Like trying to drink water from a fire hose

– D. E. Rogers, “Some Musings on Medical Education” (1982)

Too much, too fast: the water is liquid but might as well be solid. It is undrinkable.

Water in a less energetic state represents knowledge in Norse mythology when Odin drinks from Mimir’s well. In British history, the scholar-king James I was said “to drink indeed of the true Fountain of Learning” (Wm Sanderson, Compleat History…, 1656).

Many teachers have noted that knowledge-water can’t just be poured in:

It would be wonderful if our guardian angel could open a sort of trap-door in our head and pour in even a small part of the knowledge…
The Liguorian magazine (1951)

The strangest of all knowledge-drinking metaphors was developed by Robert Browning in Aristophanes’ Apology (1875), based on an ancient Greek party game called kottabos. In Browning’s kottabos, you are inside a rolling ball that has two holes: one hole is called High and Right and the other Low and Wrong. Wine dribbles in through the holes as the ball turns, and if you position yourself to drink only from High and Right, then you are like Euripides. If you drink regardless of where the wine comes from, you are like Aristophanes and can:

…drink knowledge, wine-drenched every turn,
Equally favored by their opposites.
Little and Bad exist, are natural:
Then let me know them, and be twice as great
As he who only knows one phase of life!

Ordinary kottabos is simpler, requiring only that you toss your almost-empty goblet across the room at a target that does ding!

Image: Young man playing kottabos. Red-figure kylix, ca. 510 BC. Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, via Wikipedia

Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head.

– Grace Slick, “White Rabbit” (1967)

The idea that knowledge is something you can eat like food goes back to the Garden of Eden, with the stipulation that some knowledge is better left on the Tree. In 1741, Isaac Watts insisted there was no merit in reading all day long, because food was worthless without proper digestion.

As a Man may be eating all Day, and for want of Digestion is never nourish’d; so these endless Readers may cram themselves in vain with intellectual Food, and without real Improvement of their Minds, for want of digesting it by proper Reflections. (Improvement of the Mind)

For most of us, digestion comes automatically after eating, no conscious effort required. So Watts may be right about the need for proper Reflections, but his comparison is “hard to swallow.” (See the index, Meta-failed images, for familiar expressions that seem to make sense but don’t.)

The idea that wisdom could be ingested conveniently in pill form took hold in the 20th century – when vitamins, antibiotics, and The Pill offered “better living through chemistry.” Aldous Huxley described instant access to enlightenment through mescaline (The Doors of Perception, 1954), and a few years later pop radio was celebrating the extraordinary mental experiences available through sublegal pharmacy: “One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small.” Grace Slick’s lyrics drew on imagery from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which included a cake with “Eat Me” spelled out in currants on top. But it was Slick, not the Dormouse, who advised feeding your head.

Photo: Adapted from Wikipedia

But where have we an academy for teaching the polite and useful arts of killing time, spending money, living fashionably?

– “Proposal for a New University,” Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (1793)

Killing time may have gotten started as an expression without an underlying image. That is, killing just meant “getting ride of” without any imagined ax falling, no bullet fired, no poison pellets sprinkled in the garden against the hateful snails of time. In the context of killing time, Time is not so much a creature as a circumstance – like winter in Siberia or a train ride across Nebraska. It is a tedious emptiness, “a vast wasteland” (as FCC chairman Newton Minnow famously said of television). Kids of the first TV generation used to say, “There’s nothing on.”

Religious writers in the 1800s railed against killing time. Daydreaming, card playing, and following the latest fashions were a sinful waste, they said, when you didn’t know how many days you had left in this world to seek salvation. Waste is easy to visualize: a spoiled crop, a village fallen to ruin, a treasure buried and forgotten.

Shakespeare’s Richard II makes the metaphor personal: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me” (V.v.49).

No, you would have her to be tenderly and delicately nurtured, like a hot-house plant…

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) by Anne Bronte

Bronte scoffs at the idea that girls need to be sheltered more than boys from the evils of the world, because of the presumption that females have less capacity for moral judgment. The truth is we all need all the sheltering and nurturing we can get, regardless of gender. At least, that is the view taken by Bronte’s protagonist Helen Huntingdon, on the run from an alcoholic husband.

A couple of years earlier, Charles Dickens used hot-house imagery to comment on another theory of cultivating young minds: accelerated education, as practiced at Doctor Blimber’s school in Dombey and Son:

All the boys blew [bloomed] before their time. Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons…. This was all very pleasant and ingenious, but the system of forcing was attended with its usual disadvantages. There was not the right taste about the premature productions, and they didn’t keep well. (ch. 11)

Greenhouses became a hot topic after the 1830s, as scientific breeding of plants converged with improvements in iron and glass manufacturing. Greenhouses were the first buildings made in factories. The first public greenhouse opened in Regent’s Park, London, in 1846.

Photo: Otto Eerelman, “In the Greenhouse”: http://www.artnet.com/artists/otto-eerelman/in-the-greenhouse-oiYeMedzQfuSwIBX2od_kA2