I always knew our agricultural needs influenced our school calendars, with their long breaks to allow children to help on the family farm. What I’d never considered was the influence of the metaphor associated with the North American growth cycle, and how it explains why the tradition of a long summer vacation is still with us in the U.S. long after the family farm is mostly a thing of the past.
I’ve been reading Micheal Gladwell’s Outliers. In Chapter Nine, Gladwell briefly relays the history of the development of the public education system in America. Early on, basic literacy was considered essential, as informed citizens are necessary for a democracy to thrive. But what, exactly, should educating our children entail? Gladwell cites a number of sources that indicate nineteenth century educators were considering not just economic concerns, but that too much study could lead to an over-stimulated mind and mental disorders. Saturday classes were cut, and long school days and short vacations were adjusted to give students more rest.
Gladwell concludes that the metaphor being applied was that “effort must be balanced by rest”—just as fields rest in winter, and may need to lie fallow for a season to recoup. “We formulate new ideas by analogy, working from what we know toward what we don’t know, and what reformers knew were the rhythms of the agricultural seasons.” (p.254) Gladwell draws a contrast to the parts of Asia dominated by rice paddy agriculture and its rhythms. Planting two or three crops a year, rice farmers had no prolonged periods of rest. Nutrient-rich water used for irrigation enriches the soil, so the more it is cultivated, the better for the soil—unlike wheat or cotton crops. There developed, then, no guiding metaphor that suggests rest is good for the growing mind—and Japanese children, for example, go to school 243 days per year compared with 180 days for American children!
What Gladwell gives us is an example of the way metaphors can structure our thinking. A growing child is like a cultivated field, we think. Sic, what we know about cultivating crops can be applied to children. Utterly subconsciously, we can come to such conclusions, and they can limit our ideas about what might be possible or undermine our willingness to be open to new ways of doing things.
It’s precisely this sort of metaphorical sub-structure that can emerge with a Symbolic Modeling session. When I think about “effort must be balanced by rest”, I notice the implied metaphor in the word “balanced”. It’s a word that comes up frequently in client sessions, usually as something the client wants more of. My clients are far more likely to have an underlying belief that they are allowed to rest only when sick or completely exhausted than to think they rest too much. So, who is doing the allowing to rest, or not allowing, as the case may be? “Ah, interesting question,” the client usually replies. And then we are off, hunting for the guiding metaphor!