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Existential Philosophy and the Promise of Education

Learning from Myths and Metaphors

by Mordechai Gordon (Author)
©2016 Textbook IX, 165 Pages

Summary

Myths and metaphors share not only an ability to call our attention to aspects of our world of which we were previously unaware, but also a propensity toward symbolic meanings and interpretations. In Existential Philosophy and the Promise of Education: Learning from Myths and Metaphors, Professor Gordon draws on some well-known myths and metaphors of various Existentialist thinkers and writers as a lens and an interpretative framework with which to explore a variety of issues in philosophy of education. His book argues that symbolic or metaphorical interpretations can offer us representations of problems in education that go beyond what we can gain when we consider them only in their literal sense. Existential Philosophy and the Promise of Education is an excellent classroom text for a variety of foundations courses, including the Philosophy of Education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I
  • Chapter 1. Teachers as Absurd Heroes: Camus’ Sisyphus and the Promise of Rebellion
  • Chapter 2. Education as Empowerment: Exploring Dostoyevsky’s Notion of ‘the Underground’
  • Chapter 3. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and the Challenge of Relating to Strangers
  • Chapter 4. Negotiating Contingency: Sartre’s Nausea and the Possibility of Losing Control in a Technological World
  • Part II
  • Chapter 5. Nietzsche on the Significance of Learning about the Past
  • Chapter 6. Martin Buber’s Metaphor of ‘Starting from Above’ and the Issue of Educational Authority
  • Chapter 7. Hannah Arendt’s Concept of the ‘Banality of Evil’: On Thoughtlessness in Education
  • Chapter 8. Maxine Greene, Opening Spaces, and Education for Freedom

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I would like to thank Chris Myers, my editor at Peter Lang Press, who showed great faith in this project from the very outset and provided me with continuous support. Special thanks to the entire production team at Peter Lang including Sophie Appel, Bernadette Shade, and all of the other dedicated individuals who helped make this book a joy to work on. Finally, I am grateful to my wife Gabriela Gerstenfeld who enabled me to spend many nights and weekends writing, editing, and bringing this project to fruition. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →

INTRODUCTION

The Significance of Myths and Metaphors

History teaches us that myths and metaphors have been with us a long time, at least since the heyday of Ancient Greek culture in the sixth through the fourth centuries BC and probably long before that. A myth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to “a traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.” Most cultural myths were never intended to be interpreted literally; rather they were designed as ‘truths’ and ‘descriptions’ given to us in symbolic language and phrases so we could better understand the beliefs, traditions, and practices of a given society. This ancient understanding of myth contrasts with a more current meaning of this word, which associates it with a widely held misconception or misrepresentation of the truth (OED). Catalin Partenie explains the distinction between the two notions of myth when she writes that “what the ancient Greeks—at least in the archaic phase of their civilization—called muthos was quite different from what we and the media nowadays call ‘myth.’ For them a muthos was a true story, a story that unveils the true origin of the world and human beings. ← 1 | 2 → For us a myth is something to be ‘debunked’: a widespread, popular belief that is in fact false.”1 In this book, I use myth in the former sense of this term, to indicate a story that attempts to explain some human or natural phenomenon and is designed to stimulate our imagination.

Metaphors are generally distinguished from definitions, which tell us exactly what a thing is or what a word means. Definitions set limits and boundaries and put restrictions on what we can say or think. Metaphors, on the other hand, are symbols that tell us what something is like or analogous to. They refer to things that are representative or suggestive of other things and are therefore less restricting and more open to different interpretations than definitions. David Hills writes that “metaphor is a poetically or rhetorically ambitious use of words, a figurative as opposed to a literal use.” Hill goes on to note that “when we resort to metaphor, we contrive to talk about two things at once; two different and disparate subject matters are mingled to rich and unpredictable effect.”2 Hill’s point is that in metaphorical discourse, we often speak of one thing that we may not know very well in terms of a second thing with which we are much more familiar (e.g. “I, Ahab, as a speeding locomotive,” Melville, Moby-Dick, chapter thirty-eight).

