learning to look behind the shadows

Why it is that we — humans, adults, academics, Americans, citizens of the world, all of the above — forget that this, all of this, is not only a game but also completely made up. I said as much to a class of mostly early-twenties (I’m guessing, based on their pop references, social media proclivities and digital histories) graduate students during a class discussion this past spring.  We were broadly discussing the seemingly blind adherence to policies and the oppressive weight of testing that binds teachers’ hands and risk-taking inclinations. I wanted to get us/them out of this potentially-lemming-like complacency so I blurted out, “it’s all made up!” and I was referring to the classroom where we sat, the fact that they subject themselves to being formally evaluated by me at the of the term even as we spent most of the term engaged in collective endeavors, even the fact that we were all complicit in maintaining the discursive practices that uphold the very policies and systems that seem to bind our hands – at the end of my unplanned albeit gentle rant I was facing a sea of slightly frightened faces. I think I had freaked them out just a little bit. But at what point does the moment cease to be ever in service of the next moment? The rhetoric of “doing well” has launched me into a new phase of my existential crisis quandary: we are told to perform well in primary school to pave a smooth way in secondary school; excel in secondary school in order to gain entry to college; do college well in order to graduate with employment in hand; exceed expectations on evaluations* to get promoted to get a raise, and then another; acquire and accumulate — things, money, assets, social networks, status, power, influence; retire and, before you die, leave your offspring better off than when you were their age. Is it possible, at this point in human history with so much so deeply embedded in the fabric of being human, to imagine schooling that is not solely premised on social mobility?

When I recalled this story to a student the other day, she immediately blurted out, “It’s like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave!” Not being a Plato scholar, and only having read The Republic once and not very recently, I had to refresh my memory — luckily Amazon has made this text and many other books deemed to be in the public domain freely available for the Kindle app and a quick search brought it all back. And so, in Book VII of The Republic appear the following words in an exchange between Socrates and Glaucon:

Glaucon: “How could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?”

Wherein Socrates responds a few speech turns later: “the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of images.”**

In urging for a peeling back of the curtain I am not advocating what most fear at first whiff of this sort of chatter: anarchy. I am not an anarchist nor do I think an unexamined approach of anger and destruction toward the social world (which is unfortunately what anarchist derivatives descend into) is right or good. Although I do enjoy a healthy bit of chaos that keeps us free from lapsing into complacency. Frankly, I blame (thank) my parents who took it upon themselves to give me, as my first book, an encyclopedic volume titled, “Tell Me Why.” The seeds planted in the pages of that seemingly innocuous book were especially volatile – I began reading my world through the lens of why.

I also wonder, like the Fresno superintendent who recently turned down his usual salary for the next three years in order to put most of the money toward early childhood education, “How much do we need to keep accumulating?” Such a question seems verboten in a social landscape of Bigger.Better.Faster.More. Why is life in a big house and all its social, discursive, cultural, economic trappings deemed qualitatively better and thus a greater source of educational motivation than other dwellings, ways of living, being? And why, oh why, do there continue to be posters of “cars, mansions, and money” lining the hallways of schools? Why do we keep glorifying the image of a  “better, richer, and happier life?” (my emphasis). Just because cultivating one’s sense of flourishing and intrinsic motivation is difficult, we shouldn’t cede this job to the idol/idle worship of extrinsic motivation. Has the financial crisis taught us nothing?

This existential crisis quandary of mine has been endured by family and friends, alike, and I am thankful they haven’t cut me out of their lives (yet!). The Plato reference and others like it, both temporally and spatially vast, give me pause and, perhaps ironically, great hope. If there have always been humans who have wondered about the fallacy of social life, and yet there have always continued to be those whose entire identities have been based on upholding, strengthening and broadening the reach of the naked emperor, it is oddly reassuring on the one hand to feel support across space and time for this less popular narrative. On the other, conventions of social mobility as *the* driving force for our social institutions, and especially schools, not only continues to distress me but is actually detracting from the tremendous potential schools hold as sites of meaningful engagement now and not just for the meaningful engagement they can serve as prep areas.

Perhaps Muriel Barberry has an answer and she brings it to us in the mind’s eye of a curious if somewhat precocious 12-year-old girl living with her bourgeois family in an upscale apartment building who befriends the building superintendent in whom she finds a kindred spirit: both are struggling with the notion that they are not what the world so desperately wants them to be, with their contradictory aspirations, practices, and ways of interacting and imagining (or not).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is full of much more nuance than I have allowed in this brief note, so while I continue to think about it I’ll leave you with two delicious clips from the film adaptation that delighted me equally (and made me newly appreciate the Oscar category of “adapted screenplay” – truly hard stuff to do well!)

The meeting of Mme. Michel and M. Ozu (who could not love a Tolstoy reference? Especially as it transpires between these 2 characters.)

Paloma filming Mme. Michel (ah, Paloma. She is charmant and, through her unassuming curiosity, coaxes out the charm in Mme. Michel.)

* When I was a postdoc, I had the opportunity to sit in on course taught by a colleague who until that point I had known only as a co-author of a text that moved me out of my own complacent funk as a graduate student — for the ways it spoke to the thoughts that had not yet emerged from the recesses of my mind and the groundwork it laid for much of the ways of working and thinking and seeing in which I engage now.
** The slightly longer excerpt of the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon:
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
Very true.
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.