Education, meaning the process of teaching and learning some form of knowledge or skill, is a concept that has been described in metaphorical terms almost since its earliest formal conceptualization. The terminology used to describe the value of education, products of scholarship, individual formal aspects of an education or the entire process itself has been based heavily on abstracting metaphor since the time of Aristotle and Socrates, and is by no means limited to recent developments in the English language. In fact, very few terms associated with education have ever been particularly unabstracted, a situation pointed out by the difficulty of describing the concept of education in terms that do not rely heavily (if not exclusively) on metaphor.

The study of literature, being the realm in which the use of language has traditionally been most immediately explored (and the “mother” department of linguistics in many cases) in higher education is especially susceptible to metaphorical abstraction of its products and processes, a phenomenon which this paper will argue is undergoing a change away from a paradigm based on a metaphors of guidance and initiation towards metaphors based on expansion and discovery. To do so, I will begin with an overview of some traditional and historical notions about the role of education and how those ideas translate themselves into metaphorical schema. Then, using some examples taken from presentation and session titles from the 1998 Modern Language Association meeting in San Francisco, CA, I will demonstrate the way in which the current scholarship in literature and language studies demonstrates a shift away from these traditional ideas towards a new, inclusivity-based metaphorical model. I will also intermingle some critical discussion about the possible positive and negative effects of this change in the language of education and scholarship, a topic which is perceived (mistakenly, in my opinion) to be of greater relevance in the “postmodern” age than ever before, thanks to the polemicizing and often inflammatory work of scholars like Alan Sokal.

As an opening salvo against the idea that academic jargon is somehow “worse” or more pronounced in the 1990s is contained within Peter Burke's excellent 1995 piece entitled “The Jargon of the Schools,” in which he takes the reader through the history of complaints about the abstracted (and potentially meaningless) nature of the language of education. In his introductory discussion of the subject, Burke writes:

The phenomenon of academic sometimes explained by the over-specialization and competition of the modern academic world, the proliferation of new disciplines, journals and university departments and the consequent need for individuals and groups to mark out and defend their intellectual territory and to distinguish themselves from their competitors.[...]

Such relatively new developments may encourage jargon, but the phenomenon—or the accusation anyway--goes back at least as far as the ancient world.1


He then goes on to discuss, in great detail, the barbs hurled against linguistic innovations in academic discourse by writers and thinkers like Plato (who railed against the original Sophists), Epicurus, Seneca, Petrarch, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Webster, Locke and others up to the 1960s. Burke's essay points out an important, practical linking theme of the attacks against “the vainglory of syllogizing sophistry”2 or “strange and barbarous words”3: “Hobbes's purpose was, of course to undermine...the discourse of the 'School-Divines', as he called them—in other words, the theologians whose obscure political terminology, so Hobbes claimed, was responsible for the recent civil war.”4 The complaints against the language stem from a larger complaint against the philosophy of those who use the particular language in question. If one looks at the main trunk of backlash against current academic neologisms in literature, it is possible to see a similar desire to “undermine the discourse” of groups who are attempting to assert a place within the study of literature that has traditionally been denied them.

R. K Elliott, in his essay “Metaphor, Imagination and Conceptions of Imagination” discusses some of the central metaphorical associations that have traditionally been made with education, discussing several of them in light of their historical origins. Some of the most common that he picks out are the following: “education as formation or production; as preparation or apprenticeship; as initiation; as guidance; as growth; as liberation.”5 About these he comments that “Each presupposes that education has a point or purpose, and each is normative in character, indicating what education ought to be by seeming to state, incompletely, what it essentially is.”6 Even a cursory glance at a thesaurus yields a panoply of phrases synonymous with education that fit into Elliott’s categories. A number of these are based on ontological metaphors that substantiate education (as in “My education in English literature qualifies me for this job”) or make education into a quantifiable and qualifiable entity (as in “I received a first-rate education from Harvard”). Others are based on substantive metaphor that equates education with the process of teaching and learning (as in “Elementary education is very different today than it was twenty years ago”).

