Thomas Martin is the O. K. Bouwsma Chair in Philosophy at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Along with his fellow colleagues who are dedicated to the study of the Great Books, he teaches the works of Plato, Aristotle, and G. K. Chesterton.
Walking out of my office into the hallway of Thomas Hall at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, I see seventeen students lining the hall before class. All but one of them is fiddling with a smart phone, texting, or watching a movie piped through high-end headphones. No one notices me.
I go down the steps to meet my Philosophy 188 class, The Meaning of Life. At the bottom of the steps there is the same girl who has been seated there all semester. She is coloring in a princess costume on what looks to be a Barbie doll - Monday she was playing solitaire, and last Friday she was fingering away to someone on her smart phone.
I enter my classroom to a dozen, or so, of my twenty-five students thumbing away at their phones. They speed up because class starts in two minutes, and they will be forced off-line for fifty minutes.
Today we are reading Plato's Allegory of the Cave, which depicts a form of education in 375 B. C., the start of formal schooling.
Imagine people chained to a wall - they have been there since childhood ("they are like us") - looking at the opposite wall upon which shadows are cast. There is a fire behind the prisoners, and between the fire and them is a ledge upon which men walk holding cut-out figures to create the shadows on the wall at which the prisoners, who cannot turn their heads, are staring. The men behind them talk, so the shadows are connected with voices. To pass time, the prisoners see who can remember the order of the shadows and award prizes to those who are correct. Obviously, there is no one to verify the sequence of events or if the shadows have anything to do with reality, but it is the only reality the prisoners know.
One day, a prisoner's chains break, and he is free to turn around. The firelight hurts his eyes, but with time, he sees the men holding up the images, and hypothesizes the cut-outs are copies of the real figures on the wall.
He eventually is pulled out of the cave into the blinding sunlight, where, after his eyes adjust, he sees reality.
The allegory is the movement of the soul upward, from the thoughtless acceptance of images projected on a blank wall by the thought-controllers, to the wisdom that comes with the direct knowledge of reality outside the cave.
The students in class today see the allegory is comparable to the visual images of televised media [with advertising!], including the auditory accompaniment of politicians, teachers, ministers, priests, parents, etc., who control the sights and sounds - while fueling the fire - that reach the captive minds of those who can't unplug from whatever is titillating the eyes or stimulating the ears, thus adding up to a smoke-filled picture of a gullible mind.
Socrates uses the allegory to show the state of affairs between ignorance, opinion, and knowledge. Knowledge of reality is in the sunlight; opinion is the haze of shadows; and ignorance is the state of darkness into which all men are born.
Opinion easily holds sway over the multitude who lack the necessary self-control to disconnect from the events streaming 24/7 ad infinitum in cave land.
Class ends and the students, many of whom are back to fingering phones or talking to their smart phone, make their way to the door.
I walk out into the hall bustling with students - mostly quiet - reattaching to a variety of screens, eager as spelunkers gasping for fresh air.
I almost trip over a student lodged on the third step hunkered over some device, as I make my way to the second floor marked by a head-phoned student seated in a chair watching a music video.
Before I enter my office, I turn to a girl who, to my surprise, says, "I love you."
She is on her iPhone, of course. *