First Day of Class: Teaching Plato's Allegory of the Cave and bell hook's Teaching to Transgress
Updated: Feb 2
This semester, I decided to try a new text to begin the course, bell hook's Teaching to Transgress alongside Plato's infamous allegory of the cave. Rather than being two completely divergent views of what education should look like, I tried to emphasize to students the important parallels between these two radical thinkers. Again, if I haven't mentioned it before, for Plato (and myself) Pedagogy is First Philosophy. What is First Philosophy, you ask? Well, in the history of philosophy, many thinkers have debated what area of philosophy is more primary or more central to the quest for knowledge. Is it metaphysics, i.e. theories and debates about what is real, or is it epistemology, i.e. theories and debates about the nature of knowledge? There are many other contenders for first philosophy like ethics/axiology, politics, theology, etc. but, ultimately, Plato throughout the texts seems to show us that all of these ways of entering into philosophical thinking are futile if Philosophy does not first and foremost begin and end in a form of Pedagogy that kindles and nourishes the soul and supports a particular way of life.
Due to this, throughout his corpus, he is constantly trying to describe what good educative practices look like, the most famous being the Allegory of the Cave.
Socrates begins with the image of prisoners trapped in an underground cave, chained and shackled so as to force them to look at the wall where shadows of puppets flicker and move, cast by a fire behind them. The situation is bleak until some mysterious person unshackles one of the prisoners and forces them to ascend from out of the cave, passing the fire and stumbling along their way up. During this narration, the rescuer takes on less and less of a role so much so that by the time the prisoner reaches the entrance, they are no longer a player in the narrative.
"Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along with the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads."
The prisoner then enters the light of day but their eyes need adjusting and this is a painful process of looking to shadows and images in water before they finally see the things in themselves, in all their radiant brilliance.
"At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion."
Finally, the prisoner, basking in the light of day and the beauty of the real, turns their attention to the Sun, the cause of it all, only looking at it momentarily and through images because if one were to stare at the Sun, too long or directly, would be harmful. In the end, the prisoner feels the need to return to the cave to help others, others who view the returned prisoner as dangerous and ridiculous, someone whose eyes have been damaged by going outside. Some my even feel that the prisoner who has left the cave is a threat that must be punished or killed.
"... when he remembered his old habitation and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?...Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner."
Here, the image gestures to the idea that education is not a process of learning facts and memorization. Rather, a teacher is one who merely helps you out of the cave, out of the world of flickering illusions. You, as the freeing professor or them as the freed the student, must realize that they must make the journey out into the real on their own. This is a painful and difficult process but one that inspires a constant moving and even a return to the cave, a desire to help others escape the life of shadows. Further, in the cave no one is connected to each other, they are all competing and scared and threatened. While those who have left the cave, can and do connect to one another via sharing the value of the journey that is education. For Socrates, we are beings who both know and don't know at the same time. We connect with each other when we can admit our ignorance and confusion and therein pursue together what we both love, the knowledge that we share when it comes to the big ideas like truth, justice, beauty, the good as well as our corresponding perplexity about those very things.
Yes, a perplexity that often arises when we value the fact that we all have different ways of thinking about those important ideas of beauty and the good, but ultimately it is in the conversation with others that we can see the fire, the brilliance of the sun that allows us to connect with one another via creative interchange about these eternal realities. Education is about learning that when we pursue the beautiful, the just, the true as a never-ending way of life where we must always question what we think we know, always value our perplexity as a good versus a problem, never dogmatically entrenching ourselves into any one way of encountering the Good, then we can finally see the other person and their amazing power to continuously release us from our ignorance. This power is the power of being human, the erotic condition of connection caused by admitting our confusion but also seeing that in that confusion we are beautiful, we are wise, we are valuable and good. As one student noted:
"The Allegory of the Cave by Plato is a story meant to represent enlightenment. The prisoners were “left in the dark” or kept ignorant of their surroundings. As we saw in the story, a small piece of knowledge can spark a journey of enlightenment; however, we won’t ever be able to return to the person we were before because we have grown. We are no longer bound by our ignorance. We can encourage others to leave the cave, but each person must leave the cave on their OWN. I think we are at a time in our lives where people are learning, they are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but have not yet stepped outside. I think this is what we are trying to do as feminists, sociologists, and people. We want to teach and inspire others to leave the cave and take their personal journey of enlightenment. I believe this is all we need to create change within our world in any regard whether it be racism, world hunger, drug abuse, and in this case, sexism."
Different but similar ideas arise in bell hook's Teaching to Transgress, where hooks discusses the importance of teaching as the central motivating aspect of her career. For her, teaching (particularly in spaces of white dominance) often looks like professors dispensing wisdom while students consume it passively. Rather like Plato, hooks insists that teaching is about relationship building wherein each student is invited to discover the knowledge they already possess. She begins her text by describing her fears as a professor about to receive tenure (something I can definitely relate to) and realizing that she had always imagined herself as a writer, distancing herself from the imagine of the black women who were her first teachers. She describes the profound difference in her experience of being educated by black women versus when she was forced to move into more white educative worlds where teaching was less about empowering versus forcing students to reproduce the standards of knowledge agreed to in the white world. She describes the former as a practice of liberation and the latter as a practice of domination (an idea also shared by Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as well as arguably Plato with his image of freeing prisoners).
"That shift from beloved, all-black schools to white schools
where black students were always seen as interlopers, as not
really belonging, taught me the difference between education
as the practice of freedom and education that merely strives to
reinforce domination." hooks
Through the course of her essay, bell hooks goes onto insist that true educative practices should be exciting and life changing, they should invite students to see the value of theory and ideas because it is in engaging and thinking through shared ideas that we are able to question and criticize and improve. For her, excitement and performance and being in a shared space of perplexity and amazement with her students was far from disruptive or problematic but the very heart of restorative teaching for both teachers and students alike.
