Allegory of the Cave Education

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Philosophical Perspectives on Education
  2. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: A Metaphor for Educational Enlightenment
  3. The Transformation from Ignorance to Knowledge
  4. John Dewey’s Pragmatic Approach to Education
  5. Education as a Continuous, Collaborative Process
  6. Conclusion: Synthesizing Educational Philosophies

Introduction to Philosophical Perspectives on Education

The value and meaning of education has 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. Throughout the allegory, it shows the main aspects of Plato’s idea of education. Furthermore, another key philosopher in the philosophy of education is John Dewey. Dewey focuses on education firstly in his early work titled “My Pedagogical Creed” and then later in his book Democracy and Education. This is often said to rival the great works of Philosophy including such as Plato. Both philosophers, highlight key features of what education is although they do this in very different ways.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: A Metaphor for Educational Enlightenment

In Plato’s Allegory, 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 realise 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.”[footnoteRef:1] 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 recognise 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.”[footnoteRef:2] [1: Plato, 'The Allegory of the Cave', in The Republic, trans. D. Lee (Penguin, 2007), Bk VI, 514 -518] [2: Ibid.]

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The Transformation from Ignorance to Knowledge

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.

The people walking across the walking carrying the objects can be viewed as the authority of today’s society. For example, the media, religious leaders and the government to name a few. It is these examples of authority that influence and determine people’s beliefs and attitudes. The person who helped guide the prisoner out of the cave can be compared to the teacher. The teacher does not get an education for the student but rather helps guide the student towards the truth from the darkness and into the light. The metaphor of light and darkness is used throughout the allegory. From the start to the end, Plato expresses the difficultly for one to make the transformation from the chains of the cave and darkness to the freedom and knowledge of in the light. The transformation being a process of education. Darkness and light represent our human conditions on two levels. Plato describes humanity as being “in the dark,”[footnoteRef:3] and unaware of what is truly in front of our eyes. As humans we are unaware of what is beyond such light and we are stuck in a chained position, in darkness not knowing what lies beyond the life in the cave. However, as the freed prisoner becomes accustomed to the light they become aware now aware of things that they never knew. The shadows of the objects they seen on the cave walls that they were only able to speculate about become clear and start taking shape. [3: Ibid.]

Furthermore, for Plato the truth is seeing something as it is. It is the understanding of something through the light of the idea. The prisoners are unable to see the shadows as what they are as a shadow as they are unable to. However, this is not to dismiss they do not see anything. They see the shadows as something that passes in front of them as “distinct shapes and forms.”[footnoteRef:4] What they see is not that what shows itself, but the prisoners can only take what they see to be true. They have some relation to truth but are not completely in the truth as they are unable to see what we see as shadows. When the prisoner is freed, they are now able to see what they first saw and what is now shown. This process can used as an image of education. This is the process of being chained up, unable to move and staring at a wall, to seeing the fire and then being dragged outside of the cave into the world. [4: Ibid.]

Education is not just a matter of changing ideas or practises. It is a process that transforms our life in orientation towards the more truth. Similarly, to when the prisoners must change in orientation. In the allegory, it states that, “they cannot move and are only able to see in front of them since the chains are arranged in such manner that they are prevented from turning their heads around.”[footnoteRef:5] [5: Ibid.]

The prisoner is only able to see what is in front of them, but they must turn away from this. They must turn away from what they know from being held captive and must turn away from all the things they associated with being held captive and look towards something else. The movement of our being and seeking knowledge is not easy. Often it is resisted is hard because it requires a complete transformation of yourself. This suggests that education can sometimes be a difficult and painful process.

John Dewey’s Pragmatic Approach to Education

Another key philosopher in the philosophy of education is that of John Dewey. Dewey takes a hands-on approach, a pragmatist approach to education. Pragmatists believe that reality must be experienced. Therefore, students must interact with their environment in order to adapt and learn. Dewey wrote the essay 'My Pedagogic Creed' which is he’s early synopsis of his educational beliefs. It appeared the The School Journal and consists of 5 parts.

In the first part, titled “What is Education?”, Dewey tells us that education is a process by which an individual comes to participate in the “social consciousness of race.”[footnoteRef:6] Dewey believes that education is a process which begins from a very young age and it happens “unconsciously almost at birth.”[footnoteRef:7] It is through education which helps the formation of habits, training ideas and the arousing of feelings and emotions. Dewey states that “only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations.”[footnoteRef:8] This suggests that everyone’s level of education will vary depending on the type of social situations that a person has experienced. Dewy states that, “through the responses which others make to his own activities he comes to know what these mean in social terms.”[footnoteRef:9] Relating back to the previous paragraph, education here is understood pragmatically. Our education is affected by the type of situation that we are in and what it is asking us to do. It is our response to the situation and how this effect other which helps us to learn the significance of the response itself. [6: John Dewey, ‘My Pedagogic Creed,’ School Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1. (1897), pp. 77-80] [7: Ibid.] [8: John Dewey, ‘My Pedagogic Creed,’ School Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1. (1897), pp. 77-80 ] [9: Ibid.]

