Note: this is the first in the series of topics/concepts encountered in college that mattered most to me. See the introduction post here.

(c) 2014 Sherman Lambert

(c) 2014 Sherman Lambert

When I went to select a college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study for a major or what profession I wanted to pursue, so I looked for schools that had good programs in the variety of subjects that interested me. I figured that with exposure to different areas, the major would choose me. However, I already knew I wanted to continue studying Spanish—my high school teacher said at that time the U.S. was the fourth largest Spanish-speaking nation—surely knowing Spanish would continue to be useful no matter what else I studied.

So when the course options and registration materials arrived at my home a few months before I left for school, I selected a Spanish class and then mulled other options. Since this was back in the pencil and paper days, I had no idea which of my other suggestions would end up on my schedule until the paper with course numbers and times arrived. My first trimester classes represented a classic humanities schedule: the Spanish course, history (Western Civilization Part I), and Philosophy (Greek and Roman).

My introduction to philosophy didn’t exactly set me on fire. Though my son Jackson can go on for hours about all sorts of in-depth topics in philosophy, usually what he says goes way over my head. But if I had not taken that class with the lectures and texts that so often put me to sleep, I might have missed out on learning about Plato’s Cave. True, maybe I only stayed awake in class the day the professor introduced the topic because he showed it through a cartoon video—I’m not ashamed to admit that without those simplistic pictures I might have missed the point. Learning comes through many avenues, right?

Though so many years have passed since I watched that film, I can still see those men who were chained together in the cave, facing a wall and unable to turn to look behind them where a large fire burned. Shadows flicker on the wall—the men have no idea the images are mere suggestions of themselves or any activity happening behind them. Those shadows are their reality. Then one man is released and able to turn to see that so much more is occurring—he realizes the truth he knew was only partial. That same man then discovers a way out of the cave and encounters even more realities—even those who move freely within the cave do not know the whole truth, it seems. Amazed, he returns to tell the others how much more exists in the world—and, yet, they do not believe. They know what they know.

What a perfect concept to encounter so early in my education. The Cave taught me to question all assumed realities and to try to figure out for myself whether or not what I think I know about something is simply the shadows of that truth or if my understanding is based on something more tangible. On the other hand the Cave also showed me why others might not agree with my version of reality—and that sometimes the person who has seen the sun cannot enlighten others who have only known darkness and shadows, no matter how hard he or she tries.

I’m lucky I learned anything academically during my first months at college. Oh sure, I was going to all my classes and doing all my work—even if I had a lot to learn about time management—but I wasn’t really thinking very critically yet. The Cave opened my own eyes to the importance of thinking about what I was being taught—which was a good thing to learn early because in my four years at that college I was going to encounter a whole lot of blue books I had to fill with my own answers to essay questions. I could hardly believe that I could get A’s on philosophy tests simply by stating what I thought of what we were studying—I mean, what did I know about philosophy? My success on those tests showed me that maybe professors weren’t just looking for me to parrot what I’d been told.

Could it be the reality of pursuing an education was about way more than just doing the work? That it wasn’t enough to be a vessel filled with ideas taught by others?

In so many ways, previously my own idea of learning was like being chained in that cave. Take what you see and memorize it. How much better to be called to discern for myself whether what appeared to be reality was true light or simply shadows on a wall—or somewhere in between.

Not only might a major choose the person, but also sometimes so does knowledge.

Advertisement