Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Life In a Cave

Plato on education:

"Education is not what some people claim it to be. What they say, roughly speaking, is that they are able to put knowledge into souls where none was before. Like putting sight into eyes which were blind.

"Whereas our present account (referring to the allegory of the cave) indicates that this capacity in every soul, this instrument by means of which each person learns, is like an eye which can only be turned away from the darkness and towards the light by turning the whole body. The entire soul has to turn with it, away from what is coming to be, until it is able to bear sight of what is, and in particular the brightest part of it. This is the part we call the good, isn't it?

"Education then would be the art of directing this instrument, of finding the easiest and most effective way of turning it round. Not the art of putting power of sight into it, but the art which assumes it (the soul) possesses this power (sight)--albeit incorrectly aligned, and looking in the wrong direction--and contrives to make it look in the right direction."

The allegory goes that we are all chained up and have been since we came into being. Our heads are fastened and incapable of turning. All we've ever seen are shadows from a puppet show going on behind us (see the above picture), illuminated by a fire burning far on the back wall. We don't see reality, instead, we busy ourselves with the shadows of figurines. True education deals with teachers breaking students out of the chains with which they are bound (societal chains, perhaps), and dragging their peers up the slight incline to the cave's mouth. Our first steps into sunlight would be painful, with eyes only accustomed to darkness. Indeed, we may even angrily claim that this new world isn't reality because we can hardly see it, the outlines of things would be entirely indistinct, because our eyes would have grown so accustomed to the fuzzy outlines in the cave. Not until our eyes adjusted and we saw the world, would we slowly realized that our entire life was spent in a cave. We would see the sun--the good. The source of all light and life--we would realize that the fire which dimly lit our cave was only a sorry representation. The man who discovered the truth would not be satisfied until he could run back and free everyone that still lay chained on the dusty cave floor. Plato argues that only few in life are philosophically minded. He argues that even the majority would fight to stay in the cave, entirely convinced that the philosopher, with eyes now unaccustomed to the dark cave, was foolish and had suffered only impaired vision. The majority would grow impatient and angry, even violent with this man who would threaten their reality.

I loved--loved sitting in class listening to this discussion. It struck a very deep chord with me. We busy ourselves with these "shadows on the wall": money, careers, politics, etc. It must look ridiculous for the philosopher to come down and watch us debating and praising each other for recognizing shapes on a wall. I find it a swell representation of life.

Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire (said Aristotle, I think). We have the power of sight; it's just that our sight is focused on the shadows of shadows. Education is grabbing someone by the head and turning them, and their bodies, and their souls, away from the shadows and toward the absolute reality of the light. The good.

1 comment:

  1. Someday, when you discover "the truth," you better run back in that sorry cave and spread the word. That's all I gotta' say about that.

    I'll be waiting--watching shadows, choking down dust by the spoonful.

    Until then!