University Life as a Journey
Alternative Metaphors

This article appeared in Teaching Perspectives, September, 2006.

In his welcoming address to the parents of incoming students, Dr. Michael Higgins, invited those present to find new metaphors to replace the rather clichéd symbol of life, and by extension, of university life, as a journey. The journey or pilgimage has been used as a metaphor for life for many years and the allegorical journey on which the protagonist embarks is both a virtual life and an allegory, at some level, for life itself. Pilgrimages were such journeys, leading travellers to Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury, or Santiago de Compostela, in search of enlightenment and forgiveness. The metaphor of the journey, however, is not the only one available, and Spanish literature, especially that of the Golden Age (1500-1650), is replete with metaphors for the life process. Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote uses two taken from the travelling preachers of his day. One is life as a game of chess. During the game, each playing piece has its value (king, queen, rook, bishop, knight, pawn) but at the end of the game “they are all thrown back into the canvas bag which is the grave and all are equal.” Cervantes’s second metaphor is that of life as theatre or play. The players have their robes and characters, but at the end of the play they return to their normal clothes and are more or less equal again. Similar metaphors are also used by Pedro Calderón de la Barca who, in various plays, examines the metaphors of life as a market (El Gran Mercado del Mundo), life as a stage (El Gran Teatro del Mundo), and, the most famous of all, life as a dream (La Vida es Sueño).

More modern versions of these metaphors might see life as an interactive computer game within a virtual reality of someone else's creation. Such a metaphor might seem to be applicable to university life, with its enclosed space and its development of skills which seem initially to function for the purpose of the game alone and yet which, when adapted, have wider applications to the world outside the university. All professors have been taught the rules of these games yet each year the rules must be reinvented and readjusted slightly to accomodate new knowledge and new teaching perspectives so that each generation of new players, also called students, may participate. The professor’s role may be seen as that of Herman Hesse's magister ludi, the game director or facilitator. In these games, it is the professor’s task to make the game enjoyable and worthwhile, what Fray Luis de León, in the sixteenth century, called enseñar deleitando / to educate while pleasing. It is the player’s task to actively participate in the game: rules must be followed, questions asked, and tasks completed, usually within specified time limits, in order for the game’s quest for knowledge to be successful.

The twin metaphors of the walled garden and the ivory tower have also been used to describe both life and university life, the latter, ad nauseam, with its ascent to the ivy-covered ivory of the ivy league and its descent into the pejorative provincial red-brick tower, or just red-brick. The metaphor of the walled garden, less used, comes straight from medieval times where the walled garden is a secret, sacred enclosure in which the wilderness is kept at bay and the civilized and marvelous may still be encountered. The scholar and / or teacher may be seen as the gardener who guides each visitor around the enclosed precinct. Students are eligible to fill several roles. They may be casual or serious visitors, stopping to contemplate the beauty of the flowers; or they may be sub-gardeners, learning to be craftspeople themselves. They may also take the role, rather more passive, of more or less willing plants, waiting to be nurtured, cultivated, and shaped. Student participation may vary from contemplating and sharing to actively shaping and self-shaping. As head gardener, it is the teacher’s task to determine how knowledge may be shared with each of these individuals.

St. Theresa of Ávila brings the idea of the nurturing and watering of the garden. The gardener must bring water to the garden’s plants. Water can be drawn laboriously from a nearby stream and it can be carried to the garden by hand and by bucket. A water-wheel may be built, and water made available on a more regular basis. The stream may itself be diverted and the plants offered an abundant supply of that liquid element. Finally, the garden may be watered by rain which falls on all, the rich and poor alike, and from which all benefit. In this final metaphor, knowledge saturates the surrounding element of air. This happens when the university community creates conditions which are permanent and constant for the academic development and intellectual growth of the human minds entrusted to its care.

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