Paul Woodruff is dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies and Darrell K Royal Regents Professor in Ethics and American Society.
Plato compares lack of education to life in a “cave-like dwelling,” where people are locked in chairs underground facing a wall on which images are projected by invisible people. The cave-dwellers do not see themselves or each other. They do not know what they are doing, or what it is to be human. They are held captive, utterly passive, dependent on the puppet masters who control what is put before them on the back wall of the cave. They are like students who see only what is on the screen in a windowless lecture room, or on the Internet. They have no basis for questioning the PowerPoint slides they are being been shown.
Then, says Plato, they would believe that the truth is precisely what they are allowed to see — although we know that what they are seeing is only the shadow of man-made things. What hope do the cave dwellers have of knowing the real truth? They must be liberated from the cave. Plato imagines that education is like this: someone compels a few cave-dwellers to turn around and forces them to move up out of the cave into the light. This is painful for them, as they have never seen the light, and they hate to leave their comfortable images behind.
Who is this someone who forces you to turn around, painfully, and clamber out of the cave? Plato insists there are no teachers in the cave. Someone makes you look, but does not tell you what you see. The someone is not transferring knowledge to you. But learning does happen. You must see for yourself. No one else can do the seeing for you. Even so, your education requires a very special someone, someone who is willing to use force, who is not afraid of causing pain, and who holds back from trying to transfer knowledge from one mind to another.
Plato knew a special someone in Athens, a man named Socrates, who denied to his dying day that he ever taught anyone anything. But around him, people learned and never forgot what they learned. Plato picked up the spark that ignited all of western philosophy. Plato’s model of education is as old as Athens and as new as this week’s class in philosophy. Everyone should encounter someone — a special someone who may not be gentle or kind, but who has high standards and insists that students see for themselves, so they do not take any one else’s word for the truth.
That is education in the humanities. It is precious, it is hard, and it gives life to the mind. No one should be left behind in the cave.
For more from Dean Paul Woodruff in Know, read his QandA about leadership.