1)“We are all toadies to the fashionable metaphor of the hour. Great is he who imposes the metaphor.” – Robert Frost (
In President Barack Obama’s first hundred days in office, as the Great Recession crested, with nearly 600,000 jobs lost in the previous month, foreclosures ripping communities apart throughout the nation and General Motors on the edge of collapse, Obama needed to find a way to buoy the waning tide of euphoria for “hope” and “change” that swept him into power. While his hundred day speech covered the headlines, it was a little-heard set of remarks on a jobless report the next week that created one of Obama’s most enduring linguistic legacies, one to rival “hope,” and one that has changed the way we talk about not just the economy, but all aspects of life: the “economic engine.”
“Although we have a long way to go before we can put this recession behind us, the gears of our economic engine do appear … to be slowly turning once again,” Obama announced, describing his intention to invest in retraining opportunities for displaced workers in community colleges (such as the one where I teach). Not long after this speech, the phrase economic engine – which had been used in no major headlines before this – flooded the US press, according to data from Google Trends. Soon after, it wasn’t just the economy that was an engine. Indeed, everything now is a potential economic engine: musical theater, national parks, lakes, polluted mines, families, Hillary Clinton, and even Jesus.
Yes, that’s right – “Jesus is an economic engine,” wrote one pastor, in jest. And if Jesus can be a machine, who can’t be?
Inside the Economic Engine
Jesus aside (for now), economic engine seems like a rather innocuous phrase – especially when applied only to the economy itself. To refer to the economy as an engine doesn’t even seem particularly metaphoric, as our economy is run on engines, and if the engines stop, our economy collapses. Further, it doesn’t seem original, as Christopher Werth reports for NPR: “Since the Industrial Revolution, there’s one metaphor that’s come to dominate the way we all talk about economics: the idea that the economy is a ‘machine.'” And in our automotive, automated culture, the engine is the dominant symbol and reality of American life: Thus, an economic engine feels completely literal, utterly commonsense. If anything, Obama selected the most uncontroversial, most unchallenging, most status quo way to describe the economy.
Because it hides in plain sight, the economic engine is “the fashionable metaphor of the hour.” Unlike “hope” and “change,” which are inextricably linked to Obama, this linguistic legacy travels unseen across the ideological spectrum, employed in earnest by conservative pastors, Tea Partiers, Democrats, and unwitting reporters. The economic engine metaphor is so fashionable – so deeply entrenched in our history and culture – that it’s barely noticed and its linguistic implications vaguely understood. It’s this invisible popularity that makes it so powerful. And while the power of metaphor may seem trivial, one important to poets like Frost only, it isn’t just about poetry, nor rhetorical flourish – metaphor frames the way we see and understand the world, as poets and politicians both know. (2) Thus, metaphor is as central to public policy as to poetry – and in both, a poor metaphor leaves its public impoverished and misled.
While it may be part of common usage, economic engine is a profoundly misleading metaphor – and not just when applied to Jesus. And while our economy currently runs on machines, it is not a machine itself – no, the economy consists of actual human beings working, people doing things for other people. Sure, we use machines to increase our efficiency and productivity, but we are not pistons, nor gears in an engine, as the metaphor implies. We live; we have passions; we have families, communities – to mechanize us in words is to strip us of our humanity in reality. It is far easier easy to wear out a part of an engine than it is to exploit a single mother caring for small children by providing no job security, no health benefits and a wage that can’t provide food for those children. And since the Industrial Revolution, this poor metaphor has enabled and even encouraged such abuse of workers in the name of efficiency, productivity, and “economic progress.”
In a brilliant linguistic pivot, Obama freed this powerfully misleading metaphor from the shackles of the economic jargon, allowing it to define all aspects of human experience: now, it is not just that the economy is an engine, but also, everything else in the world can be an economic engine. In other words, by turning the phrase into an adjective, economic engine could now go viral, attaching itself to the most unusual, unlikely, and inapt nouns – such as Jesus. Now, everything – our religions, our lakes, our parks, our schools – can be metaphorically mechanized, and thus understood and valued solely in terms of terms of economic value and productivity.
