Remarks on C. A. Bowers' "Curriculum as Cultural Reproduction: An Examination of Metaphor as a Carrier of Ideology"

by Tony Stigliano - 1981

The author criticizes some of Bower’s ideas in Curriculum as Cultural Reproduction: An Examination of Metaphor as a Carrier of Ideology such as the definition of metaphor.

C. A. Bowers argues in a recent issue of the Teachers College Record that human thought and human reality are fundamentally metaphorical and that when a researcher uses metaphorical terms detached from their original context, they can become carriers of ideology. Bowers argues that work by Marxist critics of curriculum, social engineers, and systems analysts applying their theories and concepts to the school are all guilty of ideological misuse of metaphor. Their language, which may be valid when applied to the appropriate context, becomes opaque and ideological when applied in a context-free way to the school, or, more accurately, “to the phenomenological world of everyday life.“1 Worse, since terms like “equality/inequality,” “hegemony, ” “freedom,” “imperialism,” and so forth, are embedded in a rational, abstract, causal, linear “mental template,” they represent a form of “cultural imperialism” overthrowing the cultural plurality, concretely manifested in the “phenomenology of everyday life.” Such imperialism becomes self-justifying and nonfalsifiable theory because, Bowers says, metaphors expanded into theories will generate their own “facts,” utterly distorting human reality.

These criticisms are directed primarily at the work of Michael Apple.2 Apple argues that curricula as taught in the schools are merely conduits by which the rationalizations of the status quo are presented as knowledge in the classroom and thereby serve to reproduce the injustices of capitalism. Apple, being a Marxist, is interested not only in the depiction of the school and its effects, but also in changing the school and its society. This compounds the problem. Using metaphors as a basis for social reform leads to clearly unacceptable consequences. For example, Apple rejects “hierarchy” as a form of domination, yet science and technology are inherently hierarchical. Apple advocates “equality”; Bowers responds: How would an egalitarian society operate given the necessarily unequal relations involved in socialization and education? Similarly with the metaphor “hegemony”: Bowers says that if hegemony is the domination of consciousness on a symbolic level, its elimination would be “tantamount to saying that we can live without mental templates and without language systems.“3 Hegemony necessarily exists if we are to make our world intersubjectively intelligible. Moreover, Apple’s claim that the overthrow of capitalism would end hierarchical relations, inequality, and hegemony is historically false given the glaring examples of Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Hence, Apple’s theory—and, indeed, most of the Marxist tradition—is simply ideological, in that it is an abstract theoretical, linear, teleological, and causal model detached from its intellectual roots and applied context-free to the nearly indescribable realities of human life. Reform, Bowers concludes pessimistically, cannot be imposed simply because it is “rational”; nor can it be imposed on non-Western mental templates without serious qualifications and caveats.

Bowers’s description of the lived world is such that it makes any mainstream or otherwise empirical social science virtually impossible. His social ontology is so sui generis that the application of any theory not “grounded” (in Glaser and Strauss’s sense) is metaphorical, and, if the researcher is not aware of this, his research becomes ideological. Statistical research methods originating as they did in agricultural research would, therefore, be ideology. All of the work of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, and so forth, would be metaphorical and, probably, ideological. Bowers does not say anything about the natural sciences, but since he quotes Nietzsche’s description of neurophysiological processes as being a metaphorical process, we might conclude that physics, chemistry, and biology, too, are metaphorical.4 This Bowers does not condemn; we should simply recognize our metaphorical impulses and keep such recognition at the forefront of our scientific endeavor. All human experience is completely suffused with metaphor, which, in turn, is the product of historical metaphorical processes. We see the world through metaphor; others see us through metaphor. William James’s “booming and buzzing” world is a convoluted textile of interplaying metaphors. Poetics is the essence of thought and life, and we can reflect on thought and life only poetically.

