Metaphors of the 2016 Presidential Election

I discovered today that if you Google a candidate’s name + “issue stances,” Google provides a list of key political issues and quotes from that candidate on the issue. As someone who tries to remain an educated voter but doesn’t particularly enjoy politics, I was excited to find what essentially seems to be the Sparknotes for voting.

Political discourse is known for being full of metaphors, and the quotes Google provided were no exception. Here are some of the more colorful ones I noticed and the ways they may shape the way we think about the issues*:


Donald Trump repeatedly uses the metaphor of immigrants as water: “We cannot allow illegal immigrants to pour into our country,” and “These are people that shouldn’t be in our country. They flow in like water.” When water is flowing, and especially when it’s pouring, we infer that it’s coming fast and consistently. Further, when too much water comes too fast (like when it’s pouring rain), we end up with flooding, which can destroy infrastructure and the homes and lives that people have worked hard to build for themselves. These inferences seem to be consistent with Trump’s stance on immigration: if we don’t cut off the metaphorical faucet, we could all end up drowning, watching all that we’ve worked for float away.

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Clinton and Sanders use a journey metaphor for people who are in America illegally, often referring to a “path to citizenship” (a phrase they both use) and providing a “roadmap to citizenship to the 11 million aspiring Americans living in this country” (Sanders). Paths are intentional and defined, and when we stay on them, we eventually end up at a destination. Sometimes staying on a path does take some physical effort, but each step results in progress. Just as immigrants travel to arrive in America, once they’re here they will metaphorically travel towards citizenship. The inference accompanying this metaphor is that the Democratic candidates will further define and structure the path (perhaps by clarifying the roadmap) to allow immigrants to become legal citizens.


The Democratic candidates have made some revolutionary statements about education, especially college education, that point to their goals to drastically reduce or eliminate students’ college debt. Hillary Clinton has referred to creating an “education SWAT team” of qualified people who would define education standards for the country. A SWAT team comes in to restore order during times of chaos and danger, so the SWAT team metaphor implies that our education system is in dire need of dramatic, immediate help. Bernie Sanders shares a similar viewpoint by sarcastically referring to the “crime of trying to get an education.” Just as criminals often have to pay burdensome fines for their actions, many college graduates find themselves with unrealistic amounts of debt after college. By likening college debt to criminal fines, Sanders implies that it is ridiculous that graduates and criminals both have similar punishments. If you buy into this metaphor, his plan to make public colleges free seems like a no-brainer. Donald Trump, on the other hand, makes few substantive comments on education, so his metaphors are not clear.

National Security

The metaphors for elements of national security seem to be a little more varied. On the side of avoiding too much security, Sanders says that “We can (protect the country from terrorism) without living in an Orwellian world.” You could argue that the reference to an Orwellian world is technically an allusion, but it’s also a metaphorical allusion. In George Orwell’s 1984, the government knows everything about everyone, and the book is a creepy warning for what can happen if the government oversteps its boundaries. This reference encourages people to think of the vague notion of the government increasing its intelligence efforts in more concrete terms but conjuring up the disturbing images from 1984.

There are also many metaphors that suggest that national security should be increased. Clinton’s language suggests that terrorism threats are concrete, material things, referring to “the threats we face together” and “The threat we face from terrorism is real, it is urgent, and it knows no boundaries.” People have a hard time thinking about things they can’t see or touch (or otherwise experience directly), which is when metaphor often comes in. Terrorism threats are a great example of a complex and intangible problem, but by suggesting that they are real things that we can face and that they can spread without boundaries, Clinton encourages people to think about them more concretely, which can in turn encourage us to take national security more seriously.

Trump often talks very literally about a wall around our borders. This is not a metaphor, but would be an especially vivid one if he wasn’t being serious. He does talk about our current border status metaphorically, however, claiming that “our borders are like Swiss cheese.” If only he were being literal about that border claim, we’d have a lot of happy people!

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* Here are the Google searches that turned up the quotes that I use throughout this post: Trump, Clinton, Sanders.


