Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Life as Metaphor

In an insightful column, New York Times, columnist David Brooks examines the significance of metaphor in our daily lives. As an English teacher, I couldn't agree more with his argument that "metaphors are central to our thought life." Our conscious understanding of the world is profoundly impacted by the way we use metaphor to understand the world. It molds our philosophy and perspective in life, and it impacts the way we live and work and play and vote and relate to each other. No one understands this better than George Lakoff whose book "Don't Think of an Elephant" has been a call to action for Democrats to take control of campaigns through the language they use. In many ways, it's about the metaphors.

Each year, I begin my AP Language and Composition class with a discussion of how they are expected to become "people on whom nothing is lost." Part of that task is understanding how people - including parents, teacher, marketers, and politicians - will always seek to manipulate others through language. Metaphor is one of the most effective ways to do this, and the example I use is the contrasting terms "estate tax" and "death tax." Both terms describe the taxes that are levied against inherited property. Long ago, the GOP under Newt Gingrich realized they could sway public opinion against the tax by shifting terminology from "estate" which the common associated with rich people to "death" which people associated with all people. A telling poll from 2004 revealed that 75% of Americans supported the "estate tax" whereas 75% of Americans opposed the "death tax." Clearly, words matter.

Often the language and metaphors we use to perceive a situation are quite separate from the reality of the issue. And when people are often given more direct information outside of the metaphors they have long used to perceive an issue, they feel enlightened and will even change their minds. As teachers, thus, the ability to understand the way metaphor functions in our perception of the world is perhaps one of the most important tasks we have as English teachers. It's not just about a great story or a grammar rule. The teaching of English must center on the use of language.

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