British pop-rockers and Greek philosopher jive together
By Rameau Velez
Plato’s tale, told through the voice of Socrates, supposes that humans are shackled somewhere deep in a cave, their eyes fastened to a stone wall in front of them. There’s a fire on a platform above and behind those in the cave and, from afar, the procession of people and animals casts shadows on the wall. Resounding echoes grow, seemingly from the shadows, but they’re just the remnants of conversations past – ones that take place outside of the cave.
From childhood, the people in the cave try to infer meaning from these sights and sounds; they establish an entire belief system around the experience. Then one day, one of them is abruptly unchained and set free. Once she crawls from her lifelong position, and her eyes adjust to the overpowering light, she sees that her comrades and herself have been wrong about everything. What they’ve forever believed to be reality is simply an outline of the truth.
The prisoner-cum-absconder arrives at a predicament: to live a more realized existence alone, or to try (most likely in vain) to impart this new knowledge on the group.
Because Plato is over two millennia passed, I’ll bring in a more “modernized” example of the allegory of the cave. An allegory of an allegory, perhaps. Conveniently, Radiohead explore the same predicament in a song called “Subterranean Homesick Alien” from their 1997 album OK Computer.
The song’s narrative finds a wanderer stuck in a small town; he lets his mind drift to stories of spacecrafts and aliens. He daydreams of flying away with these visitors, who hover above watching the many “weird creatures” who reside in his town. The drifter is smart though, because he knows what would happen if he ever came back from a voyage with the intergalactic tourists: I’d tell all my friends/ But they’d never believe me/ They’d think that I’d finally lost it completely/ I’d show them the stars/ And the meaning of life/ And they’d shut me away
I will not digress and speak on why Radiohead is one of the best bands in the history of music, though I should. Lyricist and frontman Thom Yorke puts a post-modern spin on an ancient Socratic dialogue, but the question still rings true: “How do I completely change someone’s lifelong notion of reality in one fell swoop?” Especially if it’s a belief in which I, too, once confided.”
And so emerges Plato’s take on education – the constant search for the enlightenment of the self, as well as that of others. To enlighten the self is to free it from a binding reality. In order to remove oneself from a set reality, one must be disconnected in some way, be it by unlocking chains or flying in spacecraft. But to relay this experience to an apprehensive audience is altogether different.
This is where education – most notably public education – tends to fall short in some respects. Students are inundated with irrelevant facts and confined to desks at the very age they yearn to be mobile and mischievous. There is no doubt that young minds ought to be educated, but the process is questionable.
Students are programmed to believe they are learning skills to enrich their submersion into “real life.” We teach our precious youths that real life consists of sitting in an extremely cramped space, trying to impress some higher authority for a larger wad of cash. It’s no wonder so many career aspirations are slight variations of this dreadful practice. To the same end, any subject like English, that may happen to teach introspection or self-fulfillment, is often undermined or written off as trivial. Think of the kid who raises his hand during a Salinger lesson and asks “When am I ever gonna use this crap?”
In his book “A Language Older Than Words,” Derrick Jensen points out flaws in some of our long-accepted methods: “A primary purpose of school is to deliver information to students. Never asked is the question of how this information makes us better people.
“Systematically – inherent in the process – direct personal experience is subsumed to external authority, and at every turn creativity, critical thought, and the questioning of fundamental assumptions (such as, for example, the role of schooling on one’s socialization) are discouraged.”
And so the question of home schooling arises, a concept I’m quick to agree with, but Plato would beg to differ. And rightfully so. He would question the value in an education from a single source – would it be based on a desire to rule? – because, as he notes, one who wants to rule is the last person who should hold a position of power.
Perhaps the decision to home school would be made by a parent or guardian in an earnest quest for knowledge, even to reveal a disconnected view of the cave to the pupil. But who’s to decide?
An ideal education in Plato’s eyes is one that turns individuals into “virtuous citizens.” But if the teacher is unknowingly shackled, eyes affixed to the dancing shadows on the cave’s wall, oblivious to the apparition’s source, then how can he lead someone else closer to the truth? Surely an unscrupulous citizen shouldn’t try to impart integrity.
These questions, and more, must be asked before taking the reins of a child’s schooling. A major benefit of public education is the number of teachers a student can encounter – and as everyone knows, one or two can change lives forever.
In “The Republic,” Plato warns about “men who are said to be vicious but wise, how shrewdly their petty soul sees and how sharply it distinguishes those things toward which it is turned, showing that it doesn’t have poor vision although it is compelled to serve vice; so the sharper it sees, the more evil it accomplishes.”
So, perhaps the most vicious of men and women go into teaching their own child for the right reasons and see relative progress, all the while corrupting the student with an education more near-sighted and potentially damaging than a public one.
As long as a child is educated with the right intentions, a detached view of the cave will be had. Sadly there are some educators who would “serve vice” and embed a warped value system in their teachings. After all, everyone has a different view of the cave. But all too often children are taught that the skills they use in school are to be used later (again, in “real life”) in order to claw their way to the top, to get the most money and throw notions of fellowship and common good to the wind.
With my own graduation coming up, I can feel myself taking baby steps toward the blinding light of the cave’s exit. But I see too many of my peers in a dead sprint for a spot near the wall, incredulous to the pleas of the wise [Ed. see Radiohead], seeking illusion instead of wisdom or a new perspective.
This is not to say that I think I am wise [Ed. again, Radiohead], but I do my best to fumble my way towards the daylight. Of course there are those like Thom Yorke, who have not only left the cave but have proceeded to leave the planet altogether, passing judgment on the mortals below in a psych-rock spacecraft.
Those of us still on earth – pursuing the enduring enlightenment that is life – can regard Plato’s view of teaching as a way out of conventional thought, and into new, expansive regions of thought and possibility. As he observes, education makes one “rich not in gold but in those riches required by the happy man, rich in a good and prudent life.”
Rameau Velez is a senior writing major who is still trying to synch up his two copies of Kid A. Email him at rvelez1 [at] ithaca.edu.