Metaphors and Responsibility

by Maxine Greene

"The Possible's slow fuse is lit by the imagination"
Emily Dickinson

The fuse may be slow because of the ways in which the imaginative capacity has been ignored. In the many education reports that have appeared in recent years, imagination plays no part. In plans for cooperative work among teachers and professors, the stress is on pragmatic issues: standards, disciplines, benchmarks, approaches to assessment. The exclusion of metaphor and imagination from projects for reconstruction cannot be due to a lack of acquaintance with literature and other arts. Old dualisms, old oppositions seem to persist when education is talked about: the subjective is opposed to the objective, the affective to the cognitive. People feel compelled to use the flat language of the social sciences when they make proposals about young people, especially those different from themselves. They try to be cool, empirical, "objective" when deciding how diverse youth ought to come together, to be initiated into a common world. The manageable and the predictable become important, not the unmeasurable and the merely possible. We might recall Wallace Stevens and his rendering of that metaphor for imagination­the "blue guitar":

They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."

The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."

Those who demand a rendering of "things exactly as they are" often assume an objective reality that can and should be precisely captured. To use imagination is to summon up an "as/if", to look at things as if they could be otherwise. This does not deny firm evidence of what is "real" and "true." It does, however, enable us to break with the one-dimensional vision, to look towards what might or what ought to be. Clearly, this is troubling to those who seek the comfort of the familiar. For others, however, it signifies an end to submission to the taken-for-granted, to what has seemed inescapably "given": the "bell curve" rendering of human intelligence; the inevitability of poverty; the tie between material success and merit. It often takes metaphorical thinking to break with old certainties in this way, whether we realize it fully or reflect on what it means.

We do realize that a metaphor enables us to understand one thing better by likening it to what is not, as in the case of the blue guitar. Poetry still is the source of the best examples. Here is Muriel Rukeyser writing about breaking through boundaries, doing unexpected things with space:

After the lifting of the mist
after the lift of the heavy rains
the sky stands clear
and the cries of the city risen in day
I remember the buildings are space
walled, to let space be used for living
I mind this room is space
this drinking glass is space
whose boundary of glass
lets me give you drink and space to
your hand, my hand being space
containing skies and constellations
your face
carries the reaches of air
I know I am space
my words are air.
As in so many other instances of metaphor, we are enabled to move from one state of things to another, to reach through the walls, the glass towards the possibility of "skies and constellations"­and do so by an imaginative act.

An obvious response, certainly from those who want things "as they are," is to ask what the "blue guitar" or a "hand being space" literally mean. But there are many who make the point that a metaphor does not say what it means; since the meaning of it is the transformation it brings about in the listener or the reader. "Metaphor," writes G.B. Madison in The Hermeneutics of Postmo-dernity, "performs an existential function in that it provokes a change in the way we view things, it brings about a transformation in our thinking." The intelligibility of the blue guitar or the hand being space lies in its power to effect a change in attitude, direction, and at length understanding.

If meaning, then, is an event or a happening, it may be a generator of choosing on the part of the participant­the reader or the listener. This does not mean, however, that metaphor is not linked with language or that the unexpected perspectives it may open are not due to unexpected usages of words. The center of language may well be the metaphor; and it is language that has the capability of provoking changes in our ways of thinking, knowing, seeing. One of the things that makes metaphor so important to the discourse about education is that it can make visible and palpable particular phenomena, those so often submerged in categories. It may well be that attention paid to literature and the several arts, not simply as component parts of new curricula, but as occasions for experience on the part of those engaged in observing and reform, can release ways of seeing that go beyond the language of report.

An attending to metaphor can effect new connections in experience, disclosing new configurations to the mind. We find out, as Mary Warnock has written in Imagination, "that there is always more to experience and more in what we experience than we can predict. Without some such sense, even at the quite human level of there being something which deeply absorbs our interest, human life becomes perhaps not actually futile or pointless, but experienced as if it were." To enter into considerations of a teaching activity, a classroom project, a writing program with such a feeling of interest and absorption is quite different from entering in from a vantage point of expertise or a politely distanced "friendly criticism." Energized, in a matter of speaking, by metaphor, we may be able to think in terms of untapped possibility.

Metaphor also has to do with empathy, the capacity to look through another's eyes. Metaphor, writes Cynthia Ozick in Metaphor and Memory, is "a shocking extension of the unknown into our most intimate, most feeling, most private selves...." She goes on to talk about the important "power of connection," and of the continuities metaphor can create. It takes a metaphor, she tells us, to transform memory into a principle of continuity inexperience. "Through metaphor," says Ozick, "the past has the capacity to imagine us, and we it. Through metaphorical concentration, doctors can imagine what it is to be their patients. Those who have no pain can imagine those who suffer. Those at the center can imagine what it is to be outside. The strong can imagine the weak. Illuminated lives can imagine the dark. Poets in their twilight can imagine the borders of stellar fire. We strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers." This has relevance, clearly, for all sorts of relationships within institutions and in classrooms as well.