According to Dewey, the educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological. The psychological side is the most important as the “child’s own instincts and power furnish the material and give the starting point for all of education.”[footnoteRef:10] Dewey suggests that if there is no awareness of the of the ‘psychological structure’ of a person, the educative process will be order less and aimless. Education becomes indoctrination since it can “give certain external results but cannot truly be educative.”[footnoteRef:11] Therefore, the teacher must have awareness of social conditions in order to be able to “interpret the child’s powers”[footnoteRef:12]. However, the child’s powers are only known depending on their environment that they are effective. This means that if power is only known in terms of the effect that is has, then it is non-realistic to consider the child’s power alone. [10: Ibid.] [11: Ibid.] [12: Ibid.]

Ultimately, Dewey believes that education is a social process. He states that the education is a “process of living and not preparation for future living.”[footnoteRef:13] Therefore, as education is a process of living and living is complex, one must experience confusion or distraction in order to be educated. This is similar to Plato and the Allegory of the Cave; the released prisoner is at first confused when he first leaves the cave but after the process of education the prisoner is no longer confused as able to recognise the things as what they are in themselves. [13: Ibid.]

Education as a Continuous, Collaborative Process

Dewey also focuses his attention to education in his text Democracy and Education. This text features twenty-six chapters. The first four focus on what educations means. In the first chapter titled Education as a Necessity of Life, it can be understood that life is a ‘selfrenewing process.’ Dewey compares physiological life to that of nutrition and reproduction, likewise education to that of a social life. Thus, by communication as a social being we are able to construct the idea of education. For Dewey, education “consists primarily in transmission through communication.”[footnoteRef:14] Through a social group, one is able to share their experiences which in turn helps change the dispositions of people who are involved. This suggests that every human being who makes such a contribution by sharing their experiences leads the improvements of the experiences of the immature and less educated. Therefore, this implies that education is crucial in the bonding and development of our societies. Without the sharing of experiences, human beings would not have the acquired abilities it needs in order to survive as a species. In essence, education is a process which helps citizens and the community to survive. [14: John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Dover Publications, 2004) p.9]

Dewey seeks to look at how a social group brings up its immature members of the social group into its own social form. Dewey explains that development cannot take place through sharing simply beliefs, emotions and knowledge[footnoteRef:15]. He suggests that the environment is crucial in order to aid development. The social environment allows people to share or participate in activities. Dewey states that, [15: Ibid. p.22] “As a society becomes more complex, however, it is found necessary to provide a special social environment which shall especially look after nurturing the capacities of the immature.” [footnoteRef:16] [16: Ibid. p. 22]

This suggests that without the social environment education would not be possible. Without the mature beings, the immature would be unable to mature and develop and understand the world in a way in which they would be able to survive. This development is growth which in turn is the process of education. This power to grow depends on what others need. Being able to grow means that you are able to form habits and it is through these habits which gives control over one’s environment.

Conclusion: Synthesizing Educational Philosophies

To conclude, this essay summarises two key philosophers work on education, Plato and that of John Dewey. Both Plato and Dewey see education as a transformational journey through life. For Plato it is a journey from darkness to light, the journey of the soul and the journey to seek the truth. For Dewey, the educational journey starts from childhood and continues throughout life enabling a journey of development and survival. It is a journey from the immature to the mature.

Both have relevance to today’s teaching methods. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave demonstrates that teachers and educators have a moral duty in order search for truth and virtue. In searching for the truth, it is their responsibility to help guide their students to do the same. They cannot do the work of the students but only help. Some will choose to be ignorant towards the truth, like the prisoners who remain shackled in the cave. For Dewey, the role of the teacher would be to cultivate discussions and plan activities which would help the students share their emotions, beliefs and knowledge. This will help facilitate the child’s learning and aid their development into a mature being.

Dewey puts an emphasis on the social group which enables the immature to develop whereas in contrast, Plato seeks to show that critical thinking is vital in education. For Dewey, the passage of education revolves around being part of social group but for Plato, the passage of education revolves around the self – it is more of personal journey and self-realisation compared to collective journey as whole.

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