Leaving the Cave: Teaching Plato’s Allegory


By: Jeni Gearhart

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener”—Robert Frost

What a beautiful description of the art of teaching. Teaching is the act of awakening our students to a new way of understanding their world. By sharing texts with our students and by teaching them how to analyze the world around them, we open their eyes to a deeper understanding of life.
Of course, that awakening isn’t easy. Sometimes the act of teaching feels more like shaking someone in a coma. Or, perhaps we are that angry buzzing alarm clock. Either way, the act of being an awakener is both incredibly rewarding and incredibly difficult.

In a college humanities class, I was introduced to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I’ll give a brief summary for readers whose memory of Plato is a bit rusty. There is a man who has been imprisoned in a cave for his entire life. Behind him is a fire, so he has seen the shadows of objects such as “man” or “horse” on the wall. One day, the man is released from the cave by another man. He is taken outside where he is blinded by the sunlight. When his eyes adjust, he sees real men, real flowers, and real animals. He sees the world as it truly is, as opposed to his former (incomplete) knowledge when he was in the cave.

Do you see some connections to education? Does this make you think of any books or stories? Hopefully it does, because this archetype of awakening, or enlightenment, is everywhere.

A few years ago, I decided to share Plato’s story with my AP Language students when we read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Like most dystopias, Bradbury’s novel is an “awakening story”. Through his awakening, Guy Montag comes to a different (better) understanding of the world and makes the choice to leave the figurative cave of ignorance permanently.

After reading and discussing Fahrenheit 451, my students read a version of Plato’s allegory. I often give them a print text, but I also show them this video that visualizes the story (fair warning, it is badly animated, but it tells the story well). TED-ed also visualizes Plato’s allegory in this video, but it is not as thorough. As we read the text and watch the video, we discuss the following:

  • What is the significance of the shadows? The real items? The imprisonment itself?
  • Describe the experience of the man leaving the cave? Is this easy? What does he learn?
  • What happens to the man when he tries to return to the cave?

After the students feel comfortable with the allegory, we discuss how Plato’s allegory relates to Bradbury’s novel. Montag, too, is unknowingly imprisoned by his ignorance. He is awakened when he reads the banned texts that he is hired to burn. He is then given a “choice”, to return to his ignorance by continuing his work as a fireman, or to become a rebel. Characters such as Faber and Clarisse also help his awakening, functioning as his guides to a new reality.

After discussing these connections, I ask my students to recall other stories that follow this pattern. I often share a clip from The Matrix since this shows a fairly obvious retelling of the allegory. To solidify the connection, I ask them to identify the following in their allegory connections:

  • Is there a character that is literally or metaphorically imprisoned?
  • Is the character unaware of their imprisoned state? Are they blind (literally or metaphorically)
  • What awakening force causes them to question their situation?
  • What conflict or choice to they encounter? Do they return to “blindness”?

All of this generally takes 1.5-2 periods. Then, the fun part. Creative writing.
I do not often give my AP students time to write creatively, but this assignment is worth it:

Plato’s parable, “The Allegory of the Cave”, is a very well-known story in Western Culture. Is the story still transferable to the ideas of today’s society? How would Plato tell “The Allegory of the Cave” today?

Your task is to retell Plato’s story in a different context. Be creative in how you tell this story. You may make any changes that you choose, but you must make sure to include the following elements:

  • Character that is literally or metaphorically imprisoned
  • An unawareness of state (literal or metaphorical blindness)
  • An awakening force (something or someone that causes the character to question his/her situation)
  • A conflict or a choice

The stories that my students turn in for this assignment are phenomenal. Several have placed the allegory on other planets. Others have told stories of literally imprisoned characters coming to terms with their previous choices. Several have told stories of drug addicts becoming clean, or of people removing themselves from toxic relationships. One student wrote a story about a little girl who was abused as a child and thought it was “normal” until she met another family that showed her what real love was.

Many students told me later that this was one of their favorite assignments of the year, not only because they got to be creative, but also because it opened their eyes to this archetype that is present in so many stories.
Our goal in our classrooms should be to expand our students’ understanding of the world. We should challenge their understanding and help them to grow through the difficult process of authentic learning.

In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo, “All I’m offering is the truth, nothing more . . .  I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.” As teachers, we do the same. We provide students with truth in the literature that we hand to them. It may be fiction, but it offers truth nonetheless.
We are awakeners.

What stories or experiences “woke you up”? Do you teach stories with this archetype? Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Jeni Gearhart teaches 10 Honors English and AP English Language at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. Originally from Western PA, Jeni loves West Virginia and has taught all five years of her teaching career in the Wild and Wonderful state. She a not a hipster, but adamantly proclaims that she liked coloring books before they were cool. When not wandering the internet for new teaching ideas or grading papers, Jeni likes to drink coffee and devour good books.

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