The education escalator

I spend a lot of time thinking about the problems with education and what we might be able to do to fix them. I think about it on a small scale (i.e., how can I better explain this concept to the 50 students sitting in front of me right now?) and on a larger scale (can an innovative online-based college become a competitor for traditional elite colleges?)

For these reasons, I was intrigued by this recent NYT article by Nicholas Kristoff (The American Dream Is Leaving America). The core of the article points out that America used to have unrivaled education. As a result, it was a land of opportunity. Now, other countries have improved their education systems, and the formerly stellar American system has become one that perpetuates inequality. This may all be true (the data he presents certainly suggest so).

However, he bookends the piece with a perplexing metaphor: the education escalator. He starts it by saying: “The best escalator to opportunity in America is education. But a new study underscores that the escalator is broken.” The final lines are similar: “A starting point is to embrace the ethos that was born in America but is now an expatriate: that we owe all children a fair start in life in the form of access to an education escalator. Let’s fix the escalator.”


His point is not lost on me, but I don’t think that the American ethos is that all children should be put on an escalator that will take them to success. Usually talk of an American ethos tends to revolve around the idea of a self-made man. These two ideas are incompatible. Once you step on an escalator, you don’t have to do a single thing. Instead, you get to space out for about 30 seconds and gaze down at the ground as you slowly drift away. The most strenuous part of riding an escalator is stepping off at the right time. A self-made man, on the other hand, has to do a lot to get up to the next level. We assume that everything he does on his way up is more strenuous than stepping off an escalator.

For this reason, I don’t think our goal in America should be to fix an education escalator. Equal opportunities for all children – yes. But stepping on shouldn’t guarantee success. Maybe instead we should work on building a big, sturdy education staircase. It’ll be equipped with a handrail to guide weak and unsteady students, but they have to put in effort in order to progress.

Why learn to write cursive?

When I was in elementary school, printing was difficult enough for me. Or, more accurately, being patient enough to neatly form each letter was difficult. I just wanted to get my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. When I started to learn cursive, it was an exciting and novel activity for the first day, but it quickly became tedious. Why would I want to sit and write the same letter over and over when I had so many stories and observations that were begging to be written instead? Because I thought cursive writing was a waste of time (and isn’t it usually more difficult to read too?), as soon as my teachers stopped caring, I stopped using it. This article in Psychology Today now has me wondering if that was such a great idea.

The article by William Klemm discusses the cognitive benefits of learning cursive. He writes that, during the process of learning cursive, “the brain develops functional specialization that integrates both sensation, movement control, and thinking.” When we write in cursive, we have to exercise fine motor control over our fingers and pay attention to how we’re forming letters, recruiting brain areas that aren’t used when we keyboard.


A lot of the benefits of writing cursive also extend to printing: strokes must be located relative to each other, the sizes, form, and features of each letter must be remembered, and categorization skills are developed. However, cursive writing brings some additional benefits because “the movement tasks are more demanding, the letters less stereotypical, and the visual recognition requirements create a broader repertoire of letter representation.”

These observations about the benefits of cursive are really interesting in the context of enactivism – the idea that one’s mind is organized by his interactions with the environment. (To me, this is almost the same thing as embodied cognition, except that where embodied cognition emphasizes the body with which we act, enactivism emphasizes the actual acting.) The physical act of writing seems to play a facilitatory role in coming up with ideas. In a study of children from grades 2-6, Virginia Bernignger at the University of Washington found that they wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand than with a keyboard. While this could be taken as a sign that children are bad typists, the argument is that the ideas emerged via motor movements.


The study of haptics examines the interactions of touch, hand movements, and brain functions. If researchers are right that the act of writing helps form representations of letters when children are learning to read and write, I wonder if our letter representations are somehow altered or degraded if we later elect to replace handwriting with typing?

