Socrates in the Classroom and at Dennys
July 1, 2003
It is amazing that no matter how many times we read one of the Great Books, we always take something new away from it with each reading. Take, for instance, Plato’s Republic. I have read all or part of this text at least six times over the past several years. I have become so familiar with the Republic that I could probably recite parts of it. In spite of this fact, I still get excited when I come to certain sections of the dialogue, especially the"Cave" allegory in the beginning of Book VII. Since I will be graduating shortly, my most recent reading of this allegory started me reflecting on the nature of the education that I have received in my years at Ashland University. I think it has been much like Socrates’ allegory.
In this dialogue, Socrates’ is explaining to his young friend Glaucon what education is like. To Socrates, when we begin our educations, we are like men chained inside of a cave. There is no light but firelight and we see nothing but shadows on a wall before us. Eventually, a man is liberated from this state and ascends out of the cave into the light of day. At first he is dazzled by the brilliance if the sun; but he comes to look at and understand it. Upon this realization of the truth, the man pities those still stuck in the cave. He goes back into the cave only to be made fun of by most people. In spite of this, Socrates says that such a man has a duty to try to help others out of the cave. This cannot be a forceful brainwashing. Instead, the teacher must lead the student to discover the truth for himself through reason.
Perhaps I should write a disclaimer before you start thinking"this arrogant college student thinks she knows it all". I am not professing to be entirely out of the cave. Nor has every part of this education taken place in a classroom. In fact, much of it has taken place during late night study sessions with my friends in the Ashbrook Center or countless hours spent at Denny’s or simply one-on-one in a professor’s office. I am not even sure my professors are a bunch of philosopher-kings, at least not in the fullest sense. But I am happy to say that the education I have received from them in my time at Ashland has been instrumental in starting my fellow students and me on an ascent out of the cave.
I think the reason our education at this university can be equated with an ascent out of the cave is the manner in which we actually learn. It does not entirely matter which academic department a particular class or issue addresses. I have had this experience in several different departments and with several different professors. The first example I think of is a class called Constitutional Powers. Like Socrates’ students, I was eager to talk in this class, perhaps too eager. The professor of this class never allowed me to get away with simply stating my opinion. As soon as I had stopped speaking, he would mercilessly fire questions at me, forcing me to understand and explain why the President has special powers in wartime. The same professor assigned texts he thought were relevant. He encouraged discussion and debate among the students, both about the specific texts and the theoretical issues behind the texts. In general, professors give us room to make up our minds and even to change them. What they do not do is let us get away with saying that all the texts are equally right or making arbitrary claims about them. Eventually, a decision has to be made (usually in the form of five to ten double-spaced pages) and supported in a reasonable manner.
Having a teacher is only part of how Socrates says we escape the cave. The teacher is a guide. There is a burden on the student not to be to lazy or afraid to seek answers. Alas, these are vices of the college student- laziness and fear. I know"fear" is an odd word to apply to education; but it holds much truth. When you start to climb out of the cave, you are risking a lot. You may come to know that what you have believed all your life is wrong. Quite frankly, we would rather go out than sit around having serious discussions in which we run the risk of finding out we are wrong. Yet there are some questions that are so important we do have such discussions, especially religious ones. My friends and I spent many late nights in the smoky haze of Denny’s, coffee in hand, books scattered all over the table, discussing God- Who is He? How do we follow Him? Why this religion over that one?
Ultimately, then, education is up to the student. This is because man is a reasonable being and, as Locke says, he cannot be forced to believe anything he himself does not understand through this reason. Even though professors have started us thinking about something and helped us draw some conclusions about it, this is not enough to give us an education on it. No matter how much our professors tell us the Constitution is great, we are never going to accept this until we understand what it is that makes it great. As often as not, the understanding comes in the form of discussion or even heated debate among friends sitting around a grimy booth at Denny’s.
There is one more critical aspect of Socrates’ educational system. It does not stop after reading a certain number of books by a specific set of authors. It does not stop with receiving an undergraduate or even a law degree. It does not stop when you get a"real job" or even when you retire after a long career. It is a lifelong process. As I said, I am not entirely out of the cave myself; I do not think it is even possible for somebody as young as me to be. Socrates would agree. Then he would tell me not to stop my educational journey.
Cassandra Kish is a senior from Vermilion, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.