Control, Empowerment, and the Fake World: Converging Metaphors

Control, Empowerment, and the Fake World: Converging Metaphors

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Control, Empowerment, and the Fake World: Converging Metaphors


"Metaphors not only structure the way we think about school, they also help create the world of the school" (Cunningham, "Metaphors of Mind" handout).

This quote speaks the truth! Metaphors are the tools we use both to structure thinking about our culture and to create culture at the same time. An excellent example of this dual and interconnected role of metaphor is Marshall's belief that "the dominan t metaphor in many schools is SCHOOL IS WORK" (Cunningham, "MOM" handout). Marcel Danesi would say that this metaphor underlies a way to "conceptualize the world" of school (Danesi 107). By thinking about school in this way, the world of school is "crea ted" to be a work-filled experience. Students need to do homework and work harder at their lessons and teachers must manage their classrooms (Cunningham, "MOM" handout). It is in this way that the metaphor is the "cognitive phenomenon that converts fact ual feeling states into artifactual conceptual structures" (Danesi 107). Together, people create metaphorical ideas that turn into "real" artifacts, the representative structures of culture. The metaphorical idea of "school is work" produces the artifac tual world that fosters homework, working harder, earning grades, and managing classrooms (Danesi 108). These artifactual signs in turn perpetuate the controlling metaphor.

Metaphors, then, are at the heart of understanding the way we view aspects of our culture while we simultaneously build that culture. Umberto Eco stresses that culture is a collective experience. In his view, "there is no such thing as a single mind, un connected to other minds or to their (collective) social cultural constructions" (Cunningham, "MOM" handout). If this is taken as fact, the "social, cultural, historical, and institutional contexts" humans find themselves in contribute to creating their metaphors and in turn, their artifactual worlds. Therefore, the situational context and the metaphors found there are intertwined and must be examined together.

For example, I work in a juvenile prison. Prison is an interesting cultural context to investigate from its various perspectives. Many metaphors may be made about the same system depending on a person's immediate cultural group, or what Eco better terme d as humans' "local cultural organizations" (Cunningham, "MOM" handout). The sign of school and its object, the prison school program, has at least three distinguishable interpretants in the facility in which I work. These interpretants can be viewed as metaphors and are different depending on whose point of view and "local cultural organization" one is investigating.

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For two weeks I have been listening very carefully to officers, teachers, and students to determine what metaphors they use to describe and create the school program at the facility. I have discovered that the school program may be viewed in (at least) these three metaphorical ways: school is control, school is empowerment, and school is fake.

The correctional officers see "SCHOOL AS CONTROL". Their "local cultural organization" is based on the security of the facility. Their job is to "control" the students, keep all in the facility from danger, and to maintain order. The correctional offic ers believe the school program should contribute to these goals by being very structured. School should be based on order: the students should remain seated and quiet at all times. One officer revealed his frustration with not being able to "control" t he students when they were not in school and expressed his disgust with my group work session which he viewed as chaotic. He said, "I don't understand you! You actually have something you can make them do! You can make them be quiet and yet you insist on having them in these unruly groups!" The commanding tone of the repeated word "make" as well as his view that the students are "unruly" because they are talking, demonstrate his belief in the metaphor that school is, or at least should be, a controll ing device. Another officer expressed her relief and joy in gaining control of the students at night by use of a school method: homework. She said, "I'm glad you are finally assigning homework. Now we can make them be quiet for at least an hour every night!" Again, the commanding nature of schoolwork is revealed in her words. The assignments here are assessed not for their educational value, but for their controlling value. Yet another example of the "school is control" metaphor was articulated by an officer who walked into my room this week and yelled at one student, "Sit down, shut up, and listen to your teacher! She's the one in charge here, not you!" It was difficult to tell the officer that I had asked the student to stand to recite a poem f or the class! The officer's goal was to make it very clear that the teacher, me in this case, had power and control over the student. In fact, he stated I was "in charge" even though he was the one making the controlling statements.

