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November 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 3

A Matter of Metaphors: Education as a Handmade Process

TQM advocates suggest that we stop seeing schools as factories and begin looking at them as enlightened corporations. Isn't it time we try a more appropriate metaphor?

Pretend you are a collector, an art connoisseur, or a gourmet. In each case, which would you prefer: a beautiful factory-made Japanese vase or handmade Chinese pottery? A perfect reproduction of a grand master's work or the real painting? The finest cake you can buy at a bakery or Grandma's full-of-love, homemade pie?
In choosing, you are not faced with a good quality product vs. a sloppy one. Quite the contrary: you are given choices between the best possible results of two different ideas about production. On one hand are excellent businesses, interested in offering their best to as many clients as possible. On the other hand are products specially designed to satisfy the specific desires of a particular client. Both are carefully done, both aim at perfection, and both want the client to be pleased.
As an educator I identify myself with a collector, an art connoisseur, and a gourmet. I want the best from education. I believe schools should help every child develop his or her own interests, abilities, desires, and appreciations to the highest possible level. You might argue that this would be an expensive process—I never said it would not be. Like art, good wine, and haute couture, good education is an expensive but valuable product.

The Business Metaphor Recycled

Many metaphors have been proposed for schools. For example, we can treat schools as black boxes and look at their inputs and outputs. We can see schools as economic establishments and talk about costs and benefits. We can think of schools as factories and observe students as raw materials being processed (Hurn 1985).
Although it was not announced as so, I think that a “new” metaphor for schools was proposed in the March 1992 issue of Educational Leadership. The articles in the feature “Total Quality Schools” suggest that American schools should follow Japanese industries as models and should be managed as enlightened corporations. Blankstein (1992), for example, claims that W. Edwards Deming's Total Quality Management philosophy, originally developed for business, can provide the necessary framework to bring about positive changes in education. Rhodes (1992) refers to the translation of Deming's 14 Points to education as a road to quality and remarks, “Applying a quality lens to schooling allows us to see management as the common work of the school practitioner and of the administrator” (p. 78).
Throughout these articles, the necessity of a paradigm shift in education is covertly implied or overtly stated. However, far from being a paradigm shift, I consider the application of Deming's principles to education merely a change in metaphor. Moreover, the metaphor proposed is not much different from the one people are now criticizing schools for.
Changing the school is a factory metaphor for the school is an enlightened corporation one is just updating the business metaphor. We are still using economic principles and vocabulary to express educational ideas. We are still allowing economy and production to shape and determine our understanding of education. We are still seeing students as raw materials to be processed in the most efficient way.

Metaphors as Shapers of Social Reality

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) suggest that human thought processes are metaphorical and that our conceptual system is metaphorically structured—that is, we understand one concept in terms of other concepts that are more natural for us. We do this by clustering concepts and constructing gestalt structures that we find more basic than the individual elements alone.
Lakoff and Johnson further remark that our experiences take place within a background of cultural presuppositions and that the fundamental values of a culture are coherent with the metaphors chosen for the fundamental concepts in that culture. They predict: Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies (p. 156).
What concerns me about the metaphor suggested by the TQM movement is the way it might shape our social reality and the prophecies it might fulfill. Who is interested in this new economic model for understanding schools? Who will profit? I cannot believe that any business metaphor truly aims at the socioeconomic improvement of society as a whole. I cannot trust any business metaphor as a path that will lead us, through education, to a more humane society.
One might believe that we cannot avoid the production metaphor for schools. If so, I suggest that education be seen as a handmade process of production. Education is art and it is craft. To work as an educator is to be an artist, an artisan. As the metaphor proposed in TQM considers the best quality available in mass production at the present—namely, the Japanese industry—we should compare it to the best handmade products available—authentic Chinese pottery, Grandma's pies, and haute couture, to mention only a few. All these products, in the same way as education, need the careful and complete attention of the artists. Every little detail is simply fundamental.
Our best products cannot be mass-produced. Each has to be unique, and it is precisely this uniqueness and its endless range of possibilities that makes it valuable. The education is art and school is a handmade process metaphor might initially seem to be an expensive process. Nevertheless, our society can afford it if there exists a real desire to make profound changes in the status quo.

A Creative Metaphor

I would like to suggest a metaphor for schools that does not follow the economic model. To give new meaning to our activities, beliefs, and knowledge, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) propose that we need creative metaphors spawned from outside our conventional conceptual system and capable of bringing us new insights about our own experiences. They consider the metaphor love is a collaborative work of art (p. 140) and write: <POEM><POEMLINE>Love is work.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love is active.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love requires cooperation.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love requires dedication.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love requires compromise.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love requires a discipline.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love involves shared responsibility.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love requires patience.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love requires shared values and goals.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love demands sacrifice.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love regularly brings frustration.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love requires instinctive communication.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love is an aesthetic experience.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love is primarily valued for its own sake.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love involves creativity.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love requires a shared aesthetic.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love cannot be achieved by formula.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love is unique in each instance.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love is an expression of who you are.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love creates a reality.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love reflects how you see the world.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE> Love requires the greatest honesty.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love may be transient or permanent.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love needs funding.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Love yields a shared aesthetic satisfaction from your joint efforts.</POEMLINE></POEM>
I suggest that we consider the metaphor of education as a collaborative work of art—or even as love. Some of the entailments that Lakoff and Johnson suggest perfectly fit education. Take your time; think about this new metaphor. It is certainly not a trivial task to let go of our old, inherited ideas. Feel free to come up with your own entailments, different from the ones proposed above. More important, feel free to come up with new and creative metaphors for schools that might help us better understand this complex social institution of ours.

Blankstein, A. M. (1992). “Lessons from Enlightened Corporations.” Educational Leadership 49, 6: 71–75.

Hurn, C. J. (1985). 2nd ed. The Limits and Possibilities of Schooling: An Introduction to Sociology of Education. Newton, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rhodes, L. A. (1992). “On the Road to Quality.” Educational Leadership 49, 6: 76–80.

Paola Sztajn has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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