Friday, March 5, 2010

The Myth of the Cave

For class this week we read and discussed Plato’s “Myth of the Cave” from Book 7, Section 7 of The Republic, which can be read here with a helpful illustration for first-time readers, or here for a plain text version.

Plato talks about two types of bewilderment or confusion, one caused by coming out of strong light and the other caused by going into strong light. Strong physical light, such as the sun on a clear day, can easily bewilder our physical eyes and, by metaphorical extension, the bright light of knowledge growing from intellectual pursuits can easily bewilder our mind's eyes.

Each of us has our own beliefs based on our own personal and cultural perceptions. It is not always easy to accept or be tolerant of other points of view when we are so certain of our own. Plato's "conversation" is mindful of the fact that no point of view is fundamentally right or wrong. Each is a reflection of the reality of the "viewer," which means that although they're different from each other they are no less real.

With effort we can develop a more sophisticated degree of understanding the complex layers of what we view (which might be thought of as going towards the greater light) but the initial simpler level of understanding isn't wrong; it's different, less well-informed.

It seems to me that an educator's greatest responsibility to a student is to facilitate and encourage the student's own personal development of a deeper understanding. That new understanding may result in a change of views for the student, but it's a result of an internal process of growth, rather than some piece of wisdom we've given to them.

I think the hardest part is to retain enough memory of our own time in the darkness to be able to identify with the student who stands at the beginning of a path we've already walked. It's important for teachers to continue to put themselves in new learning situations in order to keep that memory alive. We may not be in the same "darkness" as our students, but continuing to experience the process of moving from the dark to the light will help us to be tolerant and supportive as we remember the struggles, the frustrations, and the ultimate satisfactions of learning.

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