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Cory Reid
Ms. Maya Alapin
English 120
16 September 2014
Education is Self-Learning: A Reflection on Plato
When confronted with something new, terrifying, uncomfortable, or otherwise unknown
human nature causes us to, generally, react fearfully. We will shut it out, avoid it, or otherwise
act as if its not there for our own comfort. Socrates once said the unexamined life is not worth
living, which Plato wholeheartedly would stand by. Plato gives us the allegory of the Cave
where he sheds light on this very aspect of human nature, learning, and education. He provides
us the idea that education is not simply the memorization of general facts, but of reflective
learning and study.
Platos allegory describes an incredibly vivid scene where prisoners have been chained
hand and foot since birth to stare at a wall inside a cave. On this wall the prisoners can see a
shadow play of passersby who travel along a walkway that lies above and behind the prisoners.
He suggests a scenario where a prisoner is released to the real world. The prisoner is blinded by
the light of the sun outside the cave and the vastness of the world around him. The prisoner
rushes back into the cave to tell his friends of his discoveries, but they can hardly recognize him
as he now appears simply as everything else they see: a shadow on the wall. They fear hes come
back with damaged eyes as he struggles to see in the darkness of the cave, and they would kill
anyone who attempted to free them.
Platos scene puts together a picture of human nature and learning with the details on
how the prisoners would react. The prisoners only know of their existence in the cave. The world
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that has been described to them by their friend is unimaginable. Plato is describing how people
will often react negatively, even violently, when presented with change. People only learn and
know what is explicitly presented to them by the world around them. Robin Barrow and R. G.
Woods quote John Holts writing from How Children Fail and summarize nicely how, we find
ourselves trying to poke certain facts, recipes, and ideas down the gullets of every child in school
(Barrow 10). Generally, our educational system raises us to know certain things. We learn
facts, figures, and processes for how the world works around us. The memorization of this
information clouds our perception of the world. We begin assuming we know vast quantities
about the world around us while a philosopher, such as Plato, would challenge this.
Platos philosophy on education was more geared toward self-learning. He felt that as
peoples interests are identified then a founders job is to force the best natures to reach the
learning called the highest (Plato 519d). He is suggesting that educators should be guiding
their disciples in a direction which encourages students to delve, on their own, deep into a
subject. Through this self-learning the students will be exploring whatever interests them. Platos
suggestion follows a functionalist model of education which was designed to raise people to
meet the needs of the state (Noddings 8). Plato wanted students to deeply learn and understand
whatever their interest was so that they may meet the needs of the state, or community.
Some might challenge that Platos intentions were not related to the state but were related
explicitly to our happiness. It is true, Plato was concerned with our happiness. His concern for
our happiness stems from the Socratic view of the natural world which dictates that the good
exists apart from humans and can be known and ... realized (Huard 162). This meets the needs
of the state in that the realization of the good is the source of human well-being and happiness
and is, in its full measure, tied to a realization that occurs among a community of people (a city
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or polis) (Huard 162). It becomes apparent that Platos goal through education was to achieve
the needs of the state, which just so happened to be achieving its citizens happiness.
With Platos goal and view in mind we can look more deeply at his allegory. Specifically,
why is it that Plato is suggesting these things? Plato was a friend of Socrates. As was
aforementioned, Socrates has been quoted as saying the unexamined life is not worth living. In
laymans terms, Socrates is suggesting that one must question everything in order to live a
fulfilling life. With Socrates voice in Platos mind he described the cave to be dark and
withdrawn. He used strong imagery of chains to compel his listeners to truly feel what he was
saying. His reasoning for using chains to bind the prisoners is that the chains are heavy and
unforgiving. They completely restrict, without mercy, where people want to be free and move at
will. His chains represent people taking things for granted after having their minds clouded with
memorization of general knowledge.
If nothing should be taken for granted, it becomes perplexing to consider that our
education inadvertently clouds our minds and deludes us into doing just that. According to R. S.
Peters, [education] implies that something worthwhile is being intentionally transmitted in a
morally acceptable manner (Barrow 8). Education has transferred into our minds a set of
perceptions about the world around us. It has implanted various tools and skills deemed
necessary to function in the world around us. Plato, however, suggests this is not enough. While
skills are important, one does not understand something conceptually simply through knowing
how to complete the process. They must question and examine the process. They must want to
know why the process is done in this order, or if theres a better way. In order to live a fulfilling
life, according to Plato and Socrates one must be willing to embrace the unknown, i.e. their
own ignorance. One must always question the world.
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Through questioning and deep thought Plato believes the mind can reach the highest form
of understanding. True knowledge cannot be attained simply through traditional means of
education where everyone knows the same facts, and has the same abilities, across a broad array
of disciplines. Platos message in his allegory of the Cave was clear that education should be a
guiding hand towards self-learning and deep reflection. Instead of constantly attempting to
implant information into the minds of young people, Plato tells us to guide them on their own
path of self-discovery so that they, too, can know the good of true happiness.


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Works Cited
Barrow, Robin, and R G. Woods. An Introduction to Philosophy of Education. London:
Routledge, 1988. EBSCO Host. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
Huard, Roger L. Plato's Political Philosophy: The Cave. New York: Algora Pub., 2007. EBSCO
Host. Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
Noddings, Nel. Philosophy of Education. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press, 2012. EBSCO Host.
Web. 28 Sept. 2014.
Plato. Book 7. The Republic. Ed. Raymond Larson. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, 1979. 174-
183. Print.
The Cave: An Adaptation of Plato's Allegory in Clay. YouTube. Bullhead Entertainment, 18 Apr.
2008. Web. 3 Sept. 2014.