Saturday, July 18, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be Educated? - Allegory Of The Cave

Every year, Susquehanna has an university theme that their summer common reading is centered around. The theme that I've been so lucky to come into school with is "What does it mean to be educated". At Orientation, we were all handed an anthology that promised to explore "how we learn from formal and informal educational experiences".

One chapter of the book is Plato's Allegory of the Cave. It is a dialog between Socrates and Glaucon in which they discuss the duties one who has escaped the cave has to his fellow brothers still in chains. Take this quote in which Socrates tells of what should be the State's goal with those who pursue an education:

Then, I said, the business of us who are the founders of the State will be to compel the best minds to attain that knowledge which we have already shown to be the greatest of all - they must continue to ascend until they arrive at the good;but when they have ascended and seen enough we must not allow them do to as they do now.

What do you mean?

I meant that they remain in the upper world: but this must not be allowed; they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not.

In short, Plato through Socrates is saying that yes, our leaders should and must encourage those that are after an education. That is needed. However, once they reach a certain point, they must then be made to serve the greater populous - those that remain in the cave, instead of completely leaving them behind.

There we have our first question: Those that become educated -whatever that may be-, should they be forced to partake in something that benefits everyone? Or should they be left to do as they wish?

I believe that more often than not, those that are clearly educated have a way of flocking to positions that have varying degrees of 'public service'-ness in the job description. Senators, presidents, judges, doctors, cancer researchers, teachers etc - of all of these, the best of the best have been awarded an education and it is their job to do what they can for the embitterment of everyone.

Of course, that is the general aim of such positions and I'm speaking in rather ambiguous terms here, but bear with me. Just looking at the words 'presidents' and 'senators' in that sentence above makes me laugh, but remember its more often than not. Hopefully.

Anyways, back on tract. I can't completely agree with Plato when he says that they have to be forced into such roles, but I believe that especially with a liberal arts education, most people have the Mensch, do gooder attitude instilled into them. I can't force people to give up their own happiness for the happiness of others - I feel like such a thing would cause resentment in some hearts that would then grow and jeopardize their performance.

Does this mean that I would allow for people to put their own happiness above the well being of others? Does that mean that those with the opportunity to gain seats of 'power' should be allowed to exploit that power at the cost of their people, much like we've seen throughout history.

Plato has something to say to this. A page or two later he writes:

Whereas the truth is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and quietly governed , and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.


You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State... Whereas if they go to the administration of public affairs, poor and hungering after their own private advantage, thinking that hen they are to snatch the chief good, order there can never be; for they will be fighting about office, and the civil and domestic broils which thus arise will be the ruin of the rulers themselves and the whole State.

He writes that those who have no interest in ruling will be the best suited for the job, and will provide order. Those that have an interest in ruling will only cause disorder because they want to jobs to serve their own goals and ambitions.

If I don't have an interest in something, no matter how much I know it is important, I'm likely to just not put effort into it and only do what is needed. I wouldn't go above and beyond for the people.

However, he does have a point about the others. I simply need to look at our own government to see what happens with officials are fueled by their own self-interests. Take the progressive hell that plagued the Albany the past month or so, take the retarded actions of the republicans during the 2008 election trail up to this very day. Order has gone out the window and progress is the true victim here.

So what would be the best solution? I'd be willing to wager that the answer lies in having a balance between duty and self-interest. You're own wants and needs shouldn't overcome your duty to your people, nor should you become a slave to them. This is also wherein lies the concept of wisdom - of knowing how to deal with both screaming fools at the same time.

And for what it's worth - Plato seems to be implying that only certain people should be taken and nurtured to fill positions of the such; of picking out those who you want to place into a special track of sorts. This goes against what everyone says America is all about - its the land where anyone can work their way up. And while this may be true, there is still the existence of that special track for *certain* people. It is possible for those not on that path to find their way to it, but its only makes things harder. Thank you life chances.

I'll conclude with one last question: Should our elective officials be wise? Keep in mind the hell Ms. Sotomayor has gotten in the past week for calling herself a 'wise latina woman'. I'll give you a minute to answer that question.

Tick, tock.

You done? Good. You should have answered with a resounding 'Hell to the yes!' or something of the sort. If you didn't, well, I'll let you ponder your own silliness. Now go sit in the corner till I'm done.

Of course I want my officials to be wise. I'm trusting them to make deicisons that impact all of our lives and while wisdom is a attribute gained through one's life experiences (unlike what some would want you to believe otherwise) wisdom is still wisdom. Wisdom is knowing where to come to a compromise that actually gets something done. If you can't do that, if you won't be willing to hear other ideas and take them into account, if you will say 'no' as if its your magic wand for getting what you want, then sir/madam I want you off the stage. Just leave. I've lost all my patience with such people. Granted, doesn't that (in someway) make me as narrow minded as they are? Yes, I do believe that argument can be made, but at the same time, I don't care. What I care about (and what others should care about as well) is finding how we can make life better for all.

After all, shouldn't that be an end goal of education? Making life better?

And if I banished you earlier, you may come back now from your timeout in order to discuss this with the rest of us. Just remember to behave yourself. Or else...


  1. Please don't put me back in the cave! It's good to see that they've got you reading part of the Republic for orientation--it's been years since I've read the text (and one could devote a lifetime of study to it) but somehow my hope would be that you wind up reading the whole work--Plato's a pretty elitist kind of a guy--thought of bronze, silver and gold people and well, you recount the core notion of his solution--philosopher kings. Our framers were distrustful of people--which is why we wound up with a representative democracy--with lots of power in the hands of folks who are not directly elected. I guess I want to believe that we all have gold within us--and that the notion that only some are destined to lead, is something of a self fulfilling prophecy. And I also think that good ideas come from many different quarters, not just a confab of kings. So call me a small d democrat I guess. Messy, but as good as it gets, so long as we're human.

    If you like this stuff, I suggest you enroll in a political philosophy class--Dr. Blessing would be happy to see you there!

  2. Its this type of thinking that excites me most about college. Only 22 days left...

    I got my list of classes as well. I'm sure I'll find my way to Dr. Blessing's classes sooner or later. haha.