The Formative Power of Educational Metaphors

Metaphors are powerful tools that profoundly affect how we think and live. Throughout history numerous metaphors have been used to describe the nature of education, and these have had a formative impact on educational theory and practice. In this essay I examine three educational metaphors and consider some of the educational implications that follow from them. The three metaphors are Plato’s cave, the industrial factory, and a guided journey. While the brief analysis presented here certainly is not exhaustive, my goal is to facilitate further conversation and thought by offering a compelling case that the explicit and implicit metaphors that guide and limit our understanding of education deserve careful consideration.

I. Plato’s Cave

At the beginning of book VII of the Republic, Plato offers perhaps the most famous educational metaphor in history with his allegory of the cave. Plato asks us to imagine a group of human beings who live in a cave. Since childhood they have been bound fast such that they cannot move or even look in any direction except straight ahead. Behind these prisoners there is a fire that casts light onto the cave wall in front of them, and between them and the fire there is a low wall. As various artifacts are held up behind this wall, all that the prisoners can see is the shadows of these objects cast onto the wall in front of them. What would happen, Plato asks, if one of these unfortunate prisoners were to be freed? At first he would be dazzled by the light and unable to identify the artifacts moving along the wall. Based on a lifetime of experience, the shadows of these objects would seem truer than the objects themselves. If he were then dragged up out of the cave into the sunlight, he at first would be unable to see anything because of the sun’s brilliance. After a time of adjustment, however, he would be able to see things as they truly are and not merely as images or shadows. Thinking back to his former bondage in the cave, he would pity his fellow prisoners and would not desire the prizes they give to those who are best able to identify the shadows and predict which will appear next. If, however, he went back down into the cave and immediately had to compete with the prisoners at identifying shadows, his eyes would not be adjusted to the darkness and the others would conclude that his journey up out of the cave was a waste of time. They would prefer to remain in their ignorance, concludes Plato, and would try to kill anyone who attempted to free them and lead them upward.

While the allegory of the cave has many social, political, epistemological, and religious implications, in the Republic Plato treats it primarily as an educational metaphor. He prefaces the allegory, for example, by charging his listeners to “compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this,”1 and after describing the allegory he immediately draws a series of educational conclusions. He contends that the power to learn, like sight, is present in every person. He furthermore argues that, “The instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul.”2 Plato therefore concludes, based on the allegory of the cave, that education is “the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and tries to redirect it appropriately.”3

According to this first metaphor, then, the role of teachers is not to transfer knowledge to their students or to equip them with the ability to learn. Rather the teacher’s role is to facilitate a sort of conversion experience in which students turn from the shadows of this world to the form of the good. As C. D. C. Reeve explains, the fundamental goal of education according to Plato “is not to put knowledge into people’s souls but to change their desires, thereby turning them around from the pursuit of what they falsely believe to be happiness.”4 It also follows from this metaphor that education is often a necessarily painful process for students as their “eyes” adjust to new perspectives and realities that may completely undermine what they once comfortably believed and held to be valuable. To put it in concrete contemporary terms, the student accustomed to reading celebrity magazines and Twitter feeds may initially find the profound insights of Homer, Augustine, or Shakespeare somewhat difficult to grasp and appreciate.

II. The Industrial Factory

The second educational metaphor to be considered is that of the industrial factory. This metaphor, unlike Plato’s cave, did not originate first from a writer’s pen but rather from the multifaceted Industrial Revolution that took place from the late 18th through the 19th century. Two particularly important aspects of the industrial factory that arose during this period were interchangeable parts and the assembly line.

