April 22nd, 2014 // 3:32 pm @ Oliver DeMille
Two Different Americas
Those who don’t understand the language of metaphor are falling behind in the widening gap that is the global economy. They are watching their family’s standard of living decrease over the decades.
This trend will only increase in the years ahead.
Those with a quality education learn to think, to readily see symbolism wherever it is found. But most Americans and Westerners are part of the literal class—symbolism is often lost on them.
They tend to see things without the metaphor.
For example, last year a long debate raged on social media about whether or not The Hunger Games trilogy was good or bad reading for youth. The most interesting thing about this debate wasn’t the arguments made by either side, but the fact that symbolism was hardly ever part of the debate.
But the symbolism is glaring: A nation sacrifices its helpless children for the convenience, entertainment, and libertine moral values of the urban upper class, while government, media, and big wealth combine to keep their control over the outlying, rural people dedicated to “archaic” family values.
What could be a closer parallel to our modern society? And what metaphor could ever more clearly point out the hypocrisy of the American cosmopolitan class and its views on abortion?
What Was Missed
To anyone trained in symbolism, the metaphor is obvious. We watch children killed for the convenience and political values of the elite class. And note that in The Hunger Games the urban classes have collectivist economic views combined with libertine moral values—the same as those in the real world who support Roe v. Wade and easy abortion laws in modern America.
This is blatant symbolism, but only the upper classes really understood this.
In fact, some of the most vocal voices declaring that The Hunger Games books and movies are inappropriate for youth came from people who are strongly against abortion.
They just didn’t understand that The Hunger Games was probably the biggest, best, and most popular anti-abortion movie ever. This was entirely lost on the literal classes.
When the ruling classes understand literal and symbolic language, while the masses only understand the literal, freedom is in decline and the power of the ruling classes will only increase.
This was true in Shakespeare’s day, in the time of Virgil, and when the Psalms and Proverbs were written.
The elite classes, steeped in the classics and great books that teach readers how to think (especially symbolically), are always going to rule over the literal classes whose education is limited to getting the “right” answers, preparing for jobs and careers, and not really thinking about things symbolically.
Allan Bloom warned that modern America has this problem at the level of Hitler’s Germany.
The Real Fascination
Another example: People in the literal classes can’t quite understand why today’s youth are so intrigued by vampire books, movies, and television programs. “What is this fascination with vampires?” the literal classes ask.
The elite classes, well-versed in metaphor and symbolism, know better. They understand that vampires are symbols of something—something many young people struggle with.
Imagine a society made up of two major groups. First are the hard-working, regular people who live in middle-class neighborhoods, go to work every day, raise families, sleep during the night (because they have to go to their job tomorrow), send their kids to school in order to get a good career in their adult lives, etc.
The second group in society is made up of a few people who have trust funds, inherited wealth, can get in trouble with the law but get out of it relatively easily, stay up through the night at fancy balls and dinners, then go home in the early morning and sleep late into the day, and have more power, wealth, fun and entertaining lives, and sophisticated connections with other aristocrats far beyond the local community—and even around the world.
The first group envies the second, while the aristocratic second group hardly gives a thought to their “inferiors.” Parents of both groups warn their children not to mix with the other group—because it inevitably causes many problems.
This clearly defines two things: 1) an aristocratic society, like all elite societies that have existed in human history, and 2) every group of vampires portrayed in literature, juvenile fiction, and in movies and TV programs.
But the literal classes mostly miss this symbolism. “Why do the kids like vampires?” the literal classes ask.
Some literal writers even try to explain how youth like to be scared, so they love the idea of biting strangers dressed in black. So literal. So shallow.
Answer: The kids don’t love actual vampires, they love the idea of rising into a higher class. In high school, this is a driving passion for many teenagers. If movies are to be believed, it’s the driving theme for most students in most high schools.
In such an environment, vampires are the shortcut to social success. If one bites you (dates you, likes you, includes you in his group, etc.) you immediately climb to a higher social class. The highest social class, in fact.
