I have spent most of my life teaching in one form or another: young kids, college kids and professionals. I tried to be good at it, but my memory cherishes only a few real successes. I can still see that look, first strained, then open, then comfortable. “Oh,” is my favorite word. “I get it, I see, I understand.” Then the real prize, “Well if that’s true, then…” The student becomes the teacher, connecting my lesson to a thought that’s new to me.
How does it happen? When does that new idea become believable? I think it’s mostly when we compare something new with something we already know. Maybe the new idea is very similar to an accepted fact, maybe a stretch, maybe completely at odds, but until we recognize a meaningful comparator, it’s just hooey, not interesting, not worth considering and the student quite reasonably resists learning.
My strong claim here is that metaphors are the stuff of thought.
I think it’s all we really do. If I can fit a new idea into my head, it’s usually because it’s kind of like an old idea. My computer is kind of like my typewriter. My wife is kind of like my old friends. My home here is kind of like my old home in New England (only way better, in all of the above cases), and I comfortably contain all these things in my understanding.
One of the best friendships of my life has been with a colleague from Mississippi. His great art was language. The Southern vernacular was a revelation to this LA kid; colorful, engaging, certainly funny, and often metaphorical.
“Laughing like a jackass eating bumblebees.”
“Shakin’ like a dog passin’ peach pits.”
“Patient as a box of bricks.”
So visual, so approachable. It didn’t matter much how truthful or accurate it was, you just had to stop and enjoy his words, and let the comparison waltz through your imagination joyfully, with discernment, without much resistance, knowing that he didn’t mean it literally. His graphic humor made the ideas he communicated easy to consider.
Defining something like something else is not just a human thing, though I’m comfortable imagining that we are exceptionally aggressive about it. Any neural system worth its salt does it all the time. (1) Input. (2) Threat? Food? Sex? Comfy place to hang out? The details that are included in the input can be very rich and absurdly trivial. I bet this guy is about to cut me off. Complicated input, but I’ve seen this before, no worries. On the other hand, I once thought I was falling in love, turns out mostly because the new girl used the same hair rinse as a girl I had recently lost. She smelled like love.
Math is a metaphor, an oftentimes elaborate model of what the world is like. The only thing that makes seven cars like seven chickens is our count of them. Seven is just an idea that we construct to help us recognize patterns in things. E=mc2 is an equation describing how mass and energy are alike. Maybe the hardest subject to teach is math, and learning only happens for most of us when the metaphor is meaningful.
I do know gifted thinkers who see the beauty in the pure logic, the artful matrix of truth that we have constructed, who live comfortably in a world of math that put a man on the moon with a slide rule and a bucket of gas, but most of us resisted math because we couldn’t see how it was like what we normally did. Great teachers could look you in the eye, share the beauty and how it fits with your world, and make it real, like something you knew.
I find it curious that we use the word “like” to mean similar to, and to mean enjoyable. “I like it” is the simplest expression of validation. While I resist the modern question, “How many likes will this column get?” — I do hope you like it. I want you to read my thoughts, find them not too odd, maybe some connection to ideas you have, maybe something a little new, but not foreign, not crazy. The best case is if these words sound a little familiar and trigger new similarities in your head. You can certainly ask, “If thinking is just comparing, then what?” You tell me. We’re all students and teachers.
Jack Dunne lives gratefully in Lakebay.
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