Teaching and Learning: In Search of a Metaphor

Ellen J. Goldberger writes that it's time to move past the customer service image for higher education. She proposes a new way to talk about what happens in academe.

November 24, 2008

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
--W.B. Yeats

The above quote is a favorite in academic circles; hardly a year goes by without someone using it to describe the teaching and learning process. Our imaginations gravitate toward metaphor. In the classroom, students love explanations that paint a verbal picture. In my mediation course, for example, I emphasize that options for resolution of a problem should come from the disputants themselves, not the mediator. This ensures better compliance with the terms of the agreement and creates a more durable outcome than if the mediator had suggested a solution. The question I ask my students is: “If you are moving into a new house, would you rather live in a house that was built and decorated by someone else, or one you designed, built and decorated yourself?” Heads nod in comprehension, and I have saved myself five minutes of explanation about the importance of preserving the parties’ right to self-determination.

Over the years, metaphors from the world of commerce have gradually crept into discussions of higher education. These metaphors describe both the educational process in general and the professor/student relationship in particular. Students are sometimes referred to as customers or consumers, and the college as a vendor in competition with other marketers of education; SWOT analyses have become an integral component of colleges’ strategic planning. Colleges that provide students with concierge-style customer service and luxurious facilities (college as a metaphorical day-spa?) are seen as achieving a competitive edge.

Is commerce an accurate metaphor for what takes place on our campuses? Is education just another product or service in our consumer-driven society? Or, if you don’t buy (no pun intended) the customer/vendor metaphor, are students more like clients, consulting with professors as they would with a doctor, lawyer, accountant or other expert? And if you don’t think the client/consultant metaphor captures our role as educators, perhaps you think that professors are more like trainers or coaches, helping and encouraging students to achieve their maximum potential? Which of these metaphors distills the essence of the professor/student relationship?

All of us have heard students refer to themselves as paying customers or consumers (usually when they are not happy). They feel that they are purchasing an education in the same way they might purchase a car. They have high expectations of quality and value, and sometimes (eerily) seem to view an education as a commodity that is external to themselves, like a pair of expensive Nikes. Nevertheless, there is some validity to the customer metaphor: Students expect to attend an accredited institution with professional, credentialed faculty, strong academic programs, and good facilities and support services. Furthermore, if we look deeper into the comparison between buying a car and buying an education, another, more subtle similarity emerges. Anyone in advertising can tell you that when we buy a car, we are not buying steel and glass and gears and rubber. We are investing in an image, a dream of power or success or happiness, a form of self-realization: in fact, a metaphor.

And so it is with educators, because we are selling not only credit hours, majors and degrees to our students. We are selling them a vision of the future, a dream of self-fulfillment, a hope, a chance to realize personal and professional goals. For those of us who teach, the educational experience is difficult to capture in words; the sum of a college education always seems to elude definition and exceed its individual parts.

But inevitably the commercial comparison breaks down. Consumers expect a product to be of standard shape and size, ready to use, ready to eat, or easily assembled; they expect to drive home the same Jeep they see in the showroom. This, of course, is not what education is about. Consumer metaphors don’t acknowledge the individual commitment, the interplay of minds, the give and take, the struggle and risk and trust that characterize the professor/student relationship and the learning process itself. You don’t just turn a key and put your education in gear. Education is a process, not a product.

So perhaps the student-client/professor-consultant metaphor is a better fit? Clients hire experts -- interior designers, psychologists, financial planners, doctors, lawyers, engineers -- to solve problems and provide sound advice. Unlike consumers, clients play a more active role in decision-making. There is mutual give and take, consultation and dialogue. Ultimately, the client must decide on a course of action. But, at the end of the day, we don’t go to a radiologist to learn how to read our own x-rays, or to a lawyer to show us how to draft our own wills. The client/consultant metaphor places too much emphasis on the expertise of the professional. The professor/student relationship, in contrast, relies on the experience and unique perspective of both partners in the undertaking. Students do not look to professors for advice or a plan of action so much as for guidance, inspiration and empowerment to make their own decisions and develop their own strengths and ways of learning.

Inspiration and empowerment -- these words evoke another common, more sports-oriented metaphor of the professor as trainer or coach. I confess that I’ve used this metaphor myself, on occasion, comparing studying to mental aerobics and the semester to a marathon. (“Pace yourself! Don’t leave it all for the last night!” Or: “You’ve got to do the heavy lifting yourself -- I can’t learn this stuff for you.”) The coach/trainer metaphor does acknowledge that there is no teaching, only learning, no conveyed wisdom, only hard-won insight. Students have to make the effort themselves, reach out and grab that brass ring (when I use that metaphor in the classroom, I get blank looks: what is a brass ring?). This metaphor rightly portrays the professor as a catalyst (lighter of fires) rather than a dispenser of knowledge (filler of pails).

But none of these metaphors for the professor/student relationship recognizes the alchemy, the practical magic that occurs when real learning takes place-- which brings us to Harry Potter. Harry, as most Muggles know, is a boy who discovers that he is a wizard. He enrolls at Hogwarts Academy for Wizards, and what is the mission of his professors? Not only to teach him the standard formulas and spells, but to help Harry discover the gift within him, grow into his own unique powers, and find his individual and unpredictable magic.

Corny as it sounds, magic may be the metaphor that best captures the classroom experience, one that is far removed from the worlds of commerce or consulting or sports. Learning is an unpredictable, transformational and sometimes combustible process. On good days (and we long for those) professors and students explore ideas, exchange perspectives and discover meaning together. This mutual undertaking, this partnership of imagination and trust, transforms the teacher, transforms the student, and permits something protean and unpredictable to emerge: learning. To conjure up one final metaphor, we are not car salesmen but Merlins, empowering our students to pull the sword from the stone.


Ellen J. Goldberger is director of the Honor Scholars Program and professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Mount Ida College.


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