At the beginning of the 19th century, cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney championed the manufacture of interchangeable parts in the production of muskets at his armory. Whereas before an artisan gunsmith had been responsible for crafting each weapon by hand from start to finish, now identical component pieces were manufactured separately en masse and then assembled together to form a complete musket. This had obvious benefits, for both production and repairs were faster, easier, and cheaper. This new system also meant that the necessary qualifications of workers were quite different. No longer was each weapon produced by a sole craftsman who understood the intimate connections between all the parts. Now separate groups of relatively unskilled workers could produce each part, and it was not necessary for them to understand the assembly and proper function of the musket as a whole. It is quite possible, for example, to manufacture a given number of perfectly acceptable firing pins each day without understanding how the firing pin will function as part of the entire musket or knowing how to connect it to the other parts of the firing mechanism.

In addition to interchangeable parts, a second important aspect of the industrial factory was the assembly line. This idea was used and developed throughout the 19th century and was famously “perfected” by the Ford Motor Company in the early 20th century
for the production of Model T automobiles. The basic concept behind an assembly line is that the product being manufactured is assembled in discrete segments by workers who remain stationary along a production line. Each worker is thus responsible for performing a simple task over and over while other necessary tasks are simultaneously performed by other workers along the line. Like the concept of interchangeable parts, the assembly line has obvious benefits in terms of efficiency: fewer tools are needed, and mastery of a simple repetitive task increases production speed and reduces the occurrence of error. Also like the production of interchangeable parts, an assembly line requires relatively unskilled labor. Workers on a tractor assembly line, for example, can perform their job quite satisfactorily without having any idea how to accomplish the other tasks necessary to assemble the entire tractor or understanding how their specific task contributes meaningfully to the assembly of the entire product.

As interchangeable parts and the assembly line became the accepted norm in factory production, the industrial factory gradually became the dominant metaphor by which to organize the process of education as well. Thus, as historian Page Smith notes, by the final decades of the 19th century education had come to be treated primarily as a “knowledge industry.”5 Consider, for example the daily and annual routines of both teachers and students in a post-Industrial school. The teacher, like the factory worker, became a specialist. Whereas before a school teacher (often in a one-room schoolhouse) was responsible for crafting a small group of local students in various curricular subjects over the course of multiple years, teachers soon became responsible for a specific subject area or grade level. The Algebra teacher might now teach period after period of Algebra each day, repeating the same lesson plan over and over much like a factory worker who repeatedly performs the same task. The third grade teacher similarly is a specialist in teaching third grade and repeatedly performs this task year after year. Like the factory worker, the industrial teacher does not have to understand the end product. The Algebra teacher can teach Algebra perfectly well, it is assumed, without understanding how mathematics works alongside of history, literature, science, foreign languages, and fine arts classes to holistically form the student into a certain kind of person. Likewise, the third grade teacher can teach third grade math, it is assumed, without needing to understand how the mathematical concepts being taught will later be developed and built upon to form students able to reason about higher mathematics or solve complicated calculus equations.

While teachers become akin to factory workers in the industrial factory metaphor, students in many ways parallel the products that roll off an assembly line. Each day students move from class to class, subject to subject, just like partially assembled products rolling down a line. Their discreet educational “stations” are divided into even intervals usually governed by bells, and as students are shuttled down the line they encounter at each station a new worker who specializes in the assigned educational task for that period. On an annual scale student learning is divided into distinct grade levels through which students progress. Like products on an assembly line, students do not move on to the next grade level until the education of their current “station” has been successfully completed. Thus the enterprise of learning, on both a daily and annual basis, is conceived of not as a holistic and continuous process but as one that can be divided into a list of distinct standards or “steps” through which students must sequentially move.

III. A Guided Journey

The third and final educational metaphor to be examined is that of a guided journey. This is a metaphor that in many ways challenges the previous metaphors, especially that of the industrial factory, and that may be particularly helpful for those working within a classical liberal arts paradigm. The metaphor of a guided journey has appeared in multiple ways throughout history, from medieval universities and guilds, to Dante’s use of Virgil in the Divine Comedy, to the Latin roots of the very words we use to talk about education.

