Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. Imagine human beings brought up from childhood in a cave, bound fast with their heads all facing one direction. On the wall before them they see only the motions of shadows, and they discuss these with each other as the only things that exist. In fact, however, they are shadows cast by plastic images carried back and forth above a wall behind them.

Also behind them, between them and the wall, stand others whose occupation is to observe the young, to pick out the cleverest ones and, removing them from the midst of their friends and family, to guide them through a doorway in the wall. Once on the other side, they see the plastic figurines and the people carrying them. They also see the dazzling source of light: an enormous light bulb set in the center of the cave floor.

While their eyes are still adjusting to the glare, one of the dwellers in this part of the cave guides them to a hole in the floor at the base of the great light. They descend a stairway to a lower level, partially illuminated through the hole above as well as by many small sources of light to either side. Their guide speaks to them thus:

“Youths, now that you are freed from your hereditary bonds of prejudice, you must choose one of the two disciplines of expertise. The lights to the right of you come from the machinery that sustains the great light above. Those who choose this direction will learn the workings of the light. They must help keep it running or discover how it may be made larger, brighter and more efficient. They will enjoy working together, and will greatly benefit those above who rely on the light to cast clear and distinct shadows for their entertainment and guidance.

“The lights to the left come from the games played by The Clever. Those who choose this direction will, by playing these games, attain clever and more orderly habits of mind, far superior to the confusion of those above. They will join the ranks of The Clever, who discuss all matters concerning our society and oversee the improvement of the images. Now make your choices.”

Now some go to the right, thinking to themselves that the others must be foolish to pursue such insubstantial knowledge; and they stay below concerning themselves with the maintenance and improvement of the great light.

But those who go to the left, excited by the myriad possibilities of cleverness awaiting them, soon approach a collection of enormous black boxes, with strange lights glinting out through their narrow openings. Outside of each one they see a small group of people arguing about the game played within. Though the new arrivals understand very little of these conversations, they are quite impressed by the debaters who seem so accomplished and clever.

Each novice approaches the narrow door of the game that sounds most appealing. There an instructor explains how to play. The students then seat themselves at the virtual-reality terminals within; they spend several years playing various games and conversing about them. Those who show the most proficiency go on to master some one game, and then become instructors, debaters and inventors of new games; or they return above to be designers of the plastic figurines and choreographers of those who carry them, trying to make the images and their movements more like the games they’ve learned.

Now imagine one ingenuous, thoughtful youth who does not choose quickly, but lags behind to question the guide: “Excuse me, but I was wondering — if there’s a way down from the other chamber, might there not also be a way up?”

“There is an ancient story,” responds the guide, “that on the other side of the great light there is a passage that leads up to another land, one warmed and illuminated by a light from on high that is not of human making. But this is only a myth – a more primitive version of our games, played by credulous men much less clever than our designers. They did not understand the subtleties of rule-fashioning and game-playing. No one who has looked past the light has seen this passage.”

Will the youth consider that the great light bulb might have obscured the hints of light filtering down from above and dare to search for the passage, braving the dangers of many false ways and the chagrin of being thought a naive fool? Does any other alternative offered deserve the name of education?

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Mark Shiffman
Mark Shiffman was born in north Florida to the son of expatriated New York secular Jews and the daughter of small town, pillar of the community southern Presbyterians. After spending much of his childhood in Alaska and California, he discovered in his Tennessee adolescence, first reluctantly and then gratefully, that more than half his heart belonged to the South. He occasionally rediscovers this viscerally when his body descends below the Mason-Dixon line from his northern exile in Philadelphia, where he has also brought his wife into exile from her lifelong home of Chicago. They live in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia with their two sons, having moved from one of the more successfully racially integrated neighborhoods in America (Hyde Park) to one of the most. Mark received his education from the McCallie School in Chattanooga and the surrounding mountains and trees, St. John’s College in Annapolis and the Santa Fe desert, Pendle Hill outside Philadelphia and the woods around Crum Creek, the University of Chicago and the icy prairie winds, and the Catholic Worker House and grimy streets of New York City. He is assistant professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions and affiliate faculty member in Classical Studies at Villanova University. He has also taught at Brooklyn College, Notre Dame, the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. His current projects include books on the political philosophy of Plutarch and on the meaning of modern individualism, as well as a translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul (Focus Press).