Another sort of tangential connection is the suggestion I’ve heard by many educators to physically rewrite notes when trying to memorize them, as opposed to typing them. Somehow, the tedious act of forming the letters facilitates stronger memories of the materials. Aside from the fact that, if true, these are helpful hints for education, the apparent cognitive impacts of handwriting also speak to the inseparability of our bodies and our minds, even in seemingly mundane cases such as handwriting vs. typing.

Number lines in the head?

I recently read an article by Rafael Núñez which argued that the concept of a number line is not an innate way to conceptualize numbers, although many scientists seem to have assumed that it is. In the study, the researchers had members of the Yupno tribe in New Guinea do a number line task- for example, they may be given a card with 6 dots, and were asked to place it somewhere on a number line ranging from 1 to 10 dots. Those participants who had received some formal schooling did this task almost as accurately as Westerners did, but those who had never gone to school could not seem to grasp the concept- they placed all numbers at one end or the other, seeing it more as a bi-categorical system than a continuous one. All participants did demonstrate that they had number concepts, but the concept of a number line as we know it was not universal.


This got me wondering: what would an elementary school teacher, who has taught the concept of a number line, think? When teaching children how to use number lines, does the teacher feel like she’s introducing a brand new concept to them, or is she pointing out an innate or intuitive tool that they already have access to? I asked my own second grade teacher (who teaches third grade now), and here’s her response:

“I had always had a number line posted in the room, again because we were told to display it since it became part of the program. If it was not there, we were told to put it up. I noticed far too many [students] were relying on the number line for far too many reasons, some making no sense at al. So, (surprise, surprise) I took it down. For the past two years, not one student asked about its absence since they had to use it in K, 1, and 2… To understand the concepts of number in grade three, they are much better able to grasp many concepts with the use of a hundreds chart since the base 10 skills are basic foundations for grade K-4 math concepts being taught.”

To me, her response suggests that the number line isn’t an innate tool, but one that’s been pushed on students, perhaps too forcefully, causing them to rely on it maybe in circumstances in which they don’t even understand why they’re using it. Even more importantly, eliminating the emphasis on a number line in the third grade classroom may even help some students, by allowing them to conceptualize numbers in other ways that may actually be more intuitive.

I also brought this up with a middle school math teacher I know, since number lines continue to be an integral part of math education. For her, they tend to show up when graphing inequalities, negative numbers, and fractions, and in the ubiquitous coordinate plane. She pointed out that many students reverse the numbers on the y-axis especially, labeling the bottom half as positive and the top half as negative. It seems, she noted, that if a number line weren’t intuitive, this wouldn’t happen. Is it possible that a horizontal number line is intuitive but not a vertical one? That would seem to undermine the concept behind it, that numbers are related to each other in a continuous stream, that the difference between 2 and 3 is the same as that between 3 and 4, regardless of the orientation.


To most of us, number lines seem like an obvious way to visualize the relationships of different quantities to each other, but maybe they aren’t so natural. Maybe we have to keep examining the ways of conceptualizing number that are truly natural, and maybe we’ll even want to revamp the ways we teach numbers to elementary students. I don’t know, but I’d be interested to hear from others who have maybe spent more time thinking about and teaching about number concepts than I have.

Euthenics at Vassar

In honor of my graduation today from Vassar College, I wanted to write about the Cognitive Science program’s home, Blodgett Hall, and the unique Euthenics program that it once housed.

Blodgett Hall
Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.

An article in the Vassar Encyclopedia, The Disappointing First Thrust of Euthenics, details Vassar’s unique and short-lived Euthenics program. The program was inspired by Vassar alumna Ellen Swallow Richards (1870), who was the first woman to be accepted to MIT. She coined the word “euthenics,” the science of controllable environment, from the Greek stems eu (well) and tithemi (to cause). Put another way, euthenics was the development of human well-being through the improvement of living conditions, so it concentrated on the application of scientific principles in protecting air, water, and food. Much emphasis was placed on parents’ roles in assuring a quality life for their children in the future. Some courses included nutrition, food chemistry, child psychology, sanitation, horticulture, sociological and statistical studies, and economic geography.

