The Cave or: How I learned to stop worrying and listen to Mr. Burr

Experiment: Writing an analysis of a philosophical concept.

Even if you are already familiar with the story, you will still enjoy this version:

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is one of those philosophical ideas that seems to apply to everything. There are endless avenues that an analysis of The Cave could go down. For my own practice in argumentation, I’ll discuss the idea of ‘knowers’ and look at it in the context of education.

In this version of The Cave, the question of who knows is particularly prominent. The narrator states that the world outside of the cave is a real world and that, even though the prisoners have never seen it, that it is still real. Only at the end, when the two prisoners are left wondering about their friend, do we consider their reality. The strangest part may be that the reality of the prisoners is also just as real as what is outside the cave. Just because the prisoners don’t know about the world outside the cave doesn’t mean they lack a reality. Reality exists in the confines of the cave just as legitimately as it exists outside of the cave.

The other striking feature of this version is the released prisoner returning back to the cave to tell his former companions about the real world. He blends into the same reality they know, rather than changing it, even though he is attempting to ‘open their eyes’ to the life outside the cave.

So, who is the ‘knower’ in this situation? It is easy to say that the villagers are knowers, they live the normal reality that we expect. But I wonder if they can imagine what reality looks like for the prisoners? Do they really know reality if they only really understand their reality? Is the freed prisoner a ‘knower’? He can’t communicate what he has learned to the people who need to know it the most. We might consider him the equivalent of a terrible teacher. Should we really bestow upon him the title of ‘knower’? Can we consider the detained prisoners ‘knowers’ even if they haven’t seen the outside? They know something, even if it isn’t the same as what everyone else knows. Or does their knowledge not count because it is not the commonly held or ‘proper’ knowledge?

Before I make the leap to my subject area, I want to take a moment of reflection. Who did I image myself to be? Am I the freed prisoner, the detained prisoners, or the village people? How do I value these people differently? Who do I wish myself to be?

Analyzing the allegory in an educational context, there are still many possible interpretations. Is it possible that our schools are the cave and our students the prisoners? In that case, the outside influences on schools (NCLB, Race to the Top, Person, charter schools, Teach for America, etc.) are ‘knowers’ and are justified in trying to break through the current confines of a seemingly decrepit school system. Or is society the cave and teachers the ‘knowers’ desperately trying to communicate back the wonder of the real world? In that case, we should protect the autonomy and subversive power of our educators. Or, a bit further afield, maybe our schools are the world outside of the cave but some of the students are stuck in the cave and we can’t reach them. Chained in the cave, they will never reach their full potential even if they are exposed to the same ‘knowledge’ (this is like the scenario of the freed prisoner returning). And even further, maybe the world outside isn’t applicable to those in the cave and we need to acknowledge the detained prisoners are ‘knowers’ so that we can meet them at their level rather than assuming they will fit in with the world outside the cave. These are all possible interpretations, all with very different implications. What about the realities of administrators? Parents? Policy makers?

Most often, this allegory is seen from the individual side and with a fluid nature. Perhaps each individual has certain perceptions of the world that are ‘cave-bound’. This is evident when the perceived realities of two people contradict and they “talk past each other” or can’t seem to “see eye to eye”. Maybe it is a lack of empathy, of imagination, or care in finding out. Usually these interactions are not a problem or can be worked out in future conversations. Only when one person assumes they are the ‘knower’ and the other is not, like forgetting that the world inside the cave is reality as well, that tempers flare and people feel stripped of their humanity.

Being a ‘knower’ is not just allegorical, it is a position of power. The more that we can discover how power is distributed to ‘knowers’, to question whether they are legitimate, and to open up the space for unconventional ‘knowers’, the more we will ultimately understand about reality!



This post was heavily influenced by the lovely presence of the late Pat Burr. He was an incredible teacher whose impact was noticeable 18 years ago when I met him, but has grown each and every year since. I am sad to say that I was not able to express to him how much of a difference he made in my life, mostly because I didn’t know it at the time! I have a feeling he knew that though, too 🙂

The idea of ‘proper’ knowledge comes from the writings of Luce Iragaray.

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