Charles Schulz (d. 2000) is famous for his daily comic strip Peanuts. This strip follows the melancholy adventures of Charlie Brown, a boy growing up in a small town with a dog and a band of friends. A small, but recurring, character in the comic is a teacher. The iconic voice of the teacher, burned into the neurons of more than one generation weaned on Peanuts television specials, is an unintelligible, garbled mess of “Wah, wah, wah wah.” Whatever one thinks about Charles Schulz and his comic, he got the auditory reception of students to teachers, and therefore professors, correct. What is professed is received as unintelligible, garbled nonsense.
Turning from Schulz to Plato provides some philosophical gravitas to Schulz’s playful observation. Whether Schulz knew it or not, he was channeling one of the most well-known sections of Platonic dialogue, The “Allegory of the Cave.”
The story involves the liberation of the mind from the shackles of our senses to the realm of the intellect, the progression of the soul from a shadowy sub-reality to the sun-drenched super-reality of pure thought. The allegory pictures for us the highly abstract aspects of Plato’s philosophy regarding humanity and its relationship to the universe. It suggests answers to questions such as “Who am I?” and “What do I know?” and “What is reality?”
Of these questions, the one addressed least well in undergraduate classrooms is “Who am I?” If the question is addressed at all, it is likely along the lines of identifying intellectual differences between the prisoners of the cave and the liberated souls of the world outside the cave. The cave becomes a heuristic, an aid to (self-)discovery, passing judgment on how well a person has internalized Plato’s Diagram of the Line.
In this mode of thought, the professor is the philosopher king, the one who has struggled, often by the skin of his teeth, to arrive bloodied and bruised at his terminal degree. After all, the Ph.D. is a philosophical doctorate. Whether your doctorate is in science, history, literature, mathematics, or theology, you are more than a M.A.ster of your discipline. You have dialectically gazed into your discipline’s Sun, reflected upon the very structure of the discipline, and contributed to the contours of the shadows it casts.
With this reading, the Cave becomes a Platonic prophecy as we professors willingly, dare I say joyfully, descend back into the darkness of undergraduate education bringing reflections of truth, goodness, and beauty to our students. Only, as warned in the allegory, more often than not we are met with angry mobs—“What does this class have to do with my major?” —and intellectual death from student apathy. My attempts to redirect the students’ psyches run afoul of psyches that seek every opportunity to remain in the seductive dark. My zeal is fatigued by questions more concerned about the content of the test or minimum number of pages for an essay, culminating in my intellectual death a thousand times over for every thousand words I read of freshman writing.
The “Allegory of the Cave” moves from wisdom literature to Greek tragedy.
I have a lot of sympathy with this reading. After all, it speaks to my professional biases as a philosopher with a heavy undergraduate teaching load for non-majors. It puts distance between the students and me, validating all the grumpiness that stews throughout an academic year. However, this reading suffers from the very thing the cave is supposed to protect against: an enslaved mind. It is tempting to read myself as Plato or Socrates, the noble teacher-scholar diligently living in persecution at the hands of angry mobs. But this fails to meet the very standard the allegory illustrates: there is no appropriate redirection of the psyche.
Now wait a minute. Did you not just argue that your Ph.D. has secured you the bragging rights of sun gazing, of intimate knowledge with your discipline? Yes. However, our journeys there and back again do not guarantee anything except that we have seen the sun. Have you ever tried to describe the experience of staring into the sun? The phenomenology of it is damn near impossible to discuss.
This difficult-to-explain experience is then coupled with a further problem raised by Plato: “the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light.” The import of this passage in relation to education is easy to overlook, particularly when committed to the more standard narrative of focusing on the student as cave dweller. Here we find the professor, the philosopher king, downgraded to the same blind status as student.
For you see, we are all troglodytes. It’s troglodytes all the way down.
Plato is arguing that education takes place between two parties literally blind to each other. The student hears garbled nonsense because the professor is speaking twaddle. I stare at my students seeing Neolithic mankind; they stare at me seeing a lunatic. We are reduced to the language of cave people, unable to express goodness, truth, and beauty beyond grunts, gestures, and sometimes petrographs.
The object of the “Who am I?” question now narrows to me. Who am I? I am a professor, a troglodyte, and just as perplexed as my students in the classroom.
Daniel Deen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Irvine