Metaphor and Meaning in Obama’s Race to the Top Speech

My paper for Modern Rhetoric, “Metaphor and Meaning in Obama’s Race to the Top Speech,” serves as a reminder of the need to limit one’s topic. In preparation for writing it, I analyzed the Common Core writing standards, and did a pentadic analysis of the Common Core website, and did a metaphor analysis of the video embedded in the site. While these approaches were all very fascinating, sadly none of these analyses were fully realized, so I didn’t end up using any of it, and with these distractions, I didn’t have time to finish writing all that I intended about Obama’s Race to the Top speech.

I originally concluded this paper by arguing that Obama’s educational reforms do not represent actual change. In my revision I would want to pick up where I left off and first consider in what ways Obama’s metaphors are lacking. I envision using three ways to critique these metaphors. First, based both on Aristotle’s observation that metaphors assign values (some terms are “fairer or fouler”) and Andalzúa’s claim that a society’s ill health often resides in its metaphors, I would bring to light the value judgments inherent in the metaphors that Obama employs. Second, in “Archetypal Metaphor in Rhetoric,” Michael Osborn asserts that archetypal metaphors, those that are timeless, have cross-cultural appeal, and address basic human motivations, are more effective in bringing about societal change than non-archetypal metaphors that appeal to more particular audiences. Obama’s use of the non-archetypal metaphors of sports and business, while striking, do not conjure a vision that a broad audience can relate to (307). A final way to assess these metaphors’ effectiveness would be to follow Killingsworth’s suggestion: “If someone says that two things are similar to one another, try thinking of their differences” (134). I think that could provide an instructive critique.

I would then turn to a consideration of how change can actually be brought about. I would question whether metaphor criticism can actually open up possibilities for change, or if it’s just an interesting academic exercise without any muscle. It seems that this methodology of metaphor criticism is inadequate because it merely pinpoints what the status quo is (perhaps a necessary first step), but it does little to generate new insights. Perhaps this is similar to Perelman’s dissatisfaction with philosophy for not being able to “draw an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.” It is a common refrain in the articles I read for this paper that we need to identify metaphors and generate new ones. Alicia Batten offers but one of many when she observes that “metaphor is important, for not only does it affect our views of concepts, it can alter the world in which we live because once we perceive a concept in a particular manner, we are more likely to change how we act” (22). The authors realize that beyond identifying metaphors we need to generate new ones, but how do we do that?

Adding some insights from Burke would, I believe, lead to some productive lines of inquiry. First I would discuss Burke’s ideas of piety/impiety and planned incongruity as a means to bring about changes in thinking. I would also want to link dramatism, specifically scene, to Schön’s concept of the generative metaphor.  Looking at the Race to the Top speech through a dramatistic lens shows that Obama definitely employs a scene/agency ratio in making his case for the new standards: America’s schools are in miserable shape, and the new Common Core State Standards are how they are going to be improved. Bakhtin observes a correlation between scene and metaphor when he says that “the social situation [the scene] in all cases determines which term, which metaphor, and which form may develop in an utterance.” Understanding that the argument for Common Core rests on a scenic or materialistic foundation is critical for understanding the metaphors and for the possibility for change because as Schön points out, scene is the genesis of the generative metaphor, the way of defining the scene that leads to problem setting. Different groups define the scene differently, which leads to different ideas for problem solving. He suggests that we can accommodate the various divergent points of view in a process of “frame restructuring,” which is a complex process of metaphor development and reconciliation that I think would be fascinating to pursue in this area of educational reform. (And this last statement demonstrates that I have actually learned nothing about the importance of limiting my topic…)

(Because most of these revisions would be added to the end of my paper, after the deleted paragraph about Foucault, I have only made one annotation within.)

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