the Department of Education, Aberdeen University