For example, the words “edification” (from Latin aedificare, “making of a temple”) and “instruction” (Latin root struere, meaning “pile up' or “build”) are derived from Latin metaphors within the paradigm of formation or production. They are certainly not alone in this status as English has derived a host of other phrases that commodify and physicalize the concept of education—”building one's future [through education]” and “making something [better] of one's self” spring immediately to mind. Especially as the perceived role of colleges and universities has evolved (for many administrators, educators and students) from primarily being “the methodological discovery and teaching of truths about serious and important things”7 to providing an atmosphere for advanced vocational training of all sorts, the idea of students becoming “products” of a school has become more commonplace. Likewise, the ideas expressed by those students are in turn viewed as “products” themselves (witness the phrase “intellectual property,” which seems to physicalize ideas).

This schema is not limited to concepts of education in English. The predominant Russian word for education (“obrazovanie”) contains the root “obraz-,” which alternately can mean shape, form, image, way, etc., thereby placing it also into the “education is formation” schema. The German phrases “bildung” (which, in addition to “education” can also mean “formation,” “development” or “creation”) and “ausbildung” (often translated as “training” but more accurately rendered as a specific kind of education, like “bibliotheks-ausbildung” or “librarian's training”) also work in this model, stemming from the root “bild” or picture. The metaphorical extension in bildung involves changing ideas into a formal representation (a picture) of knowledge.

Likewise, the metaphorical schema of preparation seems to be one that has no end of metaphorical expressions occurring in English, such as “training,” “exercise,” “discipline,” or “familiarization”. Each of these expressions in some way involves introducing a pupil to a concept or skill and making it readily accessible to him/her by repeated, possibly rigorous contact. Without resorting to the too-easy joke that this vocabulary explains the repetitive and “by rote” nature of much traditional education, it is true that these metaphors have fallen somewhat out of fashion as the client/provider relationship between pupil and teacher has begun to replace the more medieval notion of novice/adept (or novice/guru if the more recent parlance of the 1960s is preferable). I do not wish to make an assertion of superiority of any kind for this latter model, only to point out that the metaphorical language of the process has followed along with the redefinition (again using metaphor) of the teacher/student interaction.

            However, the central metaphor of traditional education is almost certainly the idea of leading a student down a particular (presumably true) path to knowledge. The word “education” itself contains this basic meaning (the English word “duct” springs from the same Latin root as education, ducere, which means “to lead”) and the list of derived metaphors from this idea is lengthy. From the simple one-word metaphors like “direction,” “guidance,” “tutelage” or “tutoring” (both of which derive from the Latin verb for “watching [over]”) to the more elaborate conceptions of “showing/pointing out/teaching/demonstrating the [proper] way,” educational metaphor is filled with instances in which a teacher is presented as a Vergil figure corresponding to the student's role as Dante. Along with this follows the concept of “enlightenment” as a metaphor for education, since one must presumably “shed light” on the “proper way” as one leads another down it. Conflated images of illumination and education date back to ancient times and even provide historians with a catchy name for the period of European history associated most closely with the rise of humanist education, i.e. the Enlightenment. Finally, this metaphor also resembles the “education as initiation” schema, since leading someone down a path to a desired and normative goal is a fitting description not only for education in the “guidance” metaphorical schema, but initiation processes in general.