The Ghost in the Teaching Machine
As an educator, I find it sacrilegious to the soul of public education to imagine our school system as an economic engine – and unfortunately, this is where the misleading metaphor has exercised its most power. Obama has placed the full weight of his executive power in imposing the engine metaphor onto our public school system, recasting learning as a primarily economic – and essentially mechanical – enterprise. Obama’s entire education policy is explicitly framed around the idea of education as an engine for unimpeded economic expansion: “America’s education system has always been one of our greatest sources of strength and global economic competitiveness, as well as an engine of progress in science, technology and the arts” (emphasis added). Further, the vocabulary of the engine is beneath all the Obama’s discussions of education – phrases like efficiency and acceleration – are both common in speeches and official documents. Obama’s signature education policy Race to the Top reinforces the metaphor, casting education as the motor which will help us speed past other countries, ensuring our position as an economic superpower. Most notably, the Obama administration dubs the education system the “cradle-to-career pipeline,” suggesting that children are the fuel for the engine, a natural resource pumped out of our communities, and used to drive American economic supremacy (for a lush visual representation of this metaphor, see my comic with Josh Neufeld, “This School is Not a Pipe.” (3)
In this case, it would be preferable if Obama’s discourse on education was just poetic flourish: Unfortunately, it accurately depicts his administration’s approach to running the school system as if it were an engine, one used primarily for powering industry. Most obviously, Obama has not just maintained, but extended the scope of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind high-stakes standardized testing machine. Since he stepped into office, Obama has sought ways to make the educational engine run more efficiently, by giving corporate America – and Silicon Valley in particular – a major hand in the design, as we heard in a 2014 speech: “And I want to acknowledge, by the way – we’ve got companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, Verizon – they’re going to help students and teachers use the latest tools to accelerate learning,” as if education is a process which can be accelerated by tools, like an engine in need of a tune-up. Indeed, Race to the Top – and the now established corporate/tech/government network engineering its ascent – only makes sense if you can imagine children and teachers as uniformly sized pistons, rather than diverse, individual citizens in a democratic state (of course, this is the perfect educational system for children if the economic system treats their parents the same way).
No doubt, public education is literally becoming this metaphor, an economic engine designed and engineered by politicians in federal and state governments to serve corporate America. This is not to say that preparing students for work is not one very important function of schooling, but it is not the only function – nor is it the most important one. Under the imposition of this mechanical metaphor, all other educational purposes – personal exploration, cultural awareness, physical and mental health, spiritual understanding, democratic engagement, and education as an end in itself – have become inefficiencies, sources of friction, impediments to acceleration in the engine, as are children and adults who don’t fit the “standard,” because they have different learning styles, a different culture, a lower socioeconomic background, or dissenting thoughts.
Education – except that which directly serves economic growth – becomes just a ghost in the machine.
The Metaphor Less Traveled
To stop the spread of this linguistic virus, one which poses a real threat not just to our economy, but also to our education system, our democracy and our environment, we must inoculate our minds against this misleading mechanical metaphor, to ensure that we don’t become “toadies to the dominant metaphor,” as Robert Frost warns us.
This is no easy task.
First, we must dismantle and dispose of the longstanding, Industrial Revolution-era metaphor of economy as a gas-guzzling, smog-belching machine. Indeed, it is this very metaphor – and the policies that went with it – that resulted in the economic collapse of 2009, and will ensure a similar economic collapse, if left to the same mindless, mechanical ideology. And beyond economy, this same Industrial Revolution-era mindset of constant acceleration – and thus constant consumption of natural resources to support it – endangers our very existence through climate change.
In the machine’s place, we can plant a new metaphor for the economy – perhaps an ecosystem, as Princeton’s Tim Leonard has suggested, one in which equilibrium and quality of life are the dominant values (though, obviously, this metaphor has its own sand-trap, as equilibrium can be achieved in all sorts of brutal ways in the natural world). An economic ecology, viewed in the most constructive light, encourages collaboration, environmental and cultural awareness, and most of all, an understanding that the economic system is composed of living, breathing organisms, and not unfeeling machines. Such a powerful, creative, life-affirming metaphor could then spread across other institutions – such as education and democracy – healing the damage wrought by generations of grinding gears, directing us from a self-destructive, violent empire, and towards a sustainable civil society.
The path of a new metaphor, requiring a new, more humane language of economics, of education, of American life, is rough one, as it asks us to climb linguistic pathways well outside the well-trod discourse. But here again, Frost advises us on our next step forward (with a little remixing assistance):
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two metaphors diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.” (4)
(1) See the complete 1936 letter from Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer in Hass, Robert Bernard. Going by Contraries: Robert Frost’s Conflict with Science. University of Virginia Press. 2002. Pages 191 – 192.