Empathy is not to be viewed as a mode of intuitive identification. More important is the beginning of authentic dialogue cued to a sense of the being of the "stranger." Nothing is gained by fusing with another, wrote Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian thinker and linguist. It is better, he wrote, for the other to stay on the outside "because from there he can know and see what I cannot see or know from my vantage point, and he can thus enrich essentially the event of my life." Our present interest in multiple perspectives may be seen as a way of enriching the events of diverse private lives. Classroom communities require an inclusion of plural vantage points: those of children, adults, newcomers, scholars, neighborhood representatives. There need be no identification; but the stranger's vision, if opened by imagination, can expand and widen the worlds of those who have been present since their beginnings. Similarly, if dialogue and authentic conversation take place, the stranger or the newcomer can be gradually moved to attend to others' stories, to apprehend through others' eyes the world she/he is expected to join. In many ways, for university people as well as school people, it is a matter of entering into others' narratives in order to grasp how they construct their realities. Only when this is understood, can the questioning be provoked on the part of learners, the questioning with which learning begins.

A rich example of the powers of metaphor can be found in Toni Morrison's novel, The Bluest Eye (1972). Pecola Breedlove, an unloved Black child made to believe she is ugly, yearns to have blue eyes, pretty blue eyes. She thinks that "if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say beautiful, she herself would be different." Her mother and father would be different. "Maybe they'd say, 'Why look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn't do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.'" Unable to see her own beauty, she wants to look like Shirley Temple. Claudia, who tells most of the story, hates blue-eyed dolls when she is young and tries to dismember them. Ashamed at last, her hatred turns into "fraudulent love." And then, "It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned much later to worship her, just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement." It would appear that there are few more potent ways of relating to the hopes and sufferings and misconceptions of young people like Pecola­strangers to many university people, strangers to their own teachers, who may need to be urged at last to imagine.

To respond to a rendering like this is quite different than responding to any social scientific exposure of racism or unfairness. It is different, too, from looking at photographs of lost children on city streets, stunned adults unable to intercede. We achieve something resembling empathy, something that may open the way to a dialogical relationship. We are continually reminded of the way in which the modern consciousness exists in a polyglot world. The only way to pay heed, it may follow, is by attending to the multiple voices sounding in ourselves as we try to look through unfamiliar perspectives at a world shared with so many we do not know. If we can perceive all this by means of metaphor, if we can grasp the edges of deficiency and desire, we may be moved in new ways to repair.

Arguing for the need to turn towards the "possible" by, at moments, altering our language, arguing als for more attention to the arts, we might summon up some other signs in the wind. There is, for example, Mike Rose's Possible Lives, subtitled "The Promise of Public Education in America." Needing to go beyond the overly familiar, he says, we need an altered critique, "one that does not minimize the inadequacies of curriculum and instruction, the rigidity of school structure, the 'savage inequalities' of funding but that simultaneously opens discursive space for inspired teaching, for courage, for achievement against odds, for successful struggle, for the insight and connection that occur continually in public school classrooms around the country." His book is an account of conversations in intimate visits to schools across the country. Escaping some of the bounds of literal, discursive speech, he is able to link a recognition of what is missing to the space of what might be. "Imagine you're the CEO...," he writes. "Imagine you're the owner of a house in East L.A. and you're losing it to a redevelopment project." And then, speaking of a discouraged teacher imagining what might be as she watches the children walking in the door: "They're the difference. They're eager. They're capable. Sure there's a challenge to reach a drug baby, the special ed child who's mainstreamed, the second language you work at it." A pause, and the teacher says, "And it takes desire." That is one of the points of metaphorical language: it is propelled by desire; it evokes desire.

Mike Rose realizes that public education is forever unfinished, like the democratic community itself. He sees schools where what John Dewey called a "we" and an "our" are emerging, where the consequences of combined action are perceived and become an object of desire and effort. Dewey knew that consciousness of this sort has always been enhanced by encounters with the arts. "The function of art," he said, "has always been to break through he crust of conventionalized and routine consciousness. Common things, a flower, a gleam of moonlight, the song of a bird, not things rare and remote, are means with which the deeper levels of life are touched so that they spring up as desire and thought. The process is art." The making of community, for him, like the opening out of public education, depended for him on the arousing of desire, on a consciousness of possibility.

Deborah Meier, in The Power of Their Ideas, speaks of the importance of imagination in the lives of children, leading (among other things) to the kind of imaginative play that leads to friendships and "the ability to imagine the world without oneself at its center." She rightly says: "As we eliminate from our schools and from children's after-school lives the time and space for exercising their creative imagination and building personal ties, we've cheated our children and our society in a far more critical way than we're inclined to understand."

I argue as well for an exercise of creative imagination on the part of teachers. If their language is informed with metaphor, they are more likely to break what Paulo Freire calls the "culture of silence," in this case, the culture that marks so many bureaucracies. Freire describes the development by Brazilian peasants of a "critical discourse" that may become a way of remaking their world. They began perceiving that the better world to which they aspired was being anticipated in their imagination. It was not a matter of idealism, Freire insisted. Imagination and conjecture about a different world than the unjust one that exists for so many are as necessary to the transformation of reality as a design is for a craftsperson or an artisan. And they may become, he went on to say, "a route to the invention of citizenship."

For Dewey, distinctive human projects could best be achieved by means of a "subtle, delicate, vivid and responsive art of communication"; and surely he meant the kind of communication that is fundamentally metaphorial, that opens to possibilities. If university-school collaboration is to be significant, this should be fundamental to what it achieves.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1995 Issue of On Common Ground