Though I shall criticize Bowers’s ideas, he has some important insights. The “world” we live in and the languages we use to speak about it are the creations of human beings. Nelson Goodman and Richard Rorty,5 along with Paul Ricoeur, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas, and many other Marxists, phenomenologists, and hermeneuticians, are busily dissolving the literalist ontology and epistemology taken for granted by social and natural scientists. For example, we can no longer assume that mathematics is the neutral rational language that can lay bare any “empirically” analyzable social relation. Nor may we assume that we can throw around terms like “cause,” “variable,” “data,” “structure,” or “system” without paying close attention to their underlying ontology and epistemology. Even an apparently neutral term like “rationality” can no longer be assumed without understanding the work of philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend and the controversy surrounding them.

The first difficulty we need to deal with is the definition of metaphor and its apparently universal nature. That man impulsively makes metaphors is Bowers’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power.6 Cassirer is quoted concerning the way our most “basic” sensings of reality are fixed as content for us by words. Langer is brought in to say that all of our “literal” expressions are historically embedded in earlier metaphor. What are metaphors? Metaphors are “illustrative devices whereby a term from one level . . . is used within a different level.“7 They are used analogically from one context to another for purposes of expanding meaning. There are root metaphors, which are preconscious and constitute the starting points for analyzing the world intelligibly. Such metaphors can make up symbolic worlds, or they can be mental images or constructs. The contrast between a metaphor and a literal proposition is the contrast between a “logical or empirical absurdity with a . . . counterfactual truth itself [a] creative confrontation of perspectives that cannot be literalized.“8 This is to say, recognizable metaphors are contrasted with masked metaphors, metaphors taken for granted, that is, metaphors taken literally.

Metaphors cannot be escaped; we cannot take up a nonmetaphorical perspective by which we can judge the proper use of metaphors. What we can judge is the notion that a metaphor is being treated literally, or in a context-free way. Marx, of course, would agree with this. Any term or concept has to be applied to a historical context from another or larger historical context. The idea of a context-free science is anathema to Marx as it is to many others. However, the extreme relativism we find in Bowers does not exist in Marx. Marx argues, falsely perhaps, that rationality is a product of human action. Rationality, as an a priori form to be imposed in any instance, is ideology. Historical, economic, and cultural analyses must reveal the directions being taken by historical societies; theory, for Marx, must be extracted from reality, not applied in a cookie-cutter way to it. He does assume, however, that human action is structured and intentional (directed toward a future), and so his history is telenomic (not teleological). Bowers does not have this potential for a nonrelativistic perspective. For Bowers, human beings with their own cultural templates, which are impulsively metaphorical, may from one perspective be “oppressed,” from another be “free,” and from still another be just a ripple in a banal “phenomenology.” Reform is another impulse based on a particular template. We must be aware that “inequality,” “neurosis,” “oppression,” “psychosis,” may be only our metaphorical versions of simply “other” symbolic worlds. Any claim beyond this “reifies,” decontextualizes our metaphors with potentially tragic results.

Metaphor, however, like Kuhn’s “paradigms” (or “disciplinary matrices”), and Wittgenstein’s “language games,” remains an undefined concept. Perhaps, given its universality, it cannot be defined (its definition would be metaphorical―taken from another context). Of course, Bowers is not an idealist; “clouds” (whatever they are), “concentration camps” (whatever they are), do exist. But they exist on the other side of an interpretive curtain that cannot be transcended, though the curtain can be made more visible. Bowers, indeed, might agree that capitalism is an “advance” over feudalism in that the metaphorical (human-made) reality of authority and power became clear with the “rise of the Bourgeosie.” In capitalist democracy, leaders are elected officials; in feudal aristocracies, leaders were said to be ordained by God. The theological metaphor masked the ruthless metaphorical reality. The theological, obfuscating metaphor was replaced by a clearly metaphorical, political one. But unless Bowers can show―as Marx tried, and perhaps failed (in the complexity of the effort) to do that metaphor making, or world making, has a particular structure that can be understood, and that that structure has historical and cultural parameters and dynamics, he can only conclude that we “live” in a symbolic, poetical nonworld without a past, a future, or a meaningful present, except insofar as people use such terms in their symbolism. If there are those who claim that history and society are real, they can justify this claim only by ideological means or by unconsciously referring to a “root metaphor” or some such. The contextual metaphor can be related only to other contextual metaphors. Change, criticism, and “rational” discourse are merely permutations from a cultural template grounded in some undefined, unexamined “everyday world” made up of other templates, metaphors, and intentions without end.