The college’s President at the time, Henry MacCracken, was very excited to offer this new multidisciplinary subject, and saw euthenics as a progressive movement, a way for women to link their coursework at Vassar with professions afterward. His hope was for sciences and arts to enhance each other, rather than compete, which would be done by teaching them together as one multidisciplinary field.

The faculty were not as enthusiastic about the idea of euthenics as MacCracken had been. Many believed it would limit women’s development by pushing traditionally feminine fields on them. However, the program was narrowly accepted in 1924 because Minnie Cunnock Blodgett offered to fund the building to house the program. In addition to being equipped with classrooms and labs for the euthenics program, Blodgett Hall also contained a model apartment for the study of interior design and efficient housekeeping, which was also intended to be Blodgett’s residence when she returned to campus. It also included a social museum, displaying exhibits on topics such as tenement housing, racism, and children’s health.

Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton  Architectural Press: New York.
Minnie Cunnock Blodgett and President Henry Noble MacCracken
Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.


In 1925, Euthenics courses were officially part of the curriculum, but the program was not as popular with the students as MacCracken and Blodgett had hoped, possibly because they were aware of the faculty’s general opposition to the program.

During the Depression, part of Blodgett was repurposed to create a lower cost coop housing opportunity, and after WWII, the Euthenics program was officially removed. One of the biggest problems with the program was that MacCracken presented it at to a traditional faculty just getting used to having autonomy over developing their own single disciplinary programs, making them resistant to the progressive multidisciplinary approach that he envisioned. However, the transient program did set the precedent for a number of multidisciplinary fields that exist at Vassar today, such as Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, and of course, Cognitive Science. Perhaps Euthenics is partly to thank for the Cognitive Science program that has continued to intrigue, excite, and push me throughout 4 awesome years at Vassar.

Plaque that remains under the archway of Blodgett to this day. Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.
Plaque that remains under the archway of Blodgett today. Reads: “This building dedicated to the study of Euthenics is given to Vassar College… to encourage the application of the arts and sciences to the betterment of human living.”
Image: Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.


Van Lengren, K. & Reilly, L. (2004). Vassar College: An architectural tour. Princeton Architectural Press: New York.

Vassar Encyclopedia: The Disappointing First Thrusts of Euthenics

Review of Roger Schank’s “Teaching Minds”

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Along the lines of yesterday’s post evaluating the efficacy of higher education, here’s my review of Schank’s book, Teaching Minds:

In Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science can Save our Schools, Roger Schank critically evaluates current methods of education in light of what is known about how we learn. The core of his argument is that in order to be successful in the world post school, students must master cognitive abilities, or processes, instead of subjects and the fact-based knowledge that subjects often entail. Specifically, Schank identifies twelve processes which he claims underlie learning, all of which fall under the categories of conceptual, analytic, or social processes. They include abilities such as experimentation, evaluation, planning, causation, teamwork, and negotiation. Schank’s view is that mastery of the twelve cognitive processes is crucial for success in life after school.

Because subjects, such as math and history, are the core of our current education system, Schank argues that we are doing a disservice to 98% of our students. At the university level, he claims that all institutions attempt to emulate Yale, whose curriculum is ideal for future scholars. However, most students receiving a college education aren’t going to be scholars, so they shouldn’t go to colleges that only teach useful skills for a career in academia. Because colleges are focused on training scholars, and high schools are focused on getting their students ready for college, high schools are also teaching useless knowledge and subjects to students. Again, what is necessary is a shift in focus from subjects to cognitive processes.

Another tenet that Schank relies on is that students need to want to learn what they’re learning; they need motivation. Young children have great motivation to learn to walk and talk, and not surprisingly, he argues, they master these skills relatively quickly and are generally successful. By learning through real-life projects, students will be more engaged and will consequently gain more from their studies. In order to provide the real-scenarios from which students would optimally learn, Schank advocates for a shift to more online learning. Online curricula would allow dissemination to a greater number of students and would also allow students to make more choices in what they learn, thus ensuring they are motivated to learn what they are studying. The book concludes with examples of lessons aimed at imparting the cognitive processes that would be effective online.

