Coincidence strikes again.
At a recent conference a speaker who had recently spent a lot of time talking to faculty members about their teaching reported that she was amazed how frequently she heard faculty use the metaphor of “pumping” knowledge into students’ heads. Students, it turns out, also use that metaphor when describing less than satisfactory learning experiences.
On the plane flying back from the conference, I was reading the Hippocratic Law, when Coincidence struck. I came across this description of how physicians should be taught:
The learning of medicine may be likened to the growth of a plant. Our natural ability (physis) is the soil. The views of our teachers are as it were the seeds. Learning in childhood is analogous to the seed falling upon prepared ground. The place of instruction is as it were the nutriment that comes from the surrounding air … . Diligence (philoponie) is the working of the soil. Time strengthens all these things so the nurture is perfected.
Hippocratic Law iii, trans. W.H.S. Jones, modified
That’s a much richer metaphor than “pumping.” Look for natural talent, good early childhood education, and make sure there is, as they say, a “good learning environment.” Nice. But it It turns out that’s not the end of the story. The agricultural metaphor grows and blossoms in antiquity, for example this passage from a summary of the philosophy of the Stoic Zeno. We’re told that philosophers have many metaphors for their subject :
… they liken Philosophy to a fertile field, Logic being the encircling fence, Ethics the crop, Physics the soil or the trees.
Diogenes Laertius VII. 40, trans, R.D. Hicks
The Hippocratic Law, however, also resonates with the imagery in the parable of the sower told in each of the synoptic gospels. In Mark it goes like this:
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil; and when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no roots, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seed fell in good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty fold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold.
Mark 4, 3 – 8, trans. Revised Standard Version. Cf. Matthew 13, 18 – 23, and Luke 8, 5 – 8.
The astonishing thing in the parable to my way of thinking is the rash promiscuity of the sower. He casts the seed this way and that, as if it were cheap or of no value at all. It seems not to bother him that the forces of nature all work against him, the birds, the sun, the acanthus bushes. There is, to be sure, some good soil around, but there is no hint that the sower has prepared it, or that he covers the seed over with soil, or waters it, or comes back to weed it. None of that is his job. Yet his efforts succeed, with yields of thirty, sixty or even a hundred fold.
So, ewe have plenty of metaphor to choose from -- the pump, the well prepared soil, the logically bounded field, or the unconstrained scattering of seed. But watch out: metaphors sneak up on you; they have a way of shaping practice, and determining results. So I guess we had better be careful which one we choose.