Let’s Get Out of this Cave!

It happened some years ago now, but I think it could still happen today.  I started a conversation without defining my terms.  Some teens and I were talking about classical music.  At some point it was clear they were thinking of the Beatles and I had Bach in mind.  Once they understood how I was using the term, two more things became all too clear.  First, they knew very little of orchestral or “classical” music and secondly, they did not wish to do the work necessary to get to know it.  When I played just a little of Bach’s most accessible stuff (his Air on the G string, BWV 1068) they recoiled with distaste.  Just not our thing, Mr. E.  The Beatles were old, but still kinda cool; Bach was dust.

I thought of that moment again recently when talking with teens about Plato’s cave analogy.  I was captivated with the collateral response.  Plato makes it clear that if the guide returned to the cave to free another “slave” he would be killed if they could get their hands on him.  Killed.  For leading men into the light of truth!  Ask Socrates about that kind of thanks.


Our modern word “educate” has as its roots the meaning, “to lead out.”  That is the educational enterprise, according to the word’s root meaning.  I can’t contemplate that well without Plato’s cave coming to the forefront my mind.  My job as teacher is to educate, to lead those enjoying shadows in the cave out into the brilliant light of the truth.  While I can take their hand and lead them, they must follow.  There seem to be many who wish to stay in their chains.  “We are okay with the Beatles, but kindly keep Bach to yourself.”

I came away from my music discussion thinking about this issue of taste.  Lots of questions come to mind.  What is good taste?  Is there something that defines Bach as better than the Beatles?  Who am I to assert that my taste is better than a teen’s?  How do you lead someone toward higher tastes?  What relationship is there between knowledge and taste?  Is it a fair reading of the Cave Analogy to state it involves the improvement or heightening of taste?

Good leading out “converts” the one led.  This much is clear in Plato.  They don’t want back in the cave once they are used to life in the real world.  Their affections have become more rightly ordered.  So there is something that occurs in the heart of the one who leaves the cave.  None in the cave want to leave, but those who do, do not wish to return.  Their tastes have changed.  The teacher is a convert themselves, so if they remember the cave, they should have mercy on those still chained.  I find myself hanging around the door of the cave and thinking about these things.  So few of my students have found their way out into the light.  To some extent this is me.  But I can’t get past the notion that our society has trained the youth to enjoy the video lit dimness of the modern cave.  Come out.


When I’m Old and Gray!

Have you read Plato’s Republic?  I continue to come back to this work regularly in my thought and conversations about education.  It seems seminal to any discussion about education in Western culture.  I know that the stated focus of the work is imagining the just society, but Plato makes it crystal clear that any such society can only be just if its educational foundations are true.  The point haunting me right now is the speed of his vision.

Plato builds the whole argument for education on his vision of the greatest good.  The best leader for a just society is one who has thought his way to the highest good.  The path or curriculum that Plato believes will lead such a leader to this highest good takes roughly fifty years to pull off!

With some lee way for differing development, here is how he lays out the 50 years needed to become a true philosopher king:

  • (Age 0-5) 5 years of playing so as to become familiar with life in the world
  • (Age 6-12) 5-7 years of “music” or learning to use language to gain harmony in one’s life; seems to be about learning that all truth is unified
  • Age (13-17) 5 years or so of developing one’s mind through mathematics (which is a different type of experience than the modern one – it develops a mind that can think in the abstract)
  • Age (18-20) 3-4 years of dedicated physical gymnastic (discipline of the body)
  • (Age 21-35) 15 years of contemplation and dialectic seeking the greatest good
  • (Age 36-50) 15 years of practical experience in seeking the greatest good

Now stop and contemplate that.  In our current pace of life – which by the way generally has a longer life expectancy than did Plato’s culture – we would consider all this way too long.  But his point is rather important here:  not taking this long probably is why we don’t have such people in our midst today.  Our culture tries to get to the good life not by the long and narrow, but by the short-cut route.  And to make it easier, we have greatly reduced the greatest good down to something rather easy to obtain.

