Thursday, 18 March 2010

Metaphors for learning: George Eliot

"Tom could predict with accuracy what number of horses were cantering behin him, he could throw a stone right into the centre of a given ripple, he could guess to a fraction how many lengths of his stick it wold take to reach across the playground, and could draw almost perfect squares on his slate without any measurement. But Mr Stelling took no note of these things: he only observed that Tom's faculties failed him before the abstractions hideously symbolised to him in the pages of the Eton Grammar...whence Mr Stelling concluded that Tom's brain, being epculiarly impervious to etymology and demonstrations, was particularly in need of being ploughed and harrowed by these patent implements: it was his favourite metaphor, that the classics and geometry constituted that culture of the mind which prepared it for the reception of any subsequent crop.

I say nothing against Mr Stelling's theory: if we are to have one regimen for all minds, his seems to me as good as any other. I only know it turned out to be as uncomfotably for Tom Tulliver as if he had been plied with cheese in order to remedy a gastric weakness which prevented him from digesting it.

It is astonishing what a different result one gets by changing the metaphor! Once call the brain an intellectual stomach, and one's ingenious conception of the classics as ploughs and harrows seems to settle nothing. But then it is open to some one else to follow great authorities, and call the mind a sheet of paper or a mirror, in which case one's knowledge of the digestive process becomes quite irrelevant...

O Aristotle! if you had the advantage of being 'the freshest modern' instead of the greatest ancient, would you not have mingled your praise of metaphorical speech, as a sign of high intelligence, with a lamentation that intelligence so rarely shows itself without metaphor, -- that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?"

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, 144-145

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