Of all the traditionally recognized figures of speech, metaphor has probably attracted the most philosophical interest, particularly among philosophers of language. For instance, in his essay “What Metaphors Mean,” Donald Davidson challenges the views of many of his contemporary philosophers such as Max Black and Nelson Goodman who believed that a metaphor has both a literal meaning and another (deeper) meaning that needs to be discovered. In contrast, Davidson insists that “metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation mean, and nothing more.”3 Still, Davidson acknowledges the view shared by many of the philosophers, psychologists, and linguists that he criticizes when he writes that

Metaphors often make us notice aspects of things we did not notice before; no doubt they bring surprising analogies and similarities to our attention; they do provide a kind of lens or lattice, as Black says, through which we view the relevant phenomena.4

It is this special quality—of making us notice aspects of things we did not notice before—that attracted me to various myths and metaphors and led me to embark on a project called Existential Philosophy and the Promise of Education: Learning from Myths and Metaphors, which eventually evolved into the book you have before you. Black’s point in the quote above, about metaphors providing a kind of lens or framework for understanding phenomena, ← 2 | 3 → also applies to myths. Myths and metaphors share not only an ability to call our attention to aspects of our world of which we were previously unaware, but also a propensity toward symbolic meanings and interpretations. As such, the process of making sense of a myth or metaphor is a creative endeavor that requires the use of our intellectual and imaginative capacities, not unlike those used to invent these types of discourses. Thus, my goal in this project is to utilize some well-known myths and metaphors of various existentialist thinkers and writers as a lens and an interpretative framework with which to explore a variety of issues in philosophy of education.

Existential philosophers and thinkers have shown a particular interest in myths and metaphors. For instance, Albert Camus was preoccupied with the myth of Sisyphus while Jean-Paul Sartre explored the Orestes myth in his play The Flies. For Harry Slochower, the function of myth in the writings of existentialists like Camus and Sartre is to depict “the revolt of the individual against the mythical collective.” Slochower contends that existentialist philosophers and writers have seized on this “aspect of the literary myth and raised it to an absolute.”5 Regardless of whether or not Slochower is accurate in his assessment of the function of myth in existentialism, there is no doubt that a number of existentialists were intrigued by some ancient myths. Furthermore, Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings contain a great deal of metaphors and allegories from Zarathustra’s journeys to flies in the marketplace and from the ‘Overman’ to cows grazing in the field. Likewise, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s and Franz Kafka’s stories rely on a great deal of metaphorical and symbolic language while Martin Buber’s seminal work I and Thou is written largely in poetical and figurative speech.

Whereas previous scholars have already given considerable attention to attempting to explicate the myths and metaphors of existentialist writers, relatively little attention has been given to exploring their connections to philosophy of education. In fact, a search of the leading philosophy of education journals suggests that almost nothing has been published on this topic in the past few decades. Existential Philosophy and the Promise of Education: Learning from Myths and Metaphors is designed to begin to address this lack and initiate a conversation on the educational lessons that can be learned from the study of various existential myths and metaphors.

Given the fact that existentialist philosophers and writers were intrigued by myths and metaphors, one might still wonder what can a study of existential myths and metaphors bring to philosophy of education? In other words, what insights can philosophers of education and other educators gain ← 3 | 4 → by becoming familiar with a number of existential myths and metaphors? To begin with, I would argue that symbolic or metaphorical interpretations can offer us representations of problems in education that go well beyond what we can gain when we consider them only in their literal sense. That is, myths and metaphors can provide educators with a frame of reference and a language with which to name and critically analyze many of the problems they face. My experience working on this book suggests that symbolic perspectives and discourses are quite different from more conventional ways of discussing them. More importantly, my experience indicates that symbolic interpretations tend to be less restricting, deeper, and more empowering than literal ones. For instance, to consider the efforts of teachers to negotiate the conditions of their work as an existential struggle and, specifically, a Sisyphean undertaking, as I do in chapter one of this book, enables us to make sense of this issue in a powerful way, one that is quite different from the typical ways in which it is addressed. Similarly, to discuss some of the recent educational laws and initiatives like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core as examples of the manifestation of the banality of evil or thoughtlessness in education (chapter seven), provides us with a way of talking about these reforms that is both fresh and compelling.

In addition to the point the myths and metaphors can provide us with unique insights about education, there is also the issue that, like good stories, they enable us to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, the world as well as the relationship between the two. Good stories are powerful, according to Trevor Cairney, in that they not only enrich our lives but can also move us to transform our existence. In his book Pathways to Literature, Cairney develops this point when he writes that

Biographical notes

Mordechai Gordon (Author)

Mordechai Gordon is a Professor of Education in the School of Education at Quinnipiac University. His areas of specialization are philosophy of education, teacher education and humor. He is author of Ten Common Myths in American Education (2005) and the editor of Hannah Arendt and Education: Renewing our Common World, winner of the 2002 AESA Critics Choice Award. Dr. Gordon has published numerous articles in scholarly journals such as Educational Theory, Journal of Teacher Education, Oxford Review of Education and Journal of Aesthetic Education.

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Title: Existential Philosophy and the Promise of Education