Care, the Market, and the Power of Metaphor

Alan Watts 1915 - 1973

Alan Watts used to encourage his audiences to think about the metaphors that might be channelling their thinking without them even realising it.

What silent metaphors attach to ‘life’, for example? Do you worry about whether you were given a fair start in life, whether you’re well-equipped for it, and whether you stand a chance of succeeding according to some criteria which we all more or less recognise (and which we’re less able to ignore than we might like to think)? In which case, is life basically a game or a competition to you? Is that the silent metaphor that’s at work?

Or does life feel like an unwanted situation into which you find yourself suddenly thrust, like a boring party or a long queue, from which you can’t really ‘escape’ in any way that appeals? Is there a metaphor lying deep somewhere that produces this sense of separateness from ‘life’ going on all around?

Watts thought that too often we see life as a race, unclear as to what lies at the end of it or what the ‘prize’ is for doing well, yet running headlong nonetheless. This, he thought, was as daft as an orchestra’s performance of a symphony being judged according to how quickly it reached the last bar of the music. The creators of the cartoon series South Park made a great video to accompany some audio of Watts talking about it:

embedded by Embedded Video

I’ve been thinking about this because of a recent article by Madeleine Bunting about how a ‘marketised mindset’ has taken hold in the UK to such an extent that we have basic trouble accepting the dependency of others – whether children or the elderly or the frail – and prefer to ‘buy in’ our ‘solutions’. The dependency of others frustrates the aspirations – the silent metaphors of life – we’ve unwittingly ended up with, which orient us towards working and consuming.

Even care is disrupted, as Bunting points out, when we talk revealingly about ‘investing’ in our children.

These are more than random linguistic choices: this language of the market exposes our ways of thinking just as much as it channels them in the first place – we really don’t seem to be able to distinguish between creating a society that uses wealth efficiently and one that subordinates itself entirely to the accumulation of that wealth in the first place. And in failing to make that distinction we end up no longer being able to offer any values that successfully trump wealth-creation and efficiency – this is partly what the Occupy Wall Street campaigns are all about, of course.

In my line of work we’re experiencing this march of market logic more and more as tuition fees start to rise. On the one hand it’s hard to begrudge students a concern about whether their thousands of pounds are being put to good use, but on the other a teacher-student relationship that’s supposed to be pastoral and intellectually nurturing is completely shot to pieces when a student concludes a one-to-one meeting by asking ‘what else can I use you for?’

How does a teacher assert an alternative set of values at that point? Just as asking someone for their respect is a sure sign that you don’t presently have it and probably won’t now get it, so any attempt to describe to a student the kind of relationship on which a university education ought to be based has no hope of bringing that situation about: if student expectations start to be firmly rooted in the idea that education is basically a transaction – if that is the silent metaphor that takes hold, governing all conversation on the issue – then for teachers to insist otherwise will be pretty much futile.

As with care, so with education: that the marketised mindset Bunting talks about should take root is not just tragic, it’s also revealing of how quickly and how deeply we can become victims of a prevailing silent metaphor – in this case that of a ‘transaction’ – barely even noticing that it’s happening.


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  • Valerie Pate
    October 20, 2011 - 8:22 pm | Permalink

    This definitely struck a chord with me. I have been struggling hard to live in the moment lately, but the concept of constantly needing to “get it right” (time management, parenting, home cooked meals, being good to the environment, etc.) can leave you off-kilter. You feel you must plan ahead; you must squeeze all possible value from every passing moment, for how else are you to keep up with everything that’s expected (let alone on offer)?
    These silent metaphors can easily become so toxic.

  • Will Bartlett
    October 31, 2011 - 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Can I offer an alternative viewpoint, without subscribing to it? What about the idea that making education a transaction between student and university (as opposed to parent and university) is empowering? If the student is asking the teacher, “what else can I use you for?”, while framed in rather mercenary language is that not the student recognizing the value of another’s knowledge and purchasing it, as equals? Universities, governments, banks etc. are patronizing institutions by design; the older, more successful, more knowledgeable and more charismatic imparting upon everyone else just enough to get by, but not enough to succeed themselves without also joining the club.
    The power of the “education is a right, not a privilege” rhetoric is that it removes the need for us to see free education as something for which we should be grateful; it is a right: not a privilege, but also not a gift, and not an investment: we should have the right to it, but our responsibility is to ourselves, to make of it what we will, rather than to whoever made the investment. Asking taxpayers to fund that right while emphasizing the lack of reciprocal responsibility is naturally infuriating to many people, whereas requiring every exchange of knowledge to be paid for seems, counter-intuitively, to remove one form of the power that wealth confers on the wealthy. But, perhaps I am only capable of having that thought because I have never been starving, and in any case for the sake of being able to show my face in the university again I would emphasize that I offer this viewpoint as something to be engaged with and defeated, in order to strengthen the revolution…

  • Chris
    November 1, 2011 - 8:24 pm | Permalink

    The idea that students ought not to have to feel patronized by universities is hard to argue with, and it’s very interesting to hear that this might be how some students feel. But it’s a shame that money and the metaphor of transaction has to be brought in to address that particular problem.
    The ideal teacher-student relationship is based in mutuality and reciprocity, empowering for both parties – just look at how many academics, in their writings, thank their students for their ideas and inspiration. In that way, gratitude flows in both directions.
    Just as money often enters an equation only once the subtlety of human relations have somehow broken down – buying someone’s silence, for example, or their favour – so the idea that students might need to purchase their empowerment is distressingly sad, to my mind at least.
    (So onward the revolution,as you say…!)

  • Katie Phair
    November 3, 2011 - 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Love, love, LOVE that Alan Watts clip!

    As for the idea that education is a transaction, I’m afraid it’s going to become an increasingly prominent idea if EUSA (as an obviously random and non-biased example!!) spend all their time protesting fee increases instead of actually ensuring the highest possible standard of education and of student-teacher relationships. So many tutors fail to grasp the importance of that interaction and so many students are either too lazy or too misinformed to utilise it, hence the inevitable decline into talk of value-for-money education. Whatever happened to education as a improvement to the individual and an investment into the kind of minds that built the foundations of our state? Really, it’s all a musical and it’d be a shame if we forgot to dance…

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