The Play of Metaphors

By Osborn, Michael | Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The Play of Metaphors

Osborn, Michael, Education

As I read Professor Schwatzman's provocative essay, I found myself ready both to cheer and to argue. The game metaphor for the educational process is certainly not new; indeed, it has a respectable antiquity. Certainly it was "in play" in the progrmnasmata and other school exercises of the Greek and Roman teachers of rhetoric (Clark, 1957). After all, to give a speech of advice to Helen or Paris must surely have involved considerable gamesmanship, replete with audience cheers or derision over clever or awkward verbal "moves." Similarly, the contest speeches of the Second Sophistic were public amusements for adults, and the dialogues of Plato adumbrate an even earlier period of spirited dialectical encounters, conducted among the contending intellects of Athens before admiring and critical audiences who appreciated their sportive as well as their serious elements. Therefore, Schwartman's essay should be read not as discovery but as significant recovery.

But the selection of any master metaphor for the educational process may run counter to what Lyotard (1984) has described as a postmodern reluctance to accept grand narratives. Metaphor is, as George Campbell first notes, "an allegory in miniature" (1776, 1.7ii). Metaphors resonate with moral lessons and implied stories waiting to be told. Perhaps we should first determine which transdisciplinary values we wish to inculcate -- like fairness, respect for others, intellectual growth, etc. -- then determine metaphors appropriate to the given field or specific educational context that might best incubate those values. Thus master metaphors might differ in history, psychology, etc. Perhaps even the values themselves are field-specific. Thus, while the gaming metaphor might have wide applicability, it would be more or less useful in the given field, and in some disciplines might even be counterproductive (as in the "game" of ethics, art, or religious education).

These thoughts might suggest that we pursue more the "play of metaphors" than the "metaphors of play." Certainly the gaming metaphor can be quite useful in communication education, where, as Schwarztman notes, students often approach the basic performance classes with fear and loathing. Refraining these courses according to the game metaphor might well mitigate some of the terror and negativism that complicate both learning and teaching. But other metaphors can also enhance the learning potential in such courses. Combining these metaphors i a strategic array of figures, a calculated "play of metaphors," can be quite useful.

This year as we worked through revisions for the fourth edition of Public Speaking (1997), my colleague and I detected a basic pattern in the manuscript that had somehow eluded us before: the many skills and sensitivities we try to cultivate in the public speaking course come together in three fundamental metaphors that may reflect deep tendencies in what we teach. These basic metaphors emerged as we discussed three subjects: organizing ideas into cohesive, effective patterns, combining symbols and persuasive elements into convincing presentations, and overcoming the personal challenges of communicating.

The metaphor that emerged as we discussed organizing and constructing ideas was the student as builder. The motive it expresses is to shape the world to our needs and purposes -- to impose order and purpose upon the chaos that surrounds us. This deep human impulse creates an instructional imperative as well: we need to give our students the gift of a sense of form. The arts of designing and building speeches, of learning the nature and range of supporting materials and what they can best support, the strategies of outlining -- all are central to this gift. Understanding the orderly development of ideas is surely central to that awareness we call a liberal education.

A second metaphor to emerge in our manuscript was the student as weaver. Our students practice the art of weaving symbols into the fabric of a speech and evidence and proof into the tapestry of powerful arguments. …

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