Schank’s argument that our education system over-emphasizes subject knowledge and under-emphasizes the cognitive skills underlying all professions is compelling. Instead of being able to recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, shouldn’t students be able to use logic to diagnose problems in the real-world, understand their causes, and make hypotheses about potential solutions? However, the program outlined in Teaching Minds is radically different from the current education system, and would therefore be met with resistance if it were proposed as an alternative.

Schank’s twelve cognitive processes are one source of skepticism: why did he choose those particular skills and not others? Why are there no physical skills, such as bodily awareness or deep breathing, included in his list? If the processes on which his proposed program is based seem arbitrary, how can we avoid being skeptical of his entire program?

It is also surprising to read an education advocate who would like to overhaul the current system in favor of online curricula. Schank does not address the educational costs of online learning. For example, schools are dynamic environments that foster spontaneous learning which will disappear if students learn entirely from pre-planned online curricula. In a similar vain, the time students spend at school outside of the classroom, such as in the cafeteria or even the halls between classes, is also valuable time. Students encounter peer pressure, bullying, and have the opportunity to engage in relationships that would be fundamentally altered if they communicated with each other solely through their computers. Might this type of learning hinder students’ social skills, which are already coming under attack in today’s video game-filled society?

A final concern of mine that Schank does not address is the danger of allowing students to learn only that which they choose. Although Schank does not believe there is a compelling reason that students must be “well-rounded” in their knowledge, intuitively it seems to me that having exposure to many different fields and ideas is beneficial. Further, it seems likely that students, in choosing only subjects that initially interest them, they may miss out on interests they didn’t realize they had, interests that could have become evident had the students been exposed to them.

Overall, Teaching Minds is a thought-provoking read, especially for those of us who feel the current state of education leaves something to be desired. While his main point is one that few people would argue with, his radical proposal for fixing it is likely to render it an impossibility.

Can MOOCs improve higher ed?

General consensus seems to be that American higher education needs improvement. This article reports that on average, US college students spend only 12-14 hours studying per week, which is 50% less than they spent a few decades ago, and that 45% of undergrads exhibited no improvements on the standardized test used for their assessment, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, after two years of college. [Note: this test does not account for potential gains in subject-specific skills, but instead focuses on reading and writing skills]. Meanwhile, the cost of a traditional 4-year university continues to climb rapidly.

Enter MOOCs: Massive open online courses through which many leading universities are making courses available to the 1,000,000+ people who have  signed up to date.

MOOC creators are quick to sing its praises, Nicholas Carr points out in his article, “The Crisis in Higher Education.” For one, the courses make education more accessible, most notably to people who are geographically isolated and to others who want to study while holding careers. They also allow students to go at their own pace, and often include periodic checkpoints so students don’t fall behind. MOOCs adapt to students’ responses, repeating and elaborating on topics when necessary, and moving ahead when students are ready. The future will likely include programs that monitor how students interact with the teaching system and provide materials tailored to students’ individual learning styles.

However, MOOCs aren’t necessarily the educational saviors that their creators suggest. For one, they have very high dropout rates: Carr reports that of the more than 155,000 people who signed up for a MIT course on electronic circuits, only 23,000 even finished the first problem set, and only 7,000 (~5%) finished the course. The rate reflects the difficulty that MOOCs face in keeping their students engaged, a problem that could actually decrease the number of Americans completing college if the online courses were integrated into their curricula.

Another difficulty is the range of topics that MOOCs can adequately teach. Currently, most are math and computer science based (probably because they are created by computer science professors…), but how might they transfer liberal arts, more exploratory topics, into an online medium? How could they compensate for the value of social learning, learning that results from the unique combination of students and professors in a real-time physical classroom?

Undoubtedly, there are pros and cons to MOOCs, but which outweighs the other? Are they a solution to America’s troubled higher education system, or might they further derail it?