Consider, first, the Latin words for “teacher,” “student,” and “educate.” In Latin, a teacher is a magister
– literally a master. A student, on the other hand, is a discipulus – literally a disciple. The process in which the teacher and student engage together, namely education, comes from the Latin verb educere which means “to lead out.” Thus etymologically in Latin the idea of a teacher educating a student literally means that a master is leading out a disciple who follows behind. It is worth noting that in order for this view of the educational process to make sense, the teacher and student must be facing in the same direction and moving toward the same goal. The teacher is a guide who has been down the trail before, so to speak, and uses insights gained by past journeys to lead his followers down the path and demonstrate for them how to navigate the trail.

Another example of this guided journey is the relationship that exists between a master tradesman and an apprentice. A blacksmith, for example, may take a young boy into his shop in order to guide him toward mastery. The master craftsman serves as a guide for the novice by allowing the boy to observe him at work and by giving his apprentice some simple tasks that he too can accomplish despite his limited experience. While on a day-to-day basis the master may be creating a beautiful wrought-iron piece of art as the apprentice is bending horse shoes or stoking the fire, in a fundamental sense they are both about the same business. Like the trail guide and his followers, both are travelling together along the same path. The blacksmith leads his disciple along the journey of becoming a master by guiding him through steps that he has taken many times in the past and by modeling for him how those tasks should be done.

According to this metaphor of a guided journey, then, a teacher is a master who leads students along the path of learning. As John Milton Gregory writes, “It is the teacher’s mission to stand at the impassable gateway of young souls, a wiser and stronger soul than they . . . to guide them to the paths to be trodden.”6 In an important conceptual sense, teachers do not face students in order
to direct the teaching process at them but face the same direction as students, a few paces ahead in their own journey of learning, in order to guide students toward a common goal. As master learners guiding students on
the path of learning, teachers serve as exemplars of what students ought to become. Thus, in a fundamental way
the teacher is the text, and an essential characteristic of teachers is that they themselves model the same approach to learning that they seek to cultivate in their students. As Arthur Holmes writes, “The most important single factor
in the teacher is the attitude toward learning. By virtue of what a teacher is, his students can stand on his shoulders and peer further in their day than he did in his.”7 In other words, according to the metaphor of a guided journey what it means to be a good teacher has more to do with being a certain kind of person and learner than with producing a certain set of measurable results.


Plato’s cave, the industrial factory, and a guided journey are but three in a long list of educational metaphors that deserve similar analysis. Other metaphors with significant educational implications include Socrates’s appropriation of midwifery, Comenius’s garden of delight, Locke’s tabula rasa, Rousseau’s treatment of children as plants, and the digital computer which stores and transfers information as discrete “bits” of inert data. All of these metaphors deserve careful consideration because they all have the power to guide and limit the kinds of educational questions we ask and the answers we give to those questions. For example, many arguments for the necessity of annual standardized testing rest squarely on
an industrial factory conception of education.8 On a model of education that takes the teacher’s goal to be Socratic conversion of the soul or a guided journey of disciples toward mastery, however, such arguments are much less compelling. Other questions that are influenced by the educational metaphors we adopt include what kind of environment we should cultivate within the classroom, how schools and teachers should structure the daily routines of their students, what kind of assessments (if any) teachers should give, how we should define and evaluate successful teaching and learning, what constitutes valuable teacher training, etc. These are all important educational questions, and the formative power that our metaphors have in how we answer them is profound. Analysis of the implications of our educational metaphors is therefore invaluable, and it behooves us to carefully consider the role that metaphors play in both describing and prescribing our educational thought and practice.

Analogical Knowing: Creation is a Temple

The church prays Psalm 3, saying:

Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.
Many there be which say of my soul, there is no help for him in God.


But Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; My glory, and the lifter up of mine head. I cried unto the Lord with my voice, And He heard me out of His holy hill.


I laid me down and slept;
I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, That have set themselves against me round about.

Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God:
For Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone;
Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.

Salvation belongeth unto the Lord: Thy blessing is upon Thy people.


Christians have prayed this prayer many times, reciting or reading it. But should they?

