"Am I ever going to use this for anything?"
"Why do you English professors have to analyze everything all the time--can't you just sit back and enjoy the movie/book/whatever?"
"How come you English professors always find hidden meanings everywhere?"
"What does all this stupid symbolism have to do with real life?"
Those of us who teach English or closely related subjects have probably heard all of those—the questions that drive us crazy. (Speaking for myself anyway, they all drive me crazy--though I admit that's sometimes a short drive.)
Hidden meanings, symbolism--what's that got to do with real life? What are we ever going to use it for? (In this context, "use" usually means "make money from it"--as though nothing else is of "use." But I digress.) Because, you know, nobody cares about symbolism except a bunch of aging hippie English teachers and their dwindling handful of nerdy students, right? I mean, it's not like people actually use symbolism in “real life.”
It's not like people assign meaning to things like crosses, or Stars of David, or moons-and-crescents, or other religious symbols.
It’s not like anyone flies flags on public holidays and in front of public buildings. And it’s certainly not like anyone gets offended when a flag or religious symbol is desecrated.
It’s not like military ceremonies feature particular music, symbols, protocols—nope, no symbolism there at all.
It's not like anyone wears jewelry shaped like peace signs or yin/yang symbols, or butterflies or dragonflies or the piece your grandmother handed down to you.
It's not like anyone places yellow ribbons or Greek fishes or pictures of the globe on their car bumpers.
It’s not like we send floral arrangements to honor weddings or funerals, or decorate tombstones (for that matter, it’s not like we put up tombstones). It’s not like anyone spends hours choosing just the right song and agonizing over the right color scheme for special occasions.
It’s not like we wear special clothing, play special music, and change our cap tassels from one side to the next after graduating.
It's not like couples in love have "their songs."
It’s not as if sports fans wear their team colors on game day. And certainly no one ever does anything ridiculous like dye their hair or paint their nails or paint their faces in a favorite team’s color scheme.
It's not like people today use emoticons in their communication, or display their favorite sports team’s logo as a profile picture, or, God forbid, have symbolic tattoos engraved on their very bodies.
Clearly, symbolism has nothing to do with “real life.” Clearly, the meaning of things is always “hidden” (and therefore, not worth looking for).
It’s not like anyone ever drew a metaphorical conclusion from a sports event: a blown lead, an improbable comeback, or a near-comeback that ends with unfortunate failure by inches due to a bad decision to run on second and goal, which everyone knows you don’t do. I mean, it’s not like anyone ever saw potential life lessons in the outcome of a sporting event. It’s not like anyone would think a U.S. hockey victory in the 1980 Olympics makes a grand statement about the Cold War, or that a post-Katrina New Orleans football victory symbolizes resilience, or that criminal justice would be grounded in the rules of a sport like baseball (“three strikes and you’re out”).
It’s not as if identifying with a hometown sports team takes on a life of its own, so much so that there can be a fine line between good-natured banter and hurt feelings—or worse, eruptions of violence when those who identify themselves with two different tribes find themselves holding opposite viewpoints while sharing the same space. (For catastrophic results, add alcohol to symbolic identification and stir.)
So it’s not as if symbolism has anything to do with our daily lives. And it’s not as if English teachers, with their obsession on supposedly “hidden” meanings, are teaching anything that anybody can use.