            Reference to the tenth edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary demonstrates the ubiquity of these three concepts in the definition of education:

ed·u·cate \e-jƏ-kāt\ vt (15c) 1 a: to provide schooling for b: to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade, or profession; 2  a: to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically especially by instruction b: to provide with information: INFORM;  3: to persuade or condition to feel, believe, or act in a desired way. 8


Definition 1 (especially 1b) fits into the schema of “education as preparation,” whereas definitions 2a and 2b both are examples of “education as formation.” However, it is in definition 3 that the root of the whole argument about the nature and language of education takes center stage. The conflict between differing conceptions of “the desired way” (the “duct” down which the student is to be led and what he/she will find at the end of it) is the direct cause of criticism of the language, a situation which is in turn engendered by conflict between the different philosophies of higher education that exist today. Elliott writes of the established educational metaphors:

When we ask concerning the meaning of these metaphors, their incompleteness and therefore ambiguity becomes apparent. If education is preparation, for example, it may be preparation for life, or for work, or for war, or for prayer and the love of one's neighbor.... Every education might claim to be guidance, but different educational theories have different ideas about what counts as guidance.... It is not because of their versatility that they have become prominent in educational discourse, however, so much as by virtue of their connection with certain well-known theories of education, for as well as having a free and untrammeled use, they are also used in such a way that their interpretation is bound to the theory (or type of theory) of education with which they are most closely associated, and to which, in some cases, they might be said to belong.9


The remainder of this paper will look at how just the titles of papers and sessions from last year's MLA conference are evidence of significant motion toward the “education as guidance [towards a specific goal]” away from the “education as initiation [into a profession or other group]” model. Those who use this parlance represent a concept of education that involves expansion of (rather than simply achievement of) the “goal” or the “group” of these two metaphorical models.

            If education is understood as initiation, one must certainly ask the question of what exactly one is being initiated into. In the case of literary study, one is initiated into a group of people who are familiar with what has come to be known metaphorically (of course) as “the literary canon.” This term is itself derived from ecclesiastical law and its etymology dates even further back to the Greek word, kanōn, meaning “rule.” If we then interpret this idea of being initiated into the literary canon as learning to follow the “rule” of literature, it is necessary to look at what that “rule” has generally implied. Up until the early 1960s, the canon was generally a very white, male and European collection of writers running the temporal gamut from roughly Beowulf to late Modernist writing. Literature produced by women, minorities, non-Europeans and other marginalized groups was generally de-emphasized or excluded entirely, either through social convention, censorship or professional collusion. As literary study has begun to expand in order to include the writing of previously excluded groups, it has had to expand not only its critical vocabulary (hence, feminist criticism, “queer theory,” post-colonialism, et al.) but also its metaphorical approach to how it perceives its mission and process. My purpose here is not to take sides in the issue of whether this expansion of the canon is good or bad, but rather to discuss the ways in which the various sides of the debate can be identified merely by examining the language that they use.

            With the expansion of the canon to include any writer deemed to have merit (and perhaps with the subsequent expansion, courtesy of deconstructionist and new historicist criticism, to include any writer period) comes an attendant destabilization of the idea of a firm “rule” about which one is educated in order to be initiated into the profession of literary study. The “education as initiation” model is an inward-moving metaphor (see fig. 1 below) in which the learner (L) moves along a trajectory (T) demonstrated by the educator (E) until he/she reaches the bounded area of knowledge, or canon (C), into which he/she is to be initiated.

On the other hand, the newer concept involves a radical reshaping of the whole metaphorical framework (see fig. 2). The learner and the educator are much more closely linked, although the educator still takes on something of a facilitating role. The trajectory along which they move is now outwardly oriented, with its leading edge pushing on the boundary of the canon, which now encompasses both communal, professional knowledge and personal knowledge of the learner and educator. The bounded area expands as the trajector pushes on it and surrounds more of the domain area, in this case the entire possible corpus of literature. The learner and educator “ride” the trajector together as it expands to include more and more works within its canon. I will call this metaphorical schema “education as

discovery [or recovery] and expansion.”