I want to ask a simple question but I’m not sure how. Let me try it practically: Is it fitting for you as a Christian to pray this prayer? Let me ask analytically: can we see the “ten thousands of people” as demons? These are the same question in that both ask a larger question: what kind of world do we live in?

Is it a world in which the material is ultimate and only people trying to hurt you physically can be considered your enemies? Or is there some other realm just as real, of which the material is a manifestation but not an exact likeness.

Do we live in a naturalistic a-cosmos in which power rises against power producing, by some unapprehended logic, the wonders of the world we live in?

Or might we live in a magical cosmos – in a sort of Hegelian dialectic where some transcendental force works in and through events (thesis battles antithesis, releasing new glories in a synthesis of creative destruction).

Or might we, in fact, live in a world that is an image?

King David lived in an image. He could speak of ten thousand people surrounding him quite physically (I will not say “literally”). There they were and he could see them. Opposition arose time and again, sometimes ten thousand people.

When David spoke of the holy hill whence God heard his cry, he had a specific place in mind, bearing all the antiquity of Abraham’s offering and all the freshness of his own temple-building resolution.

So was that all David had in mind? Was he thinking only of a physical mountain on which Jerusalem would be built and on which a temple would manifest the glory of God to the nations? Did he have in mind only ten thousand human people surrounding him?

David himself stretches the physical interpretation when he says in verse three, “Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me.” Surely he doesn’t mean that he walks around with a round or octagonal version of God attached to his wrist. God shares a quality with a shield: He will preserve David from harm.

Clearly, metaphors are used throughout the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs and common sense helps us understand them 95% of the time. Does that justify sweeping the whole of Psalm 3 or the whole book of Psalms or even the whole Bible into some spiritualized interpretation that clouds the obvious and plain meaning?

Well, no, not if you put it like that. I would never want to lose sight of the obvious and plain meaning. But we can’t ignore the clues given throughout the Bible that God is not only talking about historical physical events. The whole Bible, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, presents reality as, ultimately, not a physical place, but as a temple of the living God. Yes, the physical is physical. But even it is not ultimately physical; it is meant to be spiritual. You could even say that our vocation as human priests is to offer the physical to God and by doing so to “spiritualize” it. It won’t lose its physicality but transcend it, finding and fulfilling its purpose (a house, still a house, becomes a house in which God lives – a temple).

Genesis 1-3 describes the creation of a temple and the placement and eviction of its priest. The same pattern is repeated in Exodus and throughout the Bible until we reach Revelation, where the temple of God, the very holy of holies, encompasses the whole cosmos.

This creation is a temple.

When we pray to “Our Father who art in heaven,” we don’t mean that He sits up on the clouds in a blue sky, but that He inhabits the holy place where His throne is surrounded by ten thousand times ten thousand angels. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Moses all saw it, and Hebrews shows that the earthly tabernacle and temple were an image of the eternal temple in the heavens.

There is an eternal heavenly temple that is the dwelling place of God and an eternal manifestation of His nature. The earth and the physical heavens are an imitation of this eternal temple (thus earth is His footstool, heaven His throne, etc.). The tabernacle and temple are specific imitations of the eternal temple because, having fallen, we can no longer see clearly the heavenly image in this earthly mess.

The church is the earthly fulfillment of the temple of God, in which the Holy Trinity takes His habitation by the Holy Spirit and the blood of Christ. It cannot be understood apart from its nature as temple. The spirit of man is the temple of God. Its inmost dimension is the holy of holies, possessing the Ark of the Covenant with the mercy seat sitting upon it and the law of God contained within it.

We do have a problem though: perhaps the first manifestation of God’s extraordinary humility is that He allowed the first priest to evict Him from His own temple. Since then He has stood at the door knocking, but He will only come in to those who open the door.

It is more natural to pray Psalm 3 analogically than

We are the temple. Within us is this holy hill. If God

is welcome there, He abides there and He hears us when

we cry to Him. But we are surrounded by “ten thousand people,” Those spiritual beings rise up against us with challenges and accusations, speaking directly to our souls, telling them, “There is no help for him in God.”

