Ignorance and Envy in Academe

It is always worth revisiting Plato’s Parable of the Cave, that “true myth” from The Republic, Book VI. With respect to education, the parable insists on ineradicable facts that modern pedagogy finds inconvenient and tries to repress.

Plato puts the story in the mouth of Socrates, who asks his auditor-interlocutors to visualize a deep cavern connected to the external world by a long, narrow tunnel. The first part of the parable occurs in the cavern itself, which has several peculiar features.

Across the middle of the space is a bench, to which are shackled innumerable prisoners in such a manner that they can only stare directly in front of them at the rear wall of the cavern. Behind the prisoners and parallel to the bench is a footpath, down the length of which interminably pass the warders of the domain, who carry large cutouts of ordinary objects. Behind the footpath burns a bright fire.

When the warders pass between the fire and the bench, holding high their silhouettes, the light from the fire casts the shadows of those silhouettes on the rear wall of the cave—on which the vision of the shackled prisoners is fixed. The prisoners see the parade of shadows.

As the shadow-images periodically repeat, the prisoners have come to recognize and name them. That is a tree, they have agreed, and that is a dog, and that is a man, and so forth. On the basis of this dim and impalpable experience, they have constituted their notion of the world. They take what Socrates’ listeners and modern readers of The Republic know to be flat and featureless images for reality.

Socrates has painted a dreary picture indeed.

Lest his audience despair, however, Socrates supposes that somehow one prisoner suddenly comes free of his shackles, then turns around to take a look in a new direction. He stares into the fire.

What will be his first impression, Socrates wonders rhetorically? It will be unalloyed and overwhelming bedazzlement. The ex-prisoner’s eyes, unused to the light, will transmit a painful coup to his sensibility. Gradually, however, the bedazzlement will subside and he will see revealed the fraudulent affair of the silhouette-bearers and the shadows cast on the cave wall by the fire.

The ex-prisoner suddenly knows that his previous conception of reality was false. What he took for things were mere images. Obviously the silhouettes are the real things, the ex-prisoner will surmise. He is still wrong, but Socrates has not finished with his adventure.

His curiosity aroused, the ex-prisoner rises from the bench to investigate these new facts closely. Once he has reconnoitered the fire, he notices the passageway, into which, his curiosity impelling him, he boldly walks. Soon he discerns a new light at the end of the tunnel, which grows brighter, until he emerges into the external world under the blaze of the sun. 

He experiences the bedazzlement again. Once his eyes adjust, however, he witnesses the models and suddenly understands that they furnished the featureless outlines of the silhouettes.  Once again, he must revise his theory of reality. These objects, not the silhouettes, are the real things. 

The ex-prisoner is delighted by the colors and three-dimensionality of real things. He resolves to take word of these marvels back into the cave, but he is doomed to disappointment.

Those who remain shackled regard the ex-prisoner’s protestation—that the shadows are merely third-hand copies of real things—as mad delusion. Haughtily they dismiss him as a lunatic. Thus endeth the Parable of the Cave.

The Parable of the Cave presents some truths that the contemporary academy, steeped in egalitarian ideas and committed to blandness and relativism in everything, mainly avoids facing.

First, the story insists on the reality of ignorance and error. That is important because contemporary prescriptive pedagogy only reluctantly acknowledges the reality of either ignorance or error. Once a person concedes the existence of ignorance, after all, he must also concede that some people indeed qualify as ignorant. Such persons differ noticeably from others who are not ignorant—those who are knowledgeable or enlightened, at least comparatively.  The same goes for error.  The relativism necessary to inclusive “diversity” relentlessly equivocates the difference between right judgment and error. 

Worse than this, from the point of view of the modern politically correct educator, is the likelihood that once one admits that some people are ignorant in comparison to some standard, the label “ignorant” will become known to those whom it describes. That would be an intolerable scandal because it would imply a hierarchy of values. One state, knowledge, would be “above,” i.e., better than, the other state, ignorance.

The egalitarian-relativistic mentality is implacably anti-hierarchical in its convictions. It supposes that all comparisons are invidious and that all ascribed categories are permanent. An individual who has his ignorance brought to his attention is, in the liberal view, victimized and humiliated. The notion that ignorance is an inevitable “square one” in intellectual progress seems to be beyond the modern victimological view entirely.

Consider this: In halcyon days before all institutions succumbed to complete ideological distortion, two typical admissions criteria for state colleges and universities were that the applicant should be in the top tenth percentile of his high school graduating class and that he should have scored above a specified level on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.  A good showing in high school and high achievement on the tests indicated an ability to move from ignorance to knowledge and a capacity for further movement.  Modern admissions officers claim that there are mysterious other kinds of knowledge than the kind revealed by objective measures.  They claim that once these are taken into account, those who at first appeared unprepared for higher education are actually just as ready for it as anyone else.