"Teaching is a performative act. And it is that aspect of our
work that offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous
shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements
in each classroom. To embrace the performative aspect
of teaching we are compelled to engage “audiences,” to consider
issues of reciprocity. Teachers are not performers in the traditional
sense of the word in that our work is not meant to be a
spectacle. Yet it is meant to serve as a catalyst that calls everyone
to become more and more engaged, to become active participants
in learning." hooks
For hooks, one of the most important things is to be in a dialogue with students wherein which students can see you care about them as individuals, meaning that the performance of teaching should always change and be under transformation. In other words, connection with others is only possible when we are always willing to move and be moved by the passions of our students, seeing their concerns not merely as flights of fancy but the very nourishment of the possibility of letting them recognize the fire (wisdom) is already within them, that they must needs only see it and care for it. In response to this text one student wrote:
"With Bell Hooks we talked about teaching to transgress. Within her reading I noticed that she focuses on education and pedagogy (teachers connecting with students). Hooks always believed that education should be free for everyone as we can find her content widely available and free. When Hooks was growing up, she noticed was different about herself compared to others. Hooks would question patriarchy and growing up wanted to focus on theory. Theory was mostly used higher ed levels, but Hooks wanted to make knowledgeable for everyone. Hooks mentions that practicing feminism without theory or reasoning could be dangerous as the movement could lose its progress. With those key points in mind, we touched on all these points, but Hooks stood out to me when her teaching connected with prisoners. Usually, this demographic is left to dry and forgotten about. What touched me was how Hooks was first surprised how her work ended up with prisoners because she thought it would end with higher ed or the public. But the prisoners also questioned patriarchy and agreed with Hooks. The prisoners also wanted to better themselves and rethink their values after learning from Hooks as well. Also, it’s ironic to see both these reading involve prisoners as well. Lastly in Hook’s reading there was a woman who thanked Hooks for talking to her and helping her open her eyes. I think this shows education and how it can impact anyone anywhere. After reading Hooks I realize she’s a powerful storyteller and a wonderful leader on education and pedagogy."
I loved how they noted all the connections between being imprisoned and being set free, i.e. how theory, as bell hooks, insists is a liberatory practice. As another two students described via connecting the two texts together:
"... for the allegory of the cave, I think Plato’s main message was to show that “the examined life is not worth living”. I think he was trying to show that ignorance is not necessarily bliss, it only seems like bliss due to double-ignorance: you don’t know what you don’t know. I think Plato believes the true path to a valuable life is education, and that the concepts of knowledge and education are inherently interconnected. He believes that real education is the good of being human, and allows connection with one another, that wasn’t possible in the cave. Although “leaving the cave” may be hard and strenuous, it is worth it, and everyone can do it on their own, and everyone has the capacity to learn by connecting. This ties in with Bell Hooks Teaching to Transgress. Like Plato, she believes education is essential and should be available to everyone, hence her “non-scholarly” language. Most importantly, she supports the idea that education should be to empower, or “drag those in the cave to the light”, so they can recognize their own ignorance and gain knowledge. I agree with this, I think that being double ignorant may seem blissful, but that’s only because you don’t know what’s outside the cave. Lastly, Hooks talks about how there is no huge distinction between theory and knowledge, these are connected concepts. I agree with her that we need theory in order to form a basis for which our knowledge can accumulate. Without theory, we cannot create intelligible moments of connection and understanding with each other."
"Bell Hook’s Teachings to Transgress also talked about the responsibility of teaching and the responsibility of learning. While education is important, it is also important for the student themselves to put in work and go further with their education themselves. This really resonated with me, especially after COVID-19. While my motivation for school has been down, I realize that learning is a two-way road. It is simply not enough for me to show up to class; I need to put in work outside of class to really get the full comprehension of the subjects I am learning. This concept can be hard, but I relate it to the prisoner first coming out of the cave to the difficulties of reality. Learning is going to be hard, but it’s a responsibility."
In the end, both hooks and Plato seem to agree that teaching is less about stable knowledge aquisition and more of a never-ending life of perplexity and constant change that oddly allows us to be in community with one another. Seeing the power of each of us to navigate this world, this life, with the simple fire that rouses us to question each other, not so as to destroy but to love, to free each of us from our forgetfulness, our complacency, our boredom in the world of shadows. For hooks and as I believe, Plato/Socrates, education and theory (philosophical worldview) must necessarily be inherently a healing from the conditions of dominance and ignorance prevailing in most of the world. Further, it must liberate students from that domination and ignorance, helping them see that they possess innate power, they do not need the fire of others, they do not need to memorize dates or names. Rather, they are already a site of revolution and as such they can learn to ignite that in others, teaching so as to transgress.
For me, I respond to these ideas with so much love. As a neurodiverse individual, in my early years as a professor, I thought I was doing something wrong when I didn't act like the normal professor. Over the years though, I learned to be comfortable with myself, with realizing that my classrooms could be exciting, could be less about understanding content and more about inspiring them to see the value of simply engaging the content from where they were at. Further, I try as hard as I can to be attuned to the needs of every student so that I can figure out what will uniquely inspire them to activate their own power and to investigate the world and those around them with the same (but also different) determination to love and be connected in authentic ways, a possibility that doesn't exist when we remain in the cave or in educative practices which only serve the needs of the hegemonic powers that be. In the end, my classroom is hopefully always a place of change and transformation, a place of the unexpected erotic world where all of us see the good and the beautiful in the broken and seemingly empty. They/we are not empty, there is always a trace of the power which, if nourished, becomes their/our resource, our light in the darkness.