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?