I am approaching the big 5-0 this year.  In Plato’s estimation, I am just about ready to do something significant (if I had been following his path, which I have not).  Yet I begin to sense from many around me that folks my age are already preparing for retirement, for heading out to pasture, to the very least have been doing things long enough by now to be earning the really big bucks, ’cause you ain’t got much time left.

And I teach impatient students who want advice on the best short cuts to the good life.  Plato’s map is much more difficult, but it leads to true treasure.


More on the Modes of Teaching: Mimesis

It has been awhile since I wrote directly on the two modes of teaching.  I still hold to what I said in my previous writing, but I wish to add to it.  I believe that of the two modes, dialectic and mimetic, one allows itself to be “planned” and the other must (to be effective) be extemporaneous (out of the moment).

The mimetic mode of teaching is a closer approximation to what most would call “teaching” in our modern day of knowledge transfer.  The Bible seems to favor the process of knowledge (the basic facts) leading us to understanding (a connecting of facts into a meaningful idea) and finally arriving through that understanding at what is called wisdom (not just knowing how things are, but living in a manner that reflects that understanding) [see Exodus 31:3; 35:31; Prov. 2:6; 9:10; and even Daniel 1:17].  Mimetic teaching focuses on being a bridge between knowledge and wisdom by helping bring the student to a place of  “understanding.”


There are three movements in the mode of mimesis.  The first movement depends heavily on the teacher.  This is where the student is led to the necessary knowledge they must “have on the table” in order to pursue understanding.  Let us say for illustration’s sake that the course is a U.S. History course and the current period of study is World War 2.  In this first movement the student would hear the teacher lecture on important names, dates, places, and events of that war, as well as being assigned reading in the time period, and perhaps even sent to research other avenues of such information (eyewitnesses, video, artifacts, maps, etc.).  The teacher is very active in this movement, steering and assigning the student the most engaging manner of gaining this needed information.

But then the teacher takes a step back and begins engaging the student in the second movement of mimesis.  Here the teacher begins asking questions of comparison, contrast, and conflict.  “How is WW2 related to WW1?”  “What caused the war?”  “What causes war to occur?”  “What are the classic positions on war-making and which do I hold to?”  This necessarily brings out much class discussion and debate, with students pulling from their knowledge and intelligence to bring the facts into a more organized form that takes on properly the label of “understanding.” Note as well that in this movement the point is not to simply “learn about WW2” but also to learn how such past events inform the life of the student here and now.  In this movement teacher and student share an almost equal amount of the activity or work of the movement.

The third movement is almost entirely the work of the student.  In it the ideas or understanding gained is restated by the student as clearly as he can so as to demonstrate to his teacher that he truly understands it, and to clarify yet more in his own mind the understanding achieved.  It is also the mode in which the student, by the aid of the teacher, will think through the necessary changes in his future life that such understanding should and will bring about.

I have used history as an example, but this mode applies to every subject in the curriculum in which the student is seeking to learn content or ideas.  We can never cease to draw the proper distinction between arts and sciences, as they must be learned differently.  But any science can be taught in this mode with these three movements.  This chart may be of help to you in considering any science being considered.

This mode can be to some extent planned and considered in advance of the classroom moment.  The first movement will probably fail miserably if there is not some advanced thought on the part of both the teacher and the student (at least thinking about what was assigned to him to read or do).  The beauty of where we are in educational theory at the moment is that because many define this first movement as the entirety of education, there are a ton of engaging, useful, and ready-to-go materials available to the teacher.  With a modicum of knowledge about your students, you should be able to quickly find a great way to bring them this knowledge.  The second and third movements can at the least be considered in advance as to the proper questions to be asked, and the most fitting way for the student re-express the ideas: oral, written, or some third alternative.

Much of this theory is derived from others to be sure, especially the work of the Circe Institute, but it has come as well through especially the writings of Plato.  His work in refuting the Sophists seems especially pertinent in our day.  In this post I have developed a skeleton for mimesis.  Next I will work on dialectic teaching, or what might be called controlled chaos.