Metaphors: Is this life and death? Is it war?

In journalism, as in other forms of research, asking the right questions is often the best way to start organizing our thoughts about issues that are difficult to grasp fully.  After Black Friday, that’s what I find myself doing in regard to education in Wisconsin.

It’s easy to be in a funk after what might be the most severe one-two punch to higher education in Wisconsin history.  It’s difficult to decide what to do about it, but perhaps if we all — educators, students, parents, and stakeholders in the system — could find the right words and organizing concepts to examine what’s happening in our home, we could more effectively move forward.

Here are some of the questions I’m asking myself, because I’m also going to be asking my colleagues, my neighbors and my friends.

Does the University of Wisconsin System now, as this online petition  asserts, “stand at the brink of an inexorable death spiral?” Some faculty apparently aren’t waiting to find out.

I have clearly stated that education at any level is not a business, but should we still look at ourselves in the context of a business life cycle?  Are we in the period of decline?  Or can we even convince certain stakeholders that we are a viable enterprise in the first place?

Alternatively, do we need to find ways to help Wisconsinites understand that education is not a commodity to be bought and sold?

The idea of “stakeholders” seems to take on a double meaning in Wisconsin, as all the folks holding the stakes seem to be in Madison, lighting their torches and convincing themselves that professors and teachers at all levels are blood-sucking vampires and evil witches.  Our so-called leaders and their supporters increasingly look like they’ll stop at nothing to kill off much of what Wisconsinites hold dear — especially education and natural resources.

Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, in their seminal 1980s work Metaphors We Live By, pointed out that metaphors are so grounded in our experiences that we almost instinctively understand them. They could have chosen many concepts to start explaining their theory of metaphor and metaphor’s inescapable centrality in the way we think about and organize our lives.

The one they chose was war. Examining Wisconsin politics in terms of this organizing metaphor seems particularly apt here, as our so-called leaders have mounted what appears to be an inexorable, destructive, strategic campaign against education.

Are we indeed at war — and what does that mean for how we approach the issue of education in Wisconsin? Can we reach peace?  What will it take to do so?  What are the costs of fighting? What are the costs of compromise?

What are the costs if we metaphorically surrender?  To whom are we surrendering if we do, and what would be the results of that surrender?

These are questions every citizen of Wisconsin should consider.

Thanks to Mark Seiler for sharing the link on Sara Goldrick-Rab.

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