The value and meaning of education have surely changed over time. Having an education was often seen to be more of a privilege than what education stands for today. Many people see early education as preparation for adulthood, whilst further education as a means to develop one’s own understanding of a subject. Argued to be one of the most influential philosophical accounts of education is Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’. The ‘Allegory of the Cave’ can be found in Book 7 of ‘The Republic’.
In Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, Socrates asks Glaucon to picture a group of human beings living in an underground cave. They are only able to see what is in front of them as they bound chains and unable to move. Behind the people there is a fire which is a little higher up and between them and the fire is a small wall. Socrates describes this like a screen at a puppet theatre. People walk behind this wall carrying numerous objects. The objects project shadows onto the wall in front of the prisoners formed by the light of the fire. Socrates suggests that the prisoners would take these shadows to be real things as they have no knowledge on how these shadows are made. Socrates asks what would happen if one of the prisoners were to be set free and released from the chains and look towards the light of the fire situated behind him. The prisoner takes comfort with what is familiar and refuses the knowledge that the shadows are simply created by the objects that are carried in front of the fire. The prisoner is unable to realize the truth. The freed prisoner is forcibly dragged out of the cave and into the light of the outside world. Socrates suggests that that when outside the cave, he would be more confused and “completely dazzled by the glare of the sun” and “would not be able to see clearly”. At first, he would only be able to look at the shadow-like objects such as the shadows and reflections and gradually, he would be able to look at the sun without using reflections in the water. Socrates then asks Glaucon to think about what would happen to the liberated prisoner if he were then to return to the cave. He would be blinded by the darkness and he would not be able to recognize the shadows like the prisoners remaining in the cave. Socrates suggests that he would be ridiculed and mocked and if he tried to lead others out of the cave as “they would kill him if they could lay hands on him”.
The allegory presents a relation between ignorance and understanding. It is this gap between ignorance and understanding what we can call education. In order to understand what the allegory tells us about education, we have to interpret what it means. The prisoners in the cave do not want to be free as they are comfortable in their own ignorance. The prisoners are hostile to people who give them information in order for them to be free too. This is demonstrated in the allegory when the freed prisoner returns to the cave. The people in the cave represent society and Plato is suggesting that we are the prisoners simply looking at the shadow of things.
The process of getting out of the cave can be compared to getting educated but the process of getting out of the cave is difficult as we are often blinded by the light. The process of getting out of the cave requires assistance. This implies that throughout our education, there is sometimes a struggle involved. This can be said to be the struggle to see the truth. Ignorance is sometimes bliss as seeing the truth can be painful. The prisoner who was able to leave the cave would question his beliefs whereas the prisoners in the cave accept what they are shown as they know nothing else apart from what the shadows they can see that are cast by the light of the fire that is behind them. Although they do not see things exactly how they are, they are also not aware of the true nature of the things that they see. To an extent, they are ignorant, but they are not lacking in all knowledge.
The essential function of education is not to give us the truth but help guide us towards the truth. For Plato, education allows us to see things differently. Therefore, when the perception of truth changes and so does education. Everyone has the capacity to learn, however not everyone has the desire to learn just like the trapped prisoners in the cave. Consequently, desire and resistance are important when it comes to education because you have to willing to learn the truth in order to be educated. One must have the desire to free their soul from the chains and darkness.