Discovering Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in Cyber-world
where Freedom of Public Education Can't Be Denied
We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. Plato
An allegory is a story with characters and events that reveal a hidden meaning or a moral message differing between right and wrong. Plato’s allegory of the cave from ancient Greek times still has morals to teach today's citizens undergoing a massive cultural revolution in a formidable, relentless technological cyber-world. Not unexpectedly, we can share a common human bondage with both past, present and future timelines, but the differences are profound affecting even our youngest people.
There has never been a greater urgency to make the case that public education must remain democratic, diverse and strong; especially for young people who are the stimulus and hope as they inherit the future with greater degrees of fairness, ethics and justice, both to the kinds of society and environment they want to live in.
But 24 centuries ago, Plato started with an image of a large cave descending into the Earth, our natural connection. At the bottom of the cave is a large wall in front of which sit rows of prisoners in chains, meaning that people as public participants need to follow social rules or laws. (I would assume children were not present in these adult affairs.) Behind them is a platform where various puppets and puppeteers are performing their actions or events. Behind them burns a large fire so that only their shadows are cast on the wall. The prisoners do not see or hear the real puppeteers or their puppets but rely only on the echoes and shadows cast by these forms. Their only experiences and only words they can speak are about these shadows, thinking they are the real things.
For example, they may say “look there is a rich man” by pointing to the shadow on the wall. Plato asks would they be wrong in believing this shadow must be a real rich man without deception. Or is the perceived rich man just manifesting his image and desires in order to make people believe he is a rich man with special rights. Perhaps, it may actually be a poor man who starts the mirage and illusion on the platform itself.
The spectators can only ask the ultimate ageless question: do we gain knowledge as shadows of someone else’s reality or do we seek our own truths based on facts?
From sitting in bondage watching shadows, people know there must be the cave’s opening at the top where they can exit into sunlight, meaning truth or enlightenment.
Obviously we do not live in an ancient Greek world. Their wall would be more classical knowledge; images would be limited to location, harvests, marketplaces, families, some warfare, many deities to explain the forces of nature and wise philosophers who begat the name democracy meaning “whole citizens able to rule in government.” Our connection is, as part of the perpetual human condition, that we also care for our environment, our productivity, our families, traditions, and our past and future histories.
What’s happening with today’s technological containment with modern puppeteers?
However, our physical containment is channeled deep into recent technology. We do not watch shadows cast by a fire, unless in quiet repose in front of a campfire shooting sparks into the dark sky. Our wall is the global worldview now where our planet Earth appears as “a tiny blue dot set in a sunbeam.” The audience, including young people, sit neatly within their social rules; but this time, the shadows on this wall are created by the glow of the internet screen.
Our opinions, our glimpses of reality, our illusions of truth are controlled by the light of the internet, even more brilliantly enhanced by individual i-pads and cell phones at our fingertips.
So, who are these puppeteers and new kinds of puppets, casting shadows and sharing messages for our behalf on our screens? Definitely, the range of scale offers an infinite variety of acts from which to choose. Once more, the nature of this medium overtakes the meaning of the message where the focus is always on the moving parts without regard to background composition or long-term effects.
Without precedence, however, this internet medium has enabled, accelerated and extended this focus on the obvious, the loudest, the most theatrical, without attention to personal and social consequences; in other words, this is the brain limbic system fulfilling its key functions of emotions, memories and arousal or stimulation.
And so, it is that the loudest actors, loaded with the most spectacles and huckster speeches, cast their viral shadows not only on the wall but also on the personal screens of the bonded prisoners in our society; including even children, armed with their own devices.
Our modern cave has turned into a clamorous and glamorous social media circus. Each big noisy shadow is followed by an even bigger noisier shadow, without boundaries. Lines are quickly drawn along sexism, ageism, racism and elitism. Furrows are made for nationalism, authoritarianism, partisanship, and extremism. Egos thrive, tolerance suffers, toxicity normalizes, the word ‘hate’ surfaces again and again, human rights are questioned, and society fragments. Twitter-verse becomes the new Twilight Zone where the smallest words have the biggest bangs.
What kinds of problems can happen with the swarm of the biggest players?
The biggest problem is that the biggest puppeteers with the biggest shadows are the ones that proportionately fill both the worldview wall and the individual screens. Often these are the wealthy, academic and political players from corporate owned media outlets; and multinationals such as industrial and medical platforms with plans to profit from and control the masses.
There is even the rare possibility that one puppeteer with the right celebrity hype and exposures can rise as a demigod to not only fixate the seated crowd but infiltrate the moral public conscience and give license to follow darker instincts.