            Some examples of this newer attitude towards the teaching and study of literature can be clearly seen in some of the following titles (unless otherwise noted, the titles are individual paper titles) from the MLA convention program: “Technology, Distance and Collaboration: Problems with Expanding Networked Pedagogies;”10 “The Computer as Catalyst: Where Do Second Language Acquisition Research, Cultural Studies and the Less Commonly Taught Languages Fit In?;”11 “To Transvest, but not to Transgress: Avoiding Deviance in the Decameron;”12 “Subverting the Norms” (panel title);13 “Border Theory in the Age of Globalization;”14 “Tightening Belts, Broadening Horizons;”15 “Mainstreaming Mr. Orton;”16 “Teaching Tolerance: Combating Bigotry in the College Classroom;”17 “Postcolonial Gothic and the New World Disorder: Crossing Borders of Space and Time in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride;”18  “Conflict, Cooperation, Convergence: A Roundtable on the Academic and the Nonacademic in Gay, Lesbian and Queer Print Culture” (panel title);19 “No Sage on the Stage: Collaborating with Graduate Students in Teaching Literature;”20  “Reorient(aliz)ing the Renaissance” (panel title);21 “The Globalization of ‘Culture’: Perspectives from Three Fields” (panel title);22 “Evaluating without Assimilating;”23  “Doctors Without Borders: Professing an Imagined Community of Written English Language;”24 “Recovering Lost Poetry by Nineteenth-Century American Women: Rethinking Why Women Wrote;”25 “Tolerating Theory;”26 “The Moral and Social Ramifications of the Reelitification of Public Higher Education;”27 “Unearthing the Atwood Canon” (panel title);28 “The ‘Deviant’ Classroom: A Roundtable Discussion on Inclusive Higher Education;”29 “Finding a Place for Kristeva and Transference Love in Pedagogy;”30 “Promoting Multicultural Education through Creative Writing: Crossing Cultures and Genders;”31 “Bridging the Gap: A Comparative Methodology for Third World Literary Criticism;”32 “Reading Our (Br)Others;”33 “Become the ‘Other’: China’s Challenge to American Teachers.”34 These are only a few examples (after all there are several thousand presentations annually at MLA) and only represent the “education as discovery” model. There are an equal, if not greater, number of titles that reflect the traditional conception of what literary scholarship is intended to accomplish. However, examination of the language used in this data set does lead to some preliminary conclusions.

            An admission of possible problems with this analysis is in order. The data I am using is not, in the strictest sense, a vocabulary of educational practice in the way that most of the accepted terms that illustrate the traditional metaphorical schema are. Rather, the titles I have chosen to include from the MLA represent some of the results of applying a different educational ideology to the available raw material (literary texts). In essence, this is a secondary step, but I believe it to be a logical argument that the product of scholarship is necessarily shaped, if not defined, by the primary metaphorical conception of scholarship and education. For example, if I conceive of my education as a “collaborative (between myself and an educator) unearthing of ideas beyond the border of my knowledge” it seems logical to me to believe that I will express my findings about literature in language that reflects this central metaphor. Alternately, if I perceive of my education as “being guided by someone else into an established body of knowledge,” there is an inherent contradiction between my conception and the notions of “transgressing,” “discovering,” “unearthing,” “bridging a gap,” “finding a place for,” or any of the other spatial metaphors used in the examples above. For example, if one believes the writing of Venedikt Erofeev or Wole Soyinka or Thomas Pynchon or Kathy Acker not to be a part of (or to be outside) the canon, then there is really no question of “finding a place” in the canon for their work. Such an action is by definition impossible if one’s canon is rigid and definitively bounded.