The language we would use to describe such a world would also have to be metaphorical. Even if we were to explain human action (or passivity) neurophysiologically this would involve a metaphorical process. I know of no neurophysiologist who would construe the transformation of sensory input into electrical discharge that becomes speech resulting from neuron discharges as a metaphor. Bowers accepts this description as such,9 and he unknowingly presupposes, thereby, a philosophy of nature model for which Engels is usually castigated. Is speech the metaphor of an electrical impulse? Is it a neuronally mediated metaphor for reality? Do these questions make sense? If not, Bowers’s model is no explanation. Is moving from one “level” to another for any purpose ipso facto metaphorical? So, if objective science (neurology) describes in metaphorical terms, and any philosophical position is metaphorical, then is Bowers’s use of the term “metaphor” to describe all of the above itself a metaphor? Either Bowers’s analysis of Apple (and, ultimately, Marx) is trivial, or his effort requires more thought to clear up the limitations of metaphor as an explication of theory to reality, or reality construed as a linguistic formation.

The questions I am raising about Bowers’s paper have an interesting analogy in the debate between H. G. Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas. The full debate cannot be discussed in any detail here,10 but some interesting points that reveal the I depth of the problem can be sketched out. Gadamer argues that all human reality is essentially linguistic. Everything in human reality appears to us through a language, which historically limits us and is itself as limited. Our relations to reality are essentially prejudices―literally prejudgments, historical knowledge embedded in our language. The linguistic nature of reality is so pervasive that to understand something is to permit what we want to understand to address us. Thus, we perceive the world as something meaningful. The researcher must become fully cognizant of all these different historical traditions and become open to them if he is to control his prejudices or, in Bowers’s terms, his mental template, and be able to uncover the meanings of reality.

Habermas argues that Gadamer has created a linguistic idealism. Criticism gives way to contemplation of authority and tradition. Habermas argues that while language is certainly significant for understanding the human world, so are labor and political authority. These are the interests expressed in the hierarchies of the “phenomenological world,” which determine (for example) the growth of science and technology (or the way people are manipulated for hidden political ends). The hierarchy is not benign: it strives not merely to socialize people or to pursue truth, but to retain power. Its goal is control over people’s capacity to use language, to create metaphor, to produce objects of value, to understand authority as their historical creation. In effect, people are led systematically to misunderstand themselves by objective conditions. “Objective” conditions might be defined as that context or structure which places limits on the creation and fulfillment of interests and goals. Habermas analyzes these limits in the arena of everyday communication. Communication, for Habermas, is where ideology makes itself most clearly manifest. “Normal” speech contains within it ideological distortions, neurotic manipulations of which the speaker is unaware. “Ideology, in the context of a capitalist system, provides an illusory account of a form of social existence. . . . Passive acceptance of accounts of a ‘false’ reality given in terms of some ‘harmonious’ coexistence. . . may too easily be interpreted as indications of a fundamental assent to the status quo.“11

That we can identify these “‘false’ realities” is due to Gadamer’s reflective uncovering of prejudices or Bowers’s unearthing of metaphors and their misuse. But (with the useless exception of Bowers’s impulse-to-metaphorize thesis) they do not explain why certain metaphors or traditions are available to some people and why such metaphors have historically been taught to the same people as ways to understand (or misunderstand) themselves. Using Bowers’s language, curriculum, in effect, teaches people metaphors. Metaphors are taught as objective, hence, as ideological realities; students are not led to criticize them nor even to recognize them for what they are.12 Clearly, by providing a model of the interrelation of the school with society (which Bowers correctly argues cannot be captured by a pre-Humean causal model),13 Apple is proposing certain explanations for the historical legitimation of certain metaphors in the guise of explanations and rationalizations. The development of this hypothesis would proceed along some of the lines actually laid out by Bowers: embedding the hypothesis of class structure in the lived, historical world. To do otherwise, Apple’s work would reduce itself to an ahistorical abstraction—a completely un-Marxist research project.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 2, 1981, p. 285-291 ID Number: 739, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 2:48:08 PM

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