The biggest immorality of such unrefined media ascension and access is when despots with the biggest microphones begin to shape the attentive populace to fit into their realities, illusionary and false as they may be. The purity of freedom of speech is ransacked by fake news and yellow journalism. Our common moral justice demands that news must rely on observed truths; but history shows how the term ‘fake news’ has been used before by tyrants to cover their own propaganda. There is no other way to explain the phenomenon of an educated man with a strong Christian faith who can blatantly describe an actual photograph of a terrible event with the most comforting lies to suffice his followers…the infiltration is complete.
Back to Plato, both our ancient and modern societies also share this common human bondage. Most people would prefer to remain in chains or keep tuning into those performers who replay their favorite programs. We tend to prefer to see shadows of reality from others, because it releases us from seeking our own truth. At the same time, often these manufactured social images affect our normal self-images to think we have no comparable abilities, skills or results but need a king on a white horse for rescue.
As changes become tougher to face, it’s easier to discriminate, bully, blame or victimize the person next to you who may be watching a different screen. In fact, the allegory continues, that if for some reason we find ourselves outside the cave, where we can find freedom, this state can be very frightening because illusions are more satisfactory for the moment. There is pain associated with liberating yourself from the past or coming into the daylight or enlightenment.
And so, people keep exposing themselves, keep clicking, tweeting and twerking, keep looking at false illusions on the wall and their screens, facing personal traumas, believing there is some sanity at least within some shadows of the loudest puppeteers. Unfortunately, this transformation can also apply to young people.
Can Plato’s truth fit into our modern society?
Back to Plato’s philosophy which is that truth exists outside the cave on the wings of education. The sun is a metaphor for freedom described as enlightenment. This is where ideas flourish, the essences of love, justice, beauty, and service to others with decency and morality are encouraged. This is where the arts and sciences are nurtured, where the creative and spiritual contributions make connections and bind relationships.
Plato believed that everyone wants to crawl out of the cave of darkness and ignorance and walk in the light of truth. He taught his students that all of us want to be part of something higher, a transcendent reality of which the world we see is only a small part to where our human bondage can unite everything into a single harmonious whole.
Why is the Freedom of a Public Education Essential for Democratic Society?
So how do young people fit into our modern technological social revolution?
As a captive audience, they have also been exposed to the streaming shadows and fake realities in front of their internet screens. They have vicariously adopted adult roles while often facing media abuse, trauma, addiction, hyper-sexuality, materialism and market manipulation.
The moral outrage here is they are still young; their adolescent brains have not fully developed to make rational decisions or judgement calls. The associative prefrontal cortex doesn’t have the experiential inter-neuronal complexity until their early 20’s to make deductive critical reasoning.
This transformation of youth culture via a veritable social media invasion is unprecedented, crying for discussions and solutions because young people must remain as our main stimulus to better manage changes in societal and environmental spheres. Can anybody dare say this is insidious indoctrination?
There is no doubt that digital technology saturates today’s educational platforms. Definitely there are advantages to the ability to “connect to specialized information nodes and resources in real time” and learn from social networking, blogging, message boards, Google searches, and Wikileaks. But how does individualized social autonomy explain the difference between teaching and learning via traditional methods in public schools?
My reference is personal experience. In a public classroom there are students of diverse backgrounds, abilities, and goals; including special needs. The lesson objectives are shared equally and collaboratively. Students interact at their levels and interests with a one-on-one teacher who encourages brainstorming by understanding the basics of critical thinking and making consensual decisions.
Public education creates the public where the country’s interests and civic responsibilities are talked about so that every person can hear their own voice and feedback to manage situations where multiple representations, or truths, can exist. There is no one elitist or biased puppeteer to promote his or her agenda with private enterprises. What is the better way to develop citizenship values?
In Plato’s world, the main purpose of education was to “ban individualism, abolish incompetence and immaturity, and establish the rule of the efficient.” Publicly, education was the positive measure for the operation of justice in an ideal state where ignorance was the root of vice. Properly, education started with storytelling to young children, continued with teenagers and citizens with civic roles and progressed as long as 50 years to the rare individual capable of governing the country.
Plato said, “that those who are able to see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture, will never be understood, let alone believed, by the masses.” Maybe, perhaps you also wonder what Plato might say about his “transcendent, integrated development of human personality” in today’s internet world of change?
Our hope is public education with equality for every child minus the bright lights of illusion. We must do better especially for our children’s sake.
The further a society drifts from the truth, the more they will hate those who speak it ... George Orwell