            The terms found in the examples from the MLA meeting demonstrate a distinct rejection of the ideas that only what is inside the canon is worthy of examination (i.e. teaching, since all these papers presumably are part of educating the body of literary scholars). Words and phrases such as “the other,” “borders” (often paired with “crossings”), “transgressions,” “tolerance” and any of the myriad “re-“ phrases (“rethinking,” “revisioning,” “reexamining,” “revisiting,” etc.) all demand validity for perspectives or subject matter that are rejected by traditional ideas of canon. These ideas are often explicitly named by their proponents as “deviant,” “queer,” “alternative,” or “outside,” words that associate them with notions of exclusion from the norm. The fact that each of these four words has also taken on a figurative and metaphorical gravity in critical discourse should not come as much of a surprise given this divergence of perception. Notably, most of the terminology used by these scholars’ titles employs physical metaphor to describe the status of their work in relation to the canon. All of the articles, by dint of their very existence as products of literary scholars (those already initiated), implicitly demand recognition as part of the canon. However, their subject matter is often excluded from the canon and their language reflects this exclusion by using physical metaphor to situate it outside the traditional bounded area of literary study. The necessity of this contemporaneous insider/outsider scholarly stance (and resulting language) demonstrates that resistance to the ideas represented is alive and well. This resistance is often represented by the scornful, almost Hobbesian denunciations of the language (and, by extension, the ideas) of those who discuss non-canonical works, writers or critical approaches (cf. Lutz or Sokal and Bricmont,35 although neither deals explicitly with literary study).

When the ideas of being an “insider” writing about something “outside” are conflated, the schema of education represented by figure 2 is brought into play. No longer is the canon rigid and no longer is the motion of either educator or learner inward. Rather any person that can lay a claim to being an educator or a learner within the field is able to push the boundary of the canon outward. Whether or not this model holds in the case of a complete novice writing in an entirely non-canonical way about literature is unclear, as there are not many instances of this happening. I suspect there is still some kind of authoritative status required to be able to start pushing at the boundaries, but it may be as simple as collaborating with someone else of authority. This leads to a sort of infinite regression of authority that I do not have the answers for, but is ultimately no less satisfactory an answer than that given by the canon-keepers, whose standards are equally (if not more) obscure.

Ultimately, the “education as initiation” schema implies a rigid canon, since the conception of education which it embodies implies a unidirectional flow of established knowledge from teacher (member) to learner (initiate). The expansion of the canon requires the consent of the membership in this conception, a process that the MLA perfectly demonstrates is neither quick nor easy. As the concept of “co-learners” or “collaborative education” begins to become more accepted, the language of educational processes and products is likely to follow suit. A glance through professional journals of education (especially those involving technology, like On the Horizon) demonstrates the vogue that these terms are gaining in current theory. I will leave it both to time and to others more qualified to determine whether or not this is a good thing, but the change in metaphor has already arrived.


   1. Peter Burke, “The Jargon of the Schools,” in Languages and Jargons: Contributions to a Social History of Language, ed. by Peter Burke and Roy Porter (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1995), 22.

   2. John Webster, quoted in Burke, 32.

   3. Thomas Hobbes, quoted in Burke, 31.

   4. Burke, 23.

   5. R. K. Elliott, “Metaphor, Imagination and Conceptions of Education,” in Metaphors of Education, ed. by William Taylor (London: Heinemann, 1984), 38.

   6. Elliott, 38-39.

   7. Edward Shils, The Calling of Education: The Academic Ethic and Other Essays on Higher Education (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1997), 3.

   8. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1997), 367.

   9. Elliott, 39-40.

   10. Modern Language Association. “Program of the 1998 Convention, San Francisco, California, 27-30 December,” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association 113 (1998), 1314.

   11. Ibid., 1315.

   12. Ibid., 1317.

   13. Ibid., 1320.

   14. Ibid., 1324.

   15. Ibid., 1325.

   16. Ibid., 1325.

   17. Ibid., 1326.

   18. Ibid., 1327.

   19. Ibid., 1327.

   20. Ibid., 1344.

   21. Ibid., 1346.

   22. Ibid., 1356.

   23. Ibid., 1364.

   24. Ibid., 1365.

   25. Ibid., 1381.

   26. Ibid., 1383.

   27. Ibid., 1385.

   28. Ibid., 1385.

   29. Ibid., 1399.

   30. Ibid., 1401.

   31. Ibid., 1402.

   32. Ibid., 1403.

   33. Ibid., 1404.

   34. Ibid., 1406.

   35. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science (New York: Picador USA, 1998).