Other examples of the reluctance to admit the reality of ignorance come from education journals. Their authors recurrently employ the trope, “how much I learned from my students” or “how much our students have to teach us.” Maybe. More likely, the writers of such articles merely find a kind of righteous satisfaction in a figurative reversal of roles.  Reversal has been the dominant trope of academic discourse since deconstruction overwhelmed the humanities in the 1980s.

And the specialized theoreticians of rhetoric and composition—let us not forget them. They have been insisting for forty years in their journals that the difference between what they call “home language” and what honest people recognize as grammatical prose is merely an artifact of oppressive class relations in the society.

The position of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which goes back to 1971, puts it this way: “We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language… in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans.”

To return to Plato’s parable: In addition to affirming the reality of ignorance and asserting that knowledge is better than ignorance, the narrative posits that the transition from ignorance to knowledge entails an ordeal, from which the subject emerges spiritually transformed and different from those who have not similarly passed through the stages of initiation.

When the ex-prisoner first sets eyes on the fire, the brightness smarts; when he has reached the external world and must contend with high noon, again the brightness smarts.  Bedazzlement disorients the subject and forces him to come to terms with novel intelligence, whose truth demolishes his previous, erroneous assumptions.

It is important to remark that, adjusting to his bedazzlement and its immediate aftermath, the subject must perform a self-evaluation, deciding that his former state of mind was inferior to his present, altered state of mind. He concludes that knowledge is better than ignorance.

Bedazzlement, followed by first-order knowledge of things and second-order knowledge that knowledge is better than ignorance, thus entails a moral attitude: Humblement. The passage from ignorance to knowledge is a humbling experience because it reveals to the subject not only his former complacency-in-ignorance but also his human proneness to complacency-in-ignorance. 

Confessing one’s ignorance requires giving up the natural resentment against being measured against an objective standard—usually and irritatingly another person—only to be found wanting. Epistemological growth requires ethical growth. Leaving the cave is a second birth into philosophical adulthood.

The Parable of the Cave cannily puts resentment in contest with enlightenment, showing that resentment is a stumbling block in the path of knowledge. The ex-prisoner’s response to his acquisition of knowledge is charitable and evangelical. He voluntarily returns into the darkness of the cave to help others. The prisoners respond to the true description of their plight and to the offer to liberate them with almost homicidal anger. 

While Plato does not elaborate, the elaboration remains implicit in the context of his allegory. The ex-prisoner is standing while the prisoners are sitting, which suggests a hierarchy. The ex-prisoner claims that the prisoners are imprisoned by error—a fact that they do not admit. That is, they do not know what reality is. 

The prisoners refuse to test the ex-prisoner’s claims, which presumably they could do.  Why? To test the claim would run the risk of proving it, which would require them to admit that one of them, the ex-prisoner, possesses something (knowledge) that all others lack. In other words, acknowledging the truth of the claim would be to acknowledge a difference that they could only contemplate with envy.

Thus we have a parable that affirms the reality of ignorance, a preference for knowledge, and the fact that the transition from ignorance to knowledge entails an ordeal—all ideas that modern pedagogy equivocates or denies. The failure to acknowledge these features of reality has a number of ramifications in higher education today.

There is the increasingly insistent claim that everyone should go to college, even though many young people are neither capable of nor interested in intellectual work. There is the pervasive program of “self-esteem,” the goal of which is to convince the young and callow that youth and naivety are the equivalent of actual accomplishments and thus that they furnish a sufficient basis for self-satisfaction. There is the well-documented phenomenon of the “dumbing-down” of the college curriculum, something that has been steadily in progress for decades.  There is the equally well-documented and pervasive sense of entitlement that casts the student as a money-paying consumer of a product who is entitled to a “good grade,” whether earned or not.

Radical academics are fond of saying that they want to disorient and remake students, but in practice they seem merely to want to provoke them into parroting hoary slogans and invidious half-perceptions.  That is another way of constituting the cave and lashing the subjects to the bench.

Higher education should be disorienting and transfiguring, but without prejudice concerning a narrow prescriptive outcome. Higher education should entail some type of ordeal—no “hazing” of students, but intense rigor and significant intellectual challenges to which, to quote Thoreau, the respondent must “rise on tiptoe.” 

I recall from my high school years the stunning experience of having the honors English instructor, Mr. Johnston, tell us one day to put our heads down and listen. He was a music-lover, and he had brought in his portable stereo in order to play for us a new recording of the tone poem Thus Spake Zarathustra by Richard Strauss (whose opening bars are familiar from 2001: A Space Odyssey). That was a glimpse of fire and light that made me eager to know more about good music, to understand musical forms, and to experience again the sense of being lifted out of normal life into the realm of the aesthetic.

College students should confront that kind of transfiguration through encounters with artistic greatness and intellectual challenges. But I fear that the spirit has gone out of North America’s colleges and universities—that in becoming increasingly bureaucratized they have become increasingly spiritually insipid, more and more like the cave, with its shadows.