Back to School: Metaphors from Education

Well, it’s that time of year – when kids go back to grade school, teens go back to high school and young adults go off to college.   I thought it would be fun to share some political metaphors that are derived from our collective experiences in the classroom.

chalk up

Most teachers use a board on the wall on which to write the lesson.  In the past, teachers used chalk to write on the board (although nowadays most classrooms contain whiteboards upon which teachers write with dry erase markers).  To write on the chalkboard is sometimes called to chalk up the information.  In other contexts, one can chalk up scores in sporting events or financial information in business settings.  Metaphorically, one can also chalk up or record and categorize events or information.

Example:  The losing mayoral candidate chalked up his loss to inexperience in public government and a badly managed campaign.

blog - ed - slate


In the past, chalkboards were made of thin slices of slate, a heavy black rock mined from quarries.  Similar to chalk up, to slate something meant to write it on the slate chalkboard.  In popular terms, to slate something means to plan an event.

Example:  The presidential debates are always slated to occur just prior to the November elections.


Teachers commonly test the students on their lessons.  The notion of testing can be used metaphorically to all kinds of everyday situations.  In politics, public officials can be tested by other politicians or events.

Example:  The economic crises of 2009 really tested the strength of Barack Obama to manage the national economy.


Similarly, politicians or policies may be untested if they are not challenged by people or events.

Example:  During the 2008 presidential campaign, some critics complained that Obama was an untested politician since he had only spent a few years in the United States Senate.

defined by

Teachers define or explain words to their students based on respected dictionaries.  In politics, a person can be defined by certain life experiences or voting records.

Example:  As a presidential candidate in 2008, John McCain was defined by his heroic survival as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

an open book

Most people learn through books chosen by the teacher of a particular class.  Teachers may give a test when the students cannot look at their books, called a closed book test.  Teachers may also give an open book test in which the students can review what they have learned while taking the test.  Thus an open book implies accessible, clear information.  In popular terms, a person’s life may be described as an open book meaning that they have no secrets and provide information about themselves to the public.

Example:  Since Barack Obama had written two books about himself before he ran for president, he claimed that his life was literally an open book.


Many difficult tasks require a handbook filled with procedural information in order to complete those tasks successfully.  Teachers, administrators, mechanics, computer repair technicians, etc., normally use handbooks to do their jobs.  In metaphorical terms, a handbook is not literally a book, but a collection of established practices.

Example:  Presidential candidates must use the handbooks of previously successful candidates if they want to win the election.


marginalized/on the margins

All students use paper to write on.  Most sheets of paper contain a center section on which most of the writing is recorded, but there is also a section on at least one side, called the margin, where additional notes can be made.  The word margin originally meant the land at the edge of a sea or lake.  However, since the 14th century, it has meant the side of piece of paper.  In popular terms, something that is marginalized or on the margins means it is not part of the normal context.  In politics, some social groups or political parties can be marginalized or on the margins.

Example:  In modern American politics, third party candidates (not Republican or Democratic) are often marginalized and are not taken seriously.

Example:  Poor, elderly people often live on the margins of society without proper food or housing.

blog - ed - spelling 2

spell out

Children learn to write words by spelling the letters out loud.  In metaphorical terms, to spell out something means to provide an explanation in the simplest terms.

Example:  Candidates for public office must spell out their policies for the economy, military support, labor laws, etc. so that people know where they stand on the issues.



Students must take notes from the teacher’s lectures so that they can remember the details later.  When something is noted in popular terms, it means it has been recognized and understood by many people.  There are two uses of the term noted: 1) to say that someone has noticed something and reported on it, or 2) someone is famous for doing something.

Example:  During the 2012 presidential campaign, voters noted that there was a lot of fighting back and forth between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney and they wished for a more civil process.

Example:  Barack Obama was a noted public speaker before he ran for president.


To post information originally meant to attach a piece of paper to a wooden post so that everyone could read the information on the paper.  In an educational setting, information is posted on bulletin boards so that students and teachers can read it.  In business terms, companies post their profits and losses in newspapers, on radio, television and the Internet.

Example:  In 2008, everyone became very worried when the stock market began to post record losses and the economy took a turn for the worse.

blog - ed - post

boldface/boldfaced lie

When information is typed or printed on a computer, one can use a darker type called boldface to bring attention to those words (as in all the metaphorical terms listed on this page).   (The term boldface is also a body part metaphor as in having a bold face when doing something requiring strength or determination.)  In politics, something or someone may be referred to as being in boldface if they are considered important.  In another sense, someone may be accused of making a boldfaced lie, if it is clear that they are not telling the truth.

Example:  Presidential candidates need to have boldface names on their list of campaign donors to encourage other people to make donations.

Example:  Politicians caught telling boldfaced lies are usually not elected to another term after that since no one likes a dishonest person.

Next time:  The rust belt:  Metaphors from clothing