It is no “spiritualization” or “allegorical” interpretation to say with David, “Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.” The allegory would be to look at the people David fought and to think that it had actually happened to them.

Those spiritual beings speak, and that is all they can do now. They tell us lies. We don’t hear physical voices because they are hovering around that deep inaccessible part of our beings, the place where a still small voice keeps beckoning to us, simply and unobtrusively. They make as much noise as we allow them to make so we can’t hear the still small voice.

“There is no help for you in God.”

That is the one thing they most want us to hear. That way we’ll try to help ourselves. That way we’ll turn away from the one thing needful. They speak. But they speak with a disjointed jaw and broken teeth.

This is everything. Do you believe that you are the temple of the living God, living in a cosmic temple, whose task it is to receive into your inner sanctuary the God of life so that you can have, like the garden of Paradise, rivers of life flowing out of you into the four corners of the earth, renewing the whole earth with the life of the eternally living God?

Do you believe that the world around you is a temple and that you are the priest, called to offer it to God?

Do you teach your students as though they are temples and priests – images of the God of heaven and earth – or do you teach them like they are beavers whose highest calling is to build a house that dams up the river?

The cosmos is first a creation, a temple, a work of art; it is not a scientific experiment. We live in a cosmological analogy. That is the first step to understanding the cosmos, the human soul, or, for us, education. You can’t put things together by cutting them up.

And that makes all the difference.

We have the opportunity to offer our schools to God by thinking of them with the right analogies used appropriately.

First, we must subject analytical thought to analogical (i.e. to acknowledge the power of our governing analogies).

In particular, we must learn to think using sound

analogies in the following areas.
1. School governance and leadership. We tend to

use military and industrial analogies. We need to think with more humane and ancient analogies, such as farming, building a temple/house, and weaving.

2. Teaching. We need to teach analogically, under which I include mimetic and Socratic teaching. The goal of our teaching is love from a pure heart, and that pure heart is able to see both the whole and the right relations of the parts to each other. Administering information on behalf of a text book company or a state or accrediting agency might be necessary since as slaves we are told to submit to our masters. But we mustn’t do it without transcending it with more sound approaches.

3. Curriculum. A curriculum is already and always an analogy because it is the model of reality from which students learn as much or more as they do from the content. The curriculum that is not integrated lies to the children and confuses them. It must model the harmony of reality, giving due honor to each art and science and aligning the relationships among the arts and sciences.

We must recapture the Christian classical meaning of arts and sciences. An art is a mode of making something and a science is the knowledge made by the liberal arts. We must reexamine the nature, power, and limits of the natural sciences. I refer you to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, lecture 3, paragraphs 22ff. for a discussion starter.

We must learn to treat the cosmos as a temple where the skies are spread out as a roof and the earth is

the King’s footstool. We must learn to view the soul of each student as the very Temple of the Living God, the center of which is the only place where the King of glory waits to sit on the Mercy Seat from which will flow rivers of life to the whole world

4. Assessment. We must not be governed, driven, or anxious over analytical assessments, which wrench student performance from its context and reduce it to something that can be measured. Again, we have to submit to our masters, but to be intimidated by them is distracting folly. We must realize that whoever assesses us is our boss, that assessment determines how we teach, and that conventional assessment undercuts the apprenticeship that characterizes a classical school (I specifically protest against standardized tests and the A-F grading approach, neither of which would ever have entered the mind of a classical educator prior to this age that is lost in the wrong metaphors).

5. Community: We cannot manufacture or produce a community. We can only nourish and grow one.

The fact that these are hard challenges is irrelevant. The child’s soul trumps all other needs. Teachers must
be hired, equipped, and valued based on their ability to nourish the children’s souls through the sound analogies that lead them on the path to truth, goodness, and beauty – without which they are lost, no matter how successful.