Debate Magazine

What’s the Value of a Tree?

By Stevemiranda

I’ve been out of graduate school for more than a decade, and, sadly, it’s rare that I encounter academic papers anymore. My friend Hannah, who is a sophomore at a high profile university on the east coast, reminded me how much I enjoy that kind of reading when she sent me a paper by Haverford University professor Alison Cook-Sather. It’s titled Movements of Mind: The Matrix, Metaphors, and Re-Imagining Education.

I’ll quote a few of my favorite passages here (I’ve edited a bit to make it easier to read), and offer commentary below. Cook-Sather writes,

“The metaphors that have dominated notions and practices of formal schooling in the United States are education as production and education as cure. These metaphors are based on claims of improving the human condition, and yet their underlying premises—that students are quantifiable products to be packaged or diseased beings in need of remedy—disable and control those within their constructs.”

She explains further:

“Education is production. This overarching metaphor generates a whole set of associated metaphors that name the structures of and participants in education: Schools are factories, teachers are factory workers or managers, students are products. The lexicon of this metaphorical system foregrounds things mechanical, efficient, repetitive, standard, and passive and all but eliminates things imaginative, creative, various, divergent, and active. When the dominant notion of education is the manufacturing of students, there is no possibility of students’ self-creation. Rather, students are commodities produced by others, prepared to enter and compete for purchase in an increasingly materialistic world.”

On education as cure (with quote from Mildred Solomon in her book The Diagnostic Teacher):

“Within the realm and lexicon of the metaphor of education as cure, two metaphors drawn from clinical practice cast the teacher as clinician. One is the idea that a teacher is a diagnostician. ‘[A] diagnostic teacher is one who casts oneself as an observer, scrutinizer, and assessor, as well as an engaged leader.’ . . . A second metaphor [is] a teacher is a therapist. According to this model, the teacher does not impart knowledge and skill to students; rather he or she helps students gain their own knowledge and skill. Teachers in the role of therapist are certainly situated in greater proximity to students and the learning process than those who are guided by industrial metaphors, but the persisting underlying assumptions of illness needing remedy is troubling.”


“Although the root metaphors of education as production and cure are premised on different lexicons and engender different notions of educational practice, they have similar effects on students. Both keep students passive, as products or patients, confined within institutions that contain and control, like factories or hospitals, and managed by teachers who are technicians or managers on the one hand or diagnosticians and therapists on the other.”

* * *

A long time ago, I saw a Bill Moyers television program that had a powerful impact on me. One of his colleagues was in a helicopter with an environmentalist, who was explaining the problems associated with a natural gas company trying to disrupt a National Forest in the name of corporate profit. Moyers’ colleague, David Brancaccio, asked a question that went something like this: “So we’ve heard from the natural gas company about how many jobs they can create and how much tax revenue will be generated if they’re allowed to access this land. What’s your response? I mean, what value do the trees have just sitting there?”

The question flustered the environmentalist into stunned silence. She appeared to be so offended by the assumptions embedded in the question that she simply didn’t know what to say. Trees have value because they’re living things, she suggested finally.

The debate between the natural gas company and the environmentalists was so difficult because the two sides approached the conversation from completely different assumptions about the value of a tree.

* * *

Conversations around transforming education suffer from a similar problem. Most of the dialogue is centered on how we can make our schools more efficient factories or better hospitals.

The problem is, the entire premise of schools as factories or hospitals is wrong.

Passionate educators who become principals of big urban schools don’t take the job because they want to keep students passive, confine and control them, and treat them like sick patients. But that’s the narrative in which they’re living. This is why so many people working in schools are so frustrated: they working very hard, and often don’t see results equal to the amount of work they’re putting in.

Until we can change our metaphor, until we extricate ourselves from this narrative, we’re doomed to continue the cycle of failed reform efforts from Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” to Obama’s “Race to the Top” (which won’t achieve the outcomes he desires), and on to the next administration’s re-packaging of the same old reform ideas from the previous generation.

Creating a new story or metaphor—shifting consciousness—is incredibly hard. But we’re never going to get the outcomes we desire until we do.

(Join the discussion at Get updates at

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog