Plato’s Cave and Our Modern Education System

by Scott Postma

spI’m a product of the American public education system. Probably, you are too. Although my education was adequate to prepare me for an entry-level job in the modern world, it didn’t take long to realize I had missed something significant. At the time I couldn’t put it into words, but I realized my education had failed to prepare me for the more complex nuances of life because it had failed to educate my soul. It was years later when I was studying classics in seminary that I finally gained a category of thought for this experience and had a place in my mind in which I could contemplate this nebulous reality.

For me, what opened the door to this new ability to think about the purpose and method of education was Plato’s allegory of the cave. The allegory is a story in The Republic (written 350-400 years before Christ), and is fundamentally an analysis of human education—or more accurately, its imitation of a true education. Plato, through his protagonist, Socrates, is trying to determine what justice in the city looks like and whether or not what he discovers is actually a virtuous idea. Throughout The Republic, Socrates discourses with various interlocutors to work these matters out, and eventually concludes that justice in the city—and by proxy, in the human soul—is possible, but not probable. He explains the reason for this: there is a fundamental injustice in the nature of the human condition that cannot be resolved. His solution is a radical one that calls for a revolution to reeducate the youth by expelling everyone ten years old and up from the city.

In the allegory, Socrates describes human beings as though they were in an underground cave-like dwelling. Having had their legs and necks in bonds since childhood, these cave-dwellers have been forced to face a wall in which shadows of various artifacts are regularly cast from “a fire burning far above and behind them” (think of shadow puppets). The prisoners name the things they see as they go by and give one another honors for being the quickest to name them. Additionally, they hear echoes of the voices of the puppeteers who are behind a wall and suppose them to be the voices of the shadows they think are realities. This bizarre way of life is normal to those who know nothing different.

At some point, one of the prisoners is released, and is compelled to stand up, and turns around to look at the light. He is dragged up and out of the cave where he is enabled, through a long and painful process, to see things as they really are. Realizing how happy he is with his new-found knowledge, he pities the cave-dwellers and attempts to return to set them free. Unfortunately, the descent back into the cave is not so successful. His eyes have a difficult time adjusting to the darkness again, and as a result, he is ridiculed for his inability to make out the images he used to call by name. He further recognizes that if it were possible for them to get free and put their hands on him, they would kill him for suggesting they are deceived.

Of course, Plato was writing before Christ and thus failed to have a proper vision for the true solution to man’s inherent “injustice” problem, which is not a revolution, but regeneration, and not a philosopher-king to rule the people, but the King of kings to rule the souls and the cities of men. Though his overall project falls short of offering the biblical solution Christians are so graciously afforded today, the allegory of the cave is still extremely helpful in giving us a proper vision for real education.

These prisoners are just “like us,” Socrates says. Through the use of his allegory, we are able to see our own soul’s condition, as well as that of the demos (meaning the people of the city; from which we get our word, democratic). The allegory is particularly insightful as it relates to our modern education system. The cave is the institution of modern education. The prisoners are the students being educated. The puppet-handlers are the teachers. The two-fold bonds, binding both the legs and the neck, like those of the prisoners’, are the agendas of the system and the subsequent curriculum designed to accomplish those agendas. The shadows are the virtues, morals, and life objectives being taught to the students.

In the allegory of the cave, we can easily see some of the reasons so many are turning to Classical Christian education. The modern education system has been designed by legislators and state educators (Plato would call these the rulers of the guardians) to bind students and force them to look only in the direction the demos has deemed appropriate. In other words, instead of being taught to ascend from the visible to the invisible and search for the good, the true, and the beautiful, students are forced to name the shadows of artifacts like self-esteem, pluralism, humanism, political correctness, etc. Students educated in the modern public school system are being kept from a true soul education by the rulers of the guardians who, for the sake of the demos, bind them to a lesser, imitative education. The only hope for these to receive a truly liberal education is to drag them out of the cave and into the light—even if that process is long and arduous, and even if it means they come kicking and screaming.

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