By Clint Rodreick
I had a former student who graduated 14 years ago reach out to me. He has just recently decided to enter the teaching profession.
And for whatever reason, he credits his inspiration and his decision to the impact I had on him during his senior year of high school.
Most shockingly of all (at least from my vantage point), it was during my first year of teaching.
When I got curious about what 'did it' for him, he said it was a lesson from the very first day of class.
It was the day that we read excerpts of Plato's Allegory of the Cave and connected it to the film The Matrix.
We talked about the epistemological implications of the story. We explored and discussed questions like:
- How do we know what we know?
- Where does our information and knowledge come from?
- How do we know we can trust it?
- What is truth?
- In what way does culture blind us?
- To what extent are we a product of our environment?
We explored these questions together from a place of humility and curiosity. I, just as much as them.
Rather than providing them with answers, I only offered questions.
But by doing so, it made a lasting impact on this student. He not only said it was the best lesson he's ever received. He said it was this lesson that continues to inform his life to this day.
It was this lesson that has inspired him to go into the teaching profession himself.
Here's what he messaged me on Facebook:
"Your class was the only one in my K-12 journey that taught me HOW to think not WHAT to think and for that I am eternally grateful. When you taught us about Plato’s cave, that changed me. I took philosophy classes in college because of that."
This is what I believe is the purpose of public education.
To get kids to think, not memorize.
To get kids to reflect, not regurgitate.
To get kids to question, not provide them with answers.
Because answers are not only quickly forgotten; they aren't internalized unless they are cultivated from within.
Students need to be given the opportunity to own and discover their own beliefs and what is true for them.
This student was given permission on my first day of class to do exactly that—to not think like I or anyone else wants him to think.
That and the willingness to question the world that he was born into and the beliefs that he inherited (just like the one prisoner in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave that was willing to question the cave he was born into, and the shadows that he was conditioned to believe were real).
This is why I'm proud of this student. Because he remembers this fundamental epistemological truth 14 years after it was introduced to him.
This is the kind of learning that can't be measured on a standardized test.
Neither is it the kind that should be.
Clint Rodreick is a history and economics teacher at Phoenix High School in Phoenix, OR. He serves as a member of the Bill of Rights Institute Teacher Council.