  1. A most excellent allegory, applicable even to the “Christian” university I serve, which seems to exist not to send students after the source of the light, but to get them into the game. Though of course, also offering them some therapeutic spirituality to soften the wounds of losing.

  2. Mark S.,

    I want to know if I am winning or not. =)

    As with your last blog I enjoyed this thoroughly and may steal it for some future use. I will give credit to you.

    I do have questions (as I always do). If there is no passage is the person a naive fool? What if he finds the passage, is he a naive fool? or worse still what about the people who search for the light (and I assume if there is one there are at least a couple more) do they work together or do the look at finding the light above a competition? And finally if they find the light does it look the same to each of them if they come back and describe what they have found?

    Organic tip “Plant lettuce in mounds a couple of inches above the surronding ground to reduce root rot”

  3. I have a terrific movie for you: The Island.
    Great post. Wouldn’t it be great if issues were presented as having multiple legitimate arguments on many sides/facets? An academic environment should be the breeding ground for debate.

  4. While I appreciate the critique and the allegory, I suspect it proceeds from a misguided expectation of the university. I don’t -want- universities teaching anyone how to get to the great and glorious light above. That would pervert both the university and our seeking of the light, which is neither fostered nor hindered by the intellectual pursuits encouraged by the university. If anything, movement should go in the other direction — those who have found the light above bring what they find into the university and spread the light there.

  5. Universities are the breeding ground for debate. The problem is that the terms of the debate are set differently from our preferences, often, and that some subjects are debated enough.

  6. To make a start on Brett’s questions:

    “If there is no passage is the person a naive fool?”

    I am arguing here, as I usually am, for genuine skepticism. If the question is whether we can attain some apprehension of truth or are stuck with human conceptual constructions, the question can only ever be addressed by someone who assumes that we can attain truth and tries. The assumption that we can’t is self-fulfilling and self-enclosed.

    This serves as a reply to Jim as well. If there is no place in the university’s field of debate for those upholding the age-old paths to wisdom as genuine possibilities superior to the games of methodological fashion, then there isn’t really a debate on the fundamental issues. That’s the way it looks at most universities I’m afraid. If the vocation of the university is free inquiry, how can it fulfill that vocation if it gives no encouragement to love of truth, and treats the work of its professors exclusively as instruments of prestige (which they themselves are only too prone to do without the extra encouragement)?

  7. Not sure where you’re getting your information about the “university,” Mark. Teachers run their classrooms, many of them select their own reading with no interference. I taught Plato and Aristotle and Medieval philosophers in my last literary theory class and will be teaching them again this coming semester. There are great books schools out there. I say this with some teaching experience at three small private universities and one community college, with full time experience at two of those universities.

    Most major universities teach the classics in philosophy, humanities, and sometimes English depts., which means these issues are often at least. What you’re working with is a rather banal stereotype of the theory inflected English dept. as the model for the “university.” While it’s probably an accurate model for English depts. at major universities, it’s not necessarily true of smaller private colleges and universities and community colleges.

    Go to a major university, look over a list of majors, and check off the ones in which serious study of the issues you mention is directly pertinent to the major. Someone needs to train our doctors, engineers, lawyers, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, etc., and these fields are so highly specialized now that they require years of study exclusively in this field simply to gain working competence.

    A model of the university designed solely or even primarily to produce a class of meditative learners is neither desirable nor realistic; you’re working with a Greek model is which grunts received vocational training in farming and other trades and lived their lives in service of a contemplative elite. You simply can’t idealize this model and the small farm model as well, as in this model farmers are stupid grunts working for the smart people. That just doesn’t fly. The best we can hope for right now is something like what we have — everyone gets some of the works broaching these topics with the hope that there’s some spark there…

    Furthermore, laying these problems at the feet of the university demonstrates an amazing ignorance of the real state of our children when they arrive there. I teach classes full of students whose natural curiosity has been beaten out of them by the time they get to college — school is something they work around and work in as little as possible. Knowledge is not desired for its own sake: the point is to get a grade and a certificate of workplace competency at the end called a BA or a BS. Universities aren’t so much creating these conditions as capitulating to them. Their real fault is refusal to resist. The problem I see here is with HS teachers committed to working as little as possible, so spending as much time as possible showing movies in class and not assigning meaningful reading and writing assignments, as these would require them to actually read and write.

    Students’ home lives don’t help either.

