An Allegory of the Cave

I’ve been attempting to explain Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to my Chinese students. The language barriers are significant in my classes. A few of the more advanced students have grasped the concept but on the whole I am teaching material they don’t understand. Over the past two and half weeks I have been nervously plowing forward into material with few sign-posts to direct the educational path appropriate for their English comprehension. I’m getting better at meeting there level, but in the mean while, throwing Western Philosophy in their faces has been a blast!

As an introduction, here is what a few of my students had to write about the Allegory (I’ve corrected some grammar…;)

“The allegory of the cave means there is a group of slaves working in a group. Then one of them looked back and found out that the world was beautiful. So he went back and told them to look back but they refused.”

Another of my students concluded:
“This story shows how true reality is not always what it seems to be on the surface.”

I can’t help but consider the Allegory in light of conscious evolution, and embedded in Guilin, China, the development of global society. I believe that “development” and conscious evolution include both beauty and devastation. Isn’t that what Plato teaches us? Here we have the proto-philosopher – having escaped the shackles, he views the magnitude of the Sun, its Goodness, only to be devastated by his prisoner com-patrons when they refuse his new found experience with accusation and violence.

The power of perspective is overwhelming; it is the Allegory. The presence of our former selves become guiding lights through history, because of history. Our paths are hammered out on the anvil of experience. Touching Greek philosophy is a type of traveling. I have been more and more confounded by the depth of history that exists as I learn Chinese and consider its people and the depth of their evolution. The US knows nothing of nationalism when compared to China’s 5000 year legacy. Still, in terms of perspective, my students don’t understand how devastatingly polluted the air is; they have never lived under the crisp Appalachian air, breathed the fall horizons. History itself is changing and consciousness is less and less mediated through national boundaries; from the beginning it was constituted by the very objects whose shadows are cast upon the cave walls of our perceptions.

Yesterday, my school held an “English corner.” I am both estranged and celebrity; My whiteness, it’s particular privileges – American, Athletic, Attractive, Masculine, Fit, English speaking, my wealth, my global perspectives, my education and access to Facebook and youtube, Hollywood… even my God – all cast a seductive, strange shadow. For about an hour the students surrounded me and I performed. I thrived through the attention. There was one moment of curiosity I encountered. I was seated in a chair surrounded by 25 to 30 encroaching Chinese high school students asking me questions. They asked me what I found to be different between China and US. I took the moment to impress upon them the terrible air quality of Guilin. I used the word, “haze” so as not to use the word pollution outright. How should respect operate when accounting for such a blatant problem? But the responsive energy I encountered from the students was not what I expected. It was a curiosity, as if they did not know they were living in bad air. One of the student exclaimed, “We’re not like Shanghai.” I told them that it would be up to their generation to fix the problem, but later I became fascinated by the real probability that they had ever seen a clear atmosphere. Isn’t this the cave? Isn’t this global development? Isn’t this late capitalism?

I found myself sweeping up the filthy classroom yesterday too. One of my colleagues asked me why I was doing this, and I was feeling a bit feisty when I responded that I respected myself enough not to live in filth, even if the students did not. How racist is that? Or… is that just the allegory?

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