The teachers, however, have quite a different metaphor for school. Their language, based on their own "local cultural organization", reveals that "SCHOOL IS EMPOWERING" is their culture-building metaphor. It must be extremely confusing for the students to perceive the two conflicting ideas of control and empowerment from the adults in the facility. The teachers' speech reveals their view that school is the way to improve, gain control, and change things you want or need to change. The history teacher told her students this week : "Your right to vote is a precious right. It is your voice to tell your government your approval or disapproval of their actions." Here, learning about the vote is the way to become contributing, powerful members of society . The history teacher also gave the students her feelings on why they need to learn history is tied to gaining control and being empowered. She said, "Learn about the past so you won't make the same mistakes in the future." Learning to analyze is the w ay to problem solve. The science teacher contributed to this "school is empowerment" metaphor with his statement, "No one can take your education from you. It is where you gain strength. It's yours forever." My own "local cultural" past explains my ow n reason for adopting the "school is empowerment" metaphor. Since my father forbade his daughters to go to college while stating he would pay for his sons to go if they chose to do so, my decision to go to undergraduate and on to graduate school has empo wered me in many ways. I worked hard to put myself through school and I have gained strength and control of my life by making college a part of my world. I refused the "sexist culture" I was raised in and feel empowered by continuing to work towards my educational goals. I discovered that this feeling of "school is empowering" finds its way into the language I use to with my students. I said to a doubting student that "Education is the key to your future. Being literate, knowing how to use language w ell, is the way to get ahead." My language, as well as the other teachers' language at the facility, is full of descriptions that insist school is the way to gain control of your life. We do so because academics have been an empowering force in our own lives.

Unfortunately, not all students have adopted the teachers' "school is empowerment" metaphor to create the school culture. In fact, I heard three different students say these statements this week that disturbed me very much:


What does this have to do with real life?
Why do I have to do this? I'm never going to use this!
This does not mean anything to me!
Even more disturbing was the explanation one student gave to another student who questioned the value of a math assignment. He simply said, "Shut up. School is just something you do. Just get through it."

These students' comments made me think of a book I read by Anne Haas Dyson entitled Social Worlds of Children Learning to Write. It opens with the following scene:


(Sonya and Anita lay beside each other on the floor. James and Lamar stand nearby).
"Sonya is my neighbor," Anita says.
"But in school, " explains Lamar, "Not in real life."
"We're not talking about real life," adds James. We're talking about fake life" (Dyson 1).
These first graders share the same metaphor for school as my high school students do: "SCHOOL IS A FAKE LIFE". My students' comments reveal their solid belief that school does not apply to the "real world" and that it has no real "use" or "meaning" for them. Some students view school as useless, but just something one "has to do". The metaphor of "school is fake" has a culture building result that educators would (and do!) find disastrous. My students, on the other hand, share a "local cultural organ ization" that is filled with negativity about attending school. Their peers, parents, siblings, and other role models may put school down or perhaps did not complete school themselves. Considering the troubles in their "real" lives, school often seems u nimportant considering the tragedies surrounding them. They may skip school to make money to help support their families or they may attend but not be able to concentrate.

As educators, it is important to investigate the power of metaphors such as these in creating "artifactual conceptual structures" and beliefs (Danesi 107). As a teacher at this correctional facility, I see both the "school is control" and the "school is fake" metaphors to be extremely damaging to the students' ability to learn. How can educators work to reshape "negative" metaphors into more positive ones? I believe that Umberto Eco's rhizome idea is useful in this situation. In Eco's belief, since th ere is "no such thing as a single mind, unconnected to other minds or to their (collective) social cultural constructions" there is a real potential for influence (Cunningham, "MOM" handout). In other words, thinking and teaching and learning are all "di alogic" and "connected" to each other and teachers can inundate students with their metaphors of empowerment and other positive metaphors through the use of dialogue. The key is to try to converge these metaphors and to come to some higher understanding . Is there a need for the teacher to be in "control" sometimes in school? Can students see the empowering nature of a diploma in the fact that it creates job opportunities? Are students sometimes, or even often, right in saying that some activities hav e no "real" value to life? If there is some truth in all of these statements, and I believe there is, then it is time at my facility to investigate our metaphors' value, interplay, and the language we use to convey these judgments on our school program. Together, with the "collective mind" we share in our "collective social cultural constructions" in the prison, officers, students, and teachers need to evaluate learning. I agree with Eco's beliefs, restated by Dr. Cunningham: "(Learning) is . . . a mat ter of constructing and navigating a local, situated path through a rhizomous labyrinth, a process of dialogue and negotiation with and within a local sociocultural context" (Cunningham, "MOM" handout). At my facility, we need to come together to create a new culture. We can do so by converging our metaphors and using language that creates "artifactual" results in a "real" curriculum that is controlled enough to be effective, but negotiated enough to be empowering.



Works Cited

Cunningham, Donald. "Metaphors of Mind". Class Handout.

Danesi, Marcel. Messages and Meanings: An Introduction to Semiotics. Canadian Scholar's Press, Inc.: Toronto, Canada. 1993. 107-126.

Dyson, Anne Haas. Social Worlds of Children Learning to Write. Teachers College Press, New York. 1993. 1-3.

Quotes from correctional officers, teachers, and students.
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