  8. Jim,

    I agree with pretty much everything you say, especially that what the universities need is a will to resist the unreflective demands of “consumer” students and parents.

    I have presented a kind of worst-case image, but one that does reflect an overall trend, and one I have seen dominating the “conversation” at several of the highest-level universities I’ve studied or taught at (some of them with great books programs that are constantly under threat and eroded by these larger trends).

    As you say, this is egregious in English departments, but they really are a symptom of broader currents. Especially since the widespread influence of Foucault (which is to say ultimately the influence of Nietzsche), the notional distinction between humanities and social sciences has tended to break down, with the result that the training humanities professors receive is largely a bad and somewhat arbitrary imitation of social theory, plus a “mastery” of a certain amount of material and a variety of “critical methods” (which are, it turns out, critical within very narrow bounds). The social sciences in turn tend to either embrace the same discourse-conflict model or insulate themselves from the humanities by remaining on the level of empirical and quantitative studies (thus rarely questioning their own basic concepts).

    The department I teach in now is devoted to the proposition that philosophy and theology serve as integrating disciplines for all knowledge. Any attempt to become truly educated while ignoring the light these shed on ultimate questions (which means not only answers to the questions, but what they are and how to frame them) is deeply crippled. Your comment suggests that you are in agreement with this to some degree.

    So apparently where we disagree is on whether a rightly constituted university would or would not have to uphold such a view explicitly in some highly visible way. I think it matters a great deal, again speaking from experience of several institutions. For one thing, this will determine whether the university attracts and welcomes the kind of professors we agree it needs, or whether they remain isolated guerillas trying to jump-start an educational journey without the rest of the curriculum and faculty providing much else in the way of foundations or orienting points.

    This is of course a point made differently by Newman in The Idea of a University, specifically about theology.

  9. God aint dead, he’s jest away on bizness. Socrates is the body on the slab in the morgue, put there by the great Edifice of Naggery known as the State….a nervous and excitable being that actually thinks everyone should get along ….or else. Fortunately, we have a Frankenstein , raised from the dead body of Socrates and it stomps about the place alternating every few years as a Mule or an Elephant in a kind of pagan animist reverie that only the mob can produce. Perhaps, in the fullness of time we can get us a Unicorn Party and everything shall be as sweet as a plug-in air freshener.

    My only complaint with this episode of “Who Wants To Be a Troglodyte” is that there as no mention of prize monies nor even a Subzero appliance. Knowledge seems somehow passe.

  10. Thanks for the reply, Mark. I think we agree upon a great deal. My diss. was on Blake and Kierkegaard so yes, you’re right, I do prefer theology/philosophy as being an orientation to literature rather than social science approaches, which I agree are ridiculously unselfcritical, badscientific, and generally a waste of time. However, I have to acknowledge insights as well. I don’t know how widespread is what you’re talking about once we get outside of English, Film Studies, Cultural and Media Studies, and the social sciences, though, and even within English Lit. historical paradigms are going strong. They often may be Marxist in orientation, but at least Marxists have some connection to history and material reality, as opposed to pretty well all the rest of social theory.

  11. Being a reflexive perversoholic, I find Foucault’s hijinks regarding episteme to be compelling but isn’t it also interesting that after 50 years of increasing budgets in the Social Sciences that we seem to be breeding a kind of social illiteracy that is only exceeded by the technological science’s divorce from the historic reality of the humanities. Specialization is the ticket to annihilation . The perfect man is a crushing boredom.

  12. D.W.: I don’t know if I would use the word “compelling,” but I do find Foucault a fitting denouement to modern thought, the final announcement that nominalism is its trump suit and a sometimes masterful playing of the cards. But when it comes to his interpretation of the ancient philosophers, it is a serious liability that stoics and epicureans set the agenda; these two schools of thought represent a willful imposition of models upon the world and the self. Starting from a paradigm that works well for these thinkers, Foucault is quite limited on Plato and utterly clueless about Aristotle. He entirely misses the central importance of “phronesis” is a relation to the self, which is a theme delved deeply by Heidegger (whom he claims, partly justifiably, to follow), and developed masterfully by some of Heidegger’s students and critics.

    The upshot is that Foucault has nothing to say about the accounts of philosophy as a way of life that are most challenging to his position.

  13. Something tells me that he may have followed the very modern relativism that placed “Pursuit” on an equal plane with “Happiness” within a world where there is only cause and no effect.

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