Spelunking or Misery?

Students in my May term capstone seminar reflect on the meaning, use and significance of their liberal arts education. I like to end the course with a discussion of two readings: a selection from Frederick Douglass' autobiography and Plato's allegory of the cave. The Douglass reading chronicles his boyhood efforts to learn to read. As a boy Douglass was sent to work for a couple in Baltimore. His mistress, who had never owned a slave before, was shocked to find that he could not read and she set about teaching him.

That all came to an end as soon as her husband discovered what she was doing. He told her that "it would forever unfit him to be a slave" if the boy learned to read. Worse, the master said it would make him unhappy. After overhearing this remark, Douglass suspected that reading was somehow the source of the white man's power over him and he committed himself to learning.

It wasn't easy. He had to bribe and trick white school kids to teach him. His master was suspicious, too, and never left Douglass alone in a room containing a book or a newspaper. In spite of all of these obstacles, Douglass did learn to read. He even encountered a book entitled The Colombian Orator in which a slave is able to repudiate all of a master's arguments that slavery is simply a fact of nature and wholly justified. Douglass had educated himself enough to grasp the fallacies within the master's arguments and realized the disheartening truth that he was the victim of an evil system.

Ironically, the result of learning the truth was exactly as his master predicted: Douglass became miserably unhappy because he now knew the enormity of the injustice perpetrated against him. He even writes in his autobiography how he wished at times that he had remained ignorant and never learned to read.

As I mentioned, my seminar students also discuss Plato's allegory of the cave, which describes a group of slaves chained to look at the dancing shadows at the back of a cave. They have no awareness that the shadows are shadows or, indeed, that there is any other life than the one they are leading. For them, staring at the rear of the cave and listening to distorted echoes is a normal life.

After discussing both readings, I ask the students the following question: Who would you rather be? Little Fredrick Douglass who is aware of his situation and unhappy, but half-free because he has at least liberated his mind, or Plato's blissfully unaware slaves, who are not terribly unhappy with their lot because they don't realize there is anything to be unhappy about?

I tell those who choose Douglass' situation to go to one side of the room, and I ask the the cave slaves to go to the other. Then I have the two sides explain why they would not wish to be on the other side of the room. Now keep in mind that this is a 400-level capstone for the general educational core. We've spent the entire semester wrestling with the value of an education in ethical reasoning, scientific and theological inquiry, history, art, social science, diversity...

They've read about Socrates and the connection between freedom of conscience and a free society. They've discussed civic virtue, civil disobedience and the need for citizens and leaders to resist group think. Even so, the results of this little exercise are almost identical each time. About 80-90 percent of the students elect to be slaves in the cave. They choose complete slavery--mind and body--over partial freedom with at least a very slim chance at eventual freedom. When I ask them why, they say they don't want to be unhappy.

I have a colleague who tends toward pessimism. Sometimes he remarks that only a minority of students actually benefit from a good liberal arts education, perhaps as few as 10 or 20 percent. Most, he insists, are largely unaffected by the experience. They are only here to offset the cost of educating the very few who do benefit. I usually write off his remark as cheap cynicism, but it's always been a little disturbing to me how closely his numbers match the ones I get in the slave exercise.


cody said…
I think that this outcome is due to the demise of human values and societal worth of people and their qualities. Society is fast becoming a place for the "here and now" generation, and soon the sense of "entitlement" for a generation will soon follow. People feel that they are guaranteed things just because they exist, or because their families are wealthy. They don't understand the true meaning of life and what they can get out of a developing education. People just take things at face value because they don't want to dig deeper for a greater meaning, or to make a contribution to their own intellect. This is sad, but in a world full of superficial images and MTV, "ignorance is bliss" for most folks.
Professor Quest said…

I tend to be a little skeptical of the ideas that the world is somehow going downhill or that this generation is worse than it previous ones. Anyone who studies history well can show you that human nature has remained about the same over the centuries. I suspect if I ran the exercise during Athens' Golden Age I'd get roughly the same results.

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