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plato cave

Social Distancing and the Socratic Life

Late this spring I turned on my webcam to teach students who had come to Furman University to live and study together in an Engaged Living Program called “Politics and the Human Soul.”  This particularly tight cohort—who typically met up before class and proceeded en masse to the seminar room—was now scattered all over the country.  We felt sorry for ourselves. 

The passage for the day, Plato’s allegory of the cave, complicated our self-pity.  For it suggested that learning to think required that one be wrenched out of familiar surroundings.  Since we naturally live in the shadow-world of half-truths, according to Plato, we must be dragged away to find the light by which we can see things for what they are.  The allegory caused us to wonder: could our exile from campus help us take a step forward in our education?   

A recent article by Rita Koganzon in The Point Magazine argues that we should see our unplanned experiment in homeschooling in something like these Socratic terms.  Koganzon points out that while many elites today view homeschooling as regressive and insular, the “philosophical architects of liberal modernity”—John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill—favored learning at home as a means of developing the independence of mind required of citizens of a free, democratic republic.  They recognized that public school would be a necessary option in a modern commercial society, but were deeply concerned with its power to constrain opinion.  

Interestingly, standardized curricula and domineering schoolteachers troubled these thinkers less than the unnatural immersion of children in a world of their peers—what one might call “kid culture.”  Children, whose moral sense and conception is by nature underdeveloped, tend to scramble to create a social hierarchy only loosely tethered to any considered purpose.  Being constantly surrounded by one’s peers, they worried, would encourage young people to acquire “lifelong habits of submission to prevailing opinion.” 

The concern of these thinkers can help us see how we can take the unwished-for opportunity of being off-campus to think more clearly.  For dormitories and dining halls, like the cave, flood the mind with continual patter of one’s peers.  Concentrating on passing socially acceptable judgments on the images that dance before their eyes, the “prisoners” forget the chains around their necks.  Those chains become more secure every time the young hear the echoes of approval they crave: and intellectual stultification deepens along with social satisfaction. 

I much prefer seeing my students in person to any interaction mediated by the computer.  But reading Plato on Zoom showed us all how temporary exile from the social world can be integral to genuine education.  As we head into an uncertain Fall semester, we might draw strength and steadiness from this lesson. 

With thanks to my students in Spring 2020. 

Jenna Silber Storey, Assistant Professor in Politics and International Affairs, Furman University 

Forthcoming book: Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment, with Benjamin Storey (Princeton University Press, Spring 2021) 

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