Metaphor and Baggage

Guest Correspondence


I remember sitting in a topology class many years ago, listening to the professor carefully explaining how some sets of numbers are open, while others are closed. He went on to say that many sets are neither, and that the sets that are both open and closed play an especially interesting role. “How can a set be both open and closed?” I asked. He turned, glared at me for a long second, and said in his heavily accented English, “Eez not a door.” Turning back to the board, he resumed lecturing. 

Although I did not immediately realize it, his answer was exactly right. The door metaphor helps one understand what it means for a set to be open or closed, but sets are not doors. To learn a discipline is to learn the concepts and the metaphors that a discipline employs, but to master a discipline requires learning the limits of those concepts and metaphors. Different disciplines, different professions and different languages use different concepts and metaphorsones that provide useful insight into the worlds they describe. 

The professor’s answer made an additional, larger point. Metaphors can bring hosts of assumptions, some of which one is unaware. Sometimes a field cannot advance until it outgrows some of its traditional metaphors and the assumptions they carry. Understanding fire or special relativity requires letting go of phlogiston and ether, respectively. Einstein described how hard he had to work to rid himself, and the rest of us, of the conviction that coordinates we use to locate an object in space have any physical significance.

Grabbing metaphors from one discipline and using them in another context occasionally produces striking insights. Thinking of a rumor as an infectious disease, or of a protein as a machine or of irregular verbs as being subject to natural selection has revolutionized our understanding of rumors, proteins and irregular verbs. More often, appropriating metaphors and concepts from one field to another sows confusion. Thinking of a corporation as a family, cancer as a punishment for misdeeds or a university as a business has consequences.

Universities bring students together with scholars from very different disciplines. These scholars inhabit totally different professional worlds, and the awareness of disciplinary difference fosters a climate where professors and their students, as those students gain experience, question the assumptions that underlie others’ discourse. This reflexive questioning makes universities hard to govern. But it also makes them invaluable to our society and it is one of the reasons for their durability. To use a medical metaphor, universities are our society’s T-cells. At the level of the individual student, questioning assumptions, especially those hidden in one’s own and others' disciplinary and professional discourse, is an important component of critical thinking, an indispensable trait for citizens, employees and leaders.   

Most corporate CEOs understand this. It is deeply ironic, therefore, that the universities-as-businesses metaphor, which views students as customers and degrees awarded as products, is promulgated in the name of having universities function as efficiently as a business. Businesses and universities need each other, but they are not the same thing. Insisting that they function the same way weakens both.

Dr. Donal O'Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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