Shining a light on shadows: In education, questions are better than answers

How do you describe light in terms of shadows? You certainly can’t construct light from its absence. How does one reveal to another what the other has yet to experience?

With all due respect to Mr. Morrison, I don’t believe that he was thinking about Platonic philosophy when he wrote “Break on through (to the other side).”

Jim Morrison Having said that, he certainly hit on some solid philosophical ground. Sometimes we discover Truth even if we aren’t aiming for it. Many times as we “chase our pleasures here” and dig for “treasures there” our party boat runs aground the sandbar of experience. We get stopped and learn some heavy lessons. We pursue these shadowy pleasures, these impermanent things in hopes that they somehow are…or will lead us to…permanence.

In a certain sense, Plato agrees with the picture Morrison paints. He goes further though. Plato, early on in the Republic, suggests that if we followed something as ephemeral and impermanent as a shadow back to its source, we will eventually be lead to light. Life is littered with mile-markers that point to something higher. The shadows of life (objects, events, and failed relationships) hint at a participation with permanence. Our “misses” allude to the answer to their completion.

The shadows in life that seem to mislead us only, it seems, because we follow their callings in the wrong direction. We escape to the darker shadows instead of following the shadow back to the source of light. But how do we recognize that source when we come upon it? Do we simply throw our hands up and declare some sort of Derrida-ian acceptance of the light/shadow or permanence/ impermanence dichotomy/unity?

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Book VII of The Republic, Plato uses the light/shadow partnership effectively to make a point about shadows and education. Light represents something like Truth (or “the way” or Nature) and shadows are related to opinion or miss applied Truth (“becoming”, but not necessarily lies). We can muse about light more easily by contemplating shadows and, this in turn, helps us guess about the nature of the light even though light as light cannot be directly grasped or seen.

We can only see light as it intermingles with or reflects off of objects. For Plato, Truth is unstable within our “cave”. Truth can illuminate and guide, but only as it mingles with opinion. If we look only at light, we are blinded. If we look only to the shadows, we are ignorant. Each is most accessible to us when they flirt with each other in our presence. After all, reading a newspaper article or even this post is made possible by the interplay of black letters against a white page.


Can we transition to a mostly “light” education as we walk away from the “shadows”? Or are we forever forced to view the Truth by studying shadows?

In Book VII, Socrates claims that one can make his way from the depths of the cave, past the fire that casts the artificial light therein, to the mouth of the cave where the light of the sun reigns. In life, apparently, we are distracted not only by shadows, but by impermanent and permanent sources of light that make the shadows possible (I use the Declaration & compare it to the U.S. Constitution to flesh this superior and inferior ‘light’ idea out). Some things seem to be true for us and some things seem to be true for everyone, for example.

Further, Socrates does not speak of night outside of the cave, only sunlight. The fire inside the cave, though, had to have been put in there by someone. It seems to be more “artificial” in nature. The sun is out of reach and can’t be manipulated, though, at first, it’s light seems to be of the same nature as the fire inside the cave.

Allegory of the Cave PlatoSo, is life within the cave enveloped by “night” and outside the cave eternally bathed in light? Does the cave dweller experience mostly “nights” while the philosopher/teacher has at least a chance to experience both “day” and “night” if not mostly “day”? After all, if we brought the sun into the cave it would “destroy the night” and destroy the main educational tool for those in the shadows (see the above illustration). We can’t live near the sun, but a proper respectable distance from the sun makes our existence possible. Does Truth have the same nature?

The shadows in the cave cannot destroy the “day”, but shadows can divide it temporarily. Everyone, even the philosophers/teachers, are particular beings in a particular time and place. They have shadows too and they are in need of sleep as well (figuratively and literally).

To continue, light itself is only an offspring of something that creates the light. Light has a source that is not light. So we see shadows, which indicate some sort of absorption or interplay of light. This interplay reveals and educates, but does nothing to reveal or educate matters concerning the source of the light or maybe even the nature of the light itself. Matters concerning the source of the shadows are readily available or at least more immediately available and take a form or shape. Shapes can be communicated, but light cannot or at least cannot be directly communicated. The white of a piece of paper says nothing until letters are written upon it.

Light and Shadow

The educator of the cave dwellers (or ignorant) will have to speak of the light in terms of shadows. This is what it means to be a teacher. However, how does the teacher of a cave dweller ever come to know about the light themselves? Could their “light” be just another shadow? If so, what does this make the shadows of the cave dwellers?

Teaching is an art & cannot be a science. In our strange & wonderful endeavor, failure is as much a color on our pallet as anything else. We have to maneuver around/with/through our own shadows as we address our student’s. Recognition of shadows in our classrooms help point to the light we need to enlighten ourselves & our students.

In the final analysis, well constructed questions (shadows) can often educate better than final answers (light).

About Thrasymachus

2013 Northwest ISD teacher of the year, Humanities Texas 2012 Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, and 2011 Outstanding Educator of North Texas Award (North Central Texas College). I'm currently a Regional Digital Learning Consultant with the Education Service Center Region 11 in Ft. Worth, Texas and a college government educator who incorporates philosophy, technology & humor. A student through and through, I walk with my students in their learning. Most importantly, I'm blessed with the 3 most perfect kids eva! I love on them ery day!!!
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