Plato's Allegory of the Cave Illuminates Berry's Liberal Arts Focus
At Berry, we identify ourselves as a comprehensive liberal arts college. The modifier "comprehensive" means that we offer professional programs in business and teacher preparation in addition to majors in the arts and sciences. What may be less clear is what a liberal arts education is. Let me comment upon the liberal arts by reference to a story told by an ancient Greek philosopher.
In his allegory of the cave, Plato depicts a society dwelling in an underground world that is dark except for the indirect light cast by distant fires. People who live in this cave perceive their world as shadowy, indistinct forms. Anyone leaving the cave and stumbling into the world of natural light would at first be dazzled, even blinded. Plato asks us to think about what would happen if this person, having become accustomed to natural light, were to return to the cave and tell the inhabitants that they are living in shadows.
Plato's allegory is often used to explain what happens in a liberal education. Students come to college with limited experience, knowledge and skills. College is for many of them a journey to a place of brilliant light. The best of our students learn how to journey back and forth from the world of light to that of shadows and to mediate between the exotic realm of higher learning and the familiar one of their homes and families. But there is more to the allegory of the cave.
Plato assumes that those capable of leaving the cave - he thought of them as a special class of leaders - would perceive the same bright universe. The problem, as everyone should recognize, is that many of us see different things when we encounter the brilliantly illuminated world beyond our shadowy realm. There is not an unambiguous "out there" that we can easily see and then report to others.
Even experts looking at identical information often come to opposite conclusions. The best scholars in the best universities disagree about key issues. In the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest legal authorities in the land frequently differ in a 5-4 vote about what is just, what is right, what is within the bounds of the law. Everybody has the same evidence and hears the same case, but judgments diverge.
Given our propensity to see different things when we encounter the brilliant universe beyond our shadowy caves, it is crucial that those of us still in the dark hear a variety of reports. We need to encounter more than one version of what lies beyond us. I do not argue that anything goes nor that all knowledge is relative. I do argue, however, that people experience intellectual and moral growth in direct proportion to the variety of lessons they receive.
John Stuart Mill described this circumstance as the marketplace of ideas. Mill's market has attributes of the real market. The recent rise and fall of many high-tech industries has been compared to a bubble because the market eventually popped. The commercial market has a way of sorting out things. In the marketplace of ideas, ideas are tested and tested again by consumers, and only the best survive. What would happen to us if we managed the financial market so that an Enron would be unlikely to fail? What would happen to us if ideas were not frequently tested and allowed to survive only because they beat out the competition?
The marketplace of ideas characterizes liberal arts colleges. People usually don't run their homes in such ways, nor their churches. Indeed, some fine colleges and universities have no commitment to this marketplace. The liberal arts approach does work well, however, at places like the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University; at Davidson, Rhodes and Sewanee; at Harvard, Yale and Stanford; and the approach works well at Berry.
Many of us at liberal arts colleges do indeed think that some truths are self-evident. Some of us think that certain ideas are divinely inspired. I certainly do. And yet, in this setting, we proceed on the premise that ideas, both old and new, are not only allowed to collide and to compete, but in fact are obliged to collide and compete. As the following statement from the Association of American Colleges and Universities puts it, "Liberal learning prizes curiosity and seeks to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. By its nature, therefore, liberal learning is global and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural and intellectual world."
When we open our minds to all that is global and pluralistic we necessarily open our college community in similar fashion. We learn the most when we are informed and sometimes challenged by others whose perspectives may be different from ours. That is one reason why the new strategic plan for Berry College links academic excellence to increasing diversity within our student body, faculty and staff.
Plato's allegory may appear hard on people who live in caves. Cave dwelling is actually the human condition. I am a cave-dweller, as are you. Every human being is limited and imperfect. We must remember, however, that just because we have reached an accommodation with familiar ways of thinking that does not mean that bursts of light should not penetrate and challenge us where we live.
The purpose of liberal arts colleges is to admit bursts of light. Such places encourage discussion and debate. Liberal arts colleges are marketplaces for the best that has been thought and said as well as for new ideas that seek to replace the old. Such colleges admit risks because bad ideas sometimes find their way into the market. Some bursts of light, shall we say, are moon beams and not sunshine. Students, often in student newspapers, make provocative statements. Some visiting speakers rile us. Some professors at some colleges and universities - certainly not here - pursue bad ideas down blind alleys. The response to such risks is not to close the market but to regulate and manage it as we do our commercial markets. This is a market with rules. We must have commonly accepted accounting practices in place. We must insist upon honesty and integrity. And then, we must let the market work its magic. What I describe should constitute our educational program at Berry College.
Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President