John Dewey and Plato might, in fact, agree on most of what they feel it means to be an educated person. Dewey even comments, in his less than exciting writing, that he simply takes Plato’s ideas and adds to them. I guess that’s where we all fit in as educators, since I want to take some of Plato’s ideas, some of Dewey’s ideas, and some of a whole slew of other ideas in order to help form my own philosophy. Of course, this does not mean that I have to memorize or worship the words of past philosophers, but I do have to take some meaning from them as a reader. I feel that I can take a lot from Dewey, who takes a lot from Plato, though I also feel that I can take a lot from myself.
Plato describes the cave in Book VII of The Republic, and I could certainly relate to where he takes the analogy, while applying it to our lives today. Plato describes a cave in which people (representing the uneducated) learn from shadows on the walls. The people in the cave come to believe that the shadows are real and that they represent something, but if a person is led out of the cave, the actual forms can be seen. The person becomes educated by knowing what creates the shadows and where the cave fits into reality. Putting the person back into the cave creates a problem because the uneducated has become educated, though cannot see in the cave (from being blinded by real light). The eyes do not adjust, and the others think the education is stupid because the educated comes back and can’t even identify the shadows any longer.
Plato’s story got me to thinking about the education of the low socio-economic classes, even if Plato did not intend it so. He made the assumption that people fit into only three main categories of educability, and Dewey responds with an infinite estimate. I, however, looked at Plato’s cave idea as having to do with the poor. We try to educate the poor, but we inevitably throw them back down to their place in society (in the cave). The educated are seen as sell-outs, and can no longer function in the context of where they actually live. They do, however, have the depressing knowledge of what is out there, and they will keep trying to get out of the cave in order to find the reality that they seek. The problem is that the reality cannot be their own because it has been created for only a few. The reality of the cave is therefore just as real, and they can be just as prosperous and happy by making their lives within the cave, as long as they continue to dig. I see my role as a teacher is not to pull kids out of the cave and blind them, but to chip away at the walls of the cave in order to show them that something else is out there. Kids have to be able to operate within the cave as they work their way out. Plato might even suggest that many of the people that need help with my “poverty cave” belong to the groups of people who do not fit into the natural list of those who can be educated, but I feel that the list ends when we decide it ends, and nature has little to do with it.
Dewey would seemingly agree with me that the classes are too sharply marked in Plato’s world. Dewey feels that Plato did not consider the individual, though he did reject simple birth rights to education. I agree with Dewey that we all have very individualistic natural abilities, and I feel that we should not be directed by a mere few of these into our roles. Under a strict classification system, I would have been marked as an athlete as a young child (since that’s all I cared about), and I would not have been able to excel in all that I have done. Or I would have been seen as a real brain (I scored in the 99 percentile in standardized tests), and I would have been classified accordingly. Since the schools are operating with Dewey’s influence today, I was able to achieve more than I would have had I been classified too quickly. Going back to economics, I feel that the idea that people operating at their peeks should help society, though I know that some people operate beyond their abilities because of who they know, and others never achieve their potential because of who they are. Everyone should have a shot at breaking free from the cave, but not everyone will become perfectly educated once it happens. I want to help people find their true callings in life, if that includes skilled trades, professional jobs, health care, or retail sales. I also never want what people do to characterize who they really are, and the fact that I’ve spent seven years in college does not make me a better or smarter person than my Grandpa Ost who apprenticed for a few years or my Grandpa Jeager who learned to farm from his father. I guess the only thing I do sometimes ask is whether this is the calling for me, because I do believe in all of my talents and all of my various potentials, just as I will of my students.