The one that has the money, the power, the mystery, and the worldwide connections (rather than the homegrown limits of the coal mines, a job at Blue Bell’s Rammer Jammer, or a lifetime of alumni fundraising for the Friday Night Lights).
The fact that many parents tell you to ignore the vampires (“Don’t worry about high school cliques, or being popular. It won’t even matter after you graduate.”) just adds to the intrigue.
Vampires are aristocrats. Elites. People with enough money, power and connections to ignore the limits most people and families struggle with—as youth, and also as adults.
The kids instinctively understand this, though their literal parents may not.
The Old Tool
This language barrier isn’t new.
In aristocratic Britain, the upper classes pronounced words differently than the lower and working classes—so elites would always know who they were dealing with. In fact, the pronunciations were literal (pronounce every syllable) versus symbolic (skip syllables, if you’ve been trained by other aristos and know what to look for).
For example, the word Worchester was pronounced “wor-ches-ter” by the lower classes, but simply “wis-ter” by the nobles. Or the name St. John was pronounced “Saint John” by working classes but “Sinjin” by nobility (see Jane Eyre). There are thousands of similar words.
This boils down to two classes, the Literal versus Symbolic. Checkers versus Chess. “Tell me the right answer, so you can pass the test and someday get a good job,” versus “Tell me your opinion, because there are many possible correct answers, and our purpose is to help you learn how to think—so you can become a leader.”
These are how public schools versus elite prep schools, respectively, generally teach.
The Price of the Literal
Facts versus Metaphor. Precision versus Imagery. One Meaning versus Poetic Allegory.
Again, the elite classes are well educated in both of these dialects. The problem is that the middle and lower classes are not. They only know the literal meanings of words.
This is a growing concern, because it causes increased divisions between the elites and the regular people. The masses don’t understand what is happening to their society, because they don’t speak the language of metaphor. When President Obama promised, “If you want to keep your doctor [under Obamacare], you can keep your doctor,” the two classes heard very different things.
The literal classes heard: “If you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” Hearing this, they planned their family and business finances and voted accordingly.
The symbolic classes, trained in metaphor, heard the following: “If you want to keep your doctor, you can keep your doctor, or at least one that is just as good; or, even if you can’t keep your doctor under the new plan, the nation will be better off, so it’s worth the change anyway.”
The symbolic class knows that political promises are rhetoric, meant to win elections—not meant to actually, literally be fulfilled. The literal class is slowly realizing that this is the case, but they still feel lied to by each new candidate. In reality, they just don’t understand metaphorical language.
A teacher I know once shared the following quote by Groucho Marx with her class: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend; inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” One student was very frustrated with this little proverb. When questioned, the student said emotionally, “This is so cruel to dogs. Why would anyone want to read inside of a dog?”
When the literal class doesn’t easily and immediately understand symbolism, it will lose its freedoms to the elite ruling class that does.
The Missed Symbols
I wonder what people will say about the book and movie popularity of Divergent. It is a great symbolic attack on the modern public school system and the way we choose careers and jobs in the U.S., Canada, and Europe—but I bet there will be a number of homeschoolers, charter school and non-traditional educators and parents who miss some key points.
First: this is not a book for youth; the intermittent suggested sensuality that is predictable and “natural” for youth in crisis who depend upon each other without family support is not suitable for most youth.
Second: this book is for adults, and it may be the best promotion for homeschooling and other cutting-edge, new educational choices since…well, ever.
If non-traditional education seizes this opportunity, there will be a lot of support for Divergent, because people will understand its symbolism: Each person is different, and each person has unique genius inside.
The purpose of education is to help each student discover and develop his or her inner genius and passion, and use it to improve and serve the world. When the focus is on making every child fit in, it’s not education at all. At best it’s training, at worst brainwashing.
This is the overarching message of Divergent—but will it be lost on the literal class? I hope not.
We all can benefit from including more symbolic thinking in our reading. It’s like a new mantra for 21st Century leadership: Read more, think more, serve more. And look for symbols and metaphor in everything you read.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.