Plato’s allegory of the cave is multi-layered. It can be interpreted from different angles, but I would like to focus all my attention on one essential element that sheds a different light on the many problems in the world.
Just a small introduction to the allegory
Plato describes a group of people imprisoned from childhood who spend their lives in a cave. They are chained, so they can’t move, their necks fixed so they can only see something in front of them and not around them. Only some soft light of unknown origin allows them to see something still, though vague and distorted. That light comes from a distant fire, and when someone passes in front of it, shadows are reflected on the blank wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners live in almost complete darkness, only able to see the shadows projected on the wall from time to time. They have no concept of the world and are convinced that these shadows represent the real world.
Then suddenly, one of them is freed from the cave. This prisoner faces the intense sunlight for the first time. At first, he is blinded and confused, but he slowly adapts, and his journey of understanding begins full of new experiences. Such a person, touched by the sun’s light (the symbol of real cognition which incorporates the idea of a greater good vs the limited sensory experience), i.e., by knowledge as an ultimate meaning of existence, is changed forever.
If you prefer that popular pop-culture reference that contains the same concept as Plato, the cave or the Matrix capsule symbolizes the limited, narrow, claustrophobic world, a world without relevant knowledge, sunken in complete darkness.
Corresponding to the above said, that is exactly the reality of millions of children around the globe who remain outside the process of education every year. Their world is also a world of darkness. (About 258 million children and youth are out of school around the world, according to UNESCO data released in 2018.) The fact that so much human potential will be wasted is absurd, defeating, and sad.
Is that their reality?
Thousands of children are born into poverty, and they inherit the fate of their parents. They don’t know other options, which dooms them to a false reality, and they get into a vicious cycle where they get stuck. They don’t possess the right tools, the proper knowledge, and that is why a whole new world, the word of light, is out of reach for them. It is as if they live in a parallel universe with no access to the most basic things.
According to all research, education or, better said, the lack of it is everywhere the leading cause of all the problems humanity faces, from poverty to climate change. In other words, the solution to these problems lies in education. As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
So let us assume what would the world be like if these 258 million children got an education? What if one of those children makes some important change? Well, we all lose. We lose endless possibilities and intellect but first of all, we lose our children; we lose them to drugs, gangs, guns, trafficking, and whatnot because that’s the only choice they’re offered. Without education, they don’t have many options.
Through the educational process, the overall personality is built. Children come to understand themselves and their surroundings. Those children will have precisely the right skills to help them reveal the secrets of nature, of society, of their whole environment, visible or invisible. And children love secrets. They see a challenge in them. The world of shadows starts to fade, it becomes invalid, and new possibilities emerge. Those who see the light once cannot go back to the cave; they are forever changed. And children who have access to quality education will never go back to darkness either. While many children and young people are chained in ignorance, the world’s problems cannot be solved.
So, what are the exact benefits of education? For illustration: according to UNESCO, if all students in low-income countries had just basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. If all adults completed secondary education, we could cut the global poverty rate by more than a half.
In every society, all of us actually have a moral duty to children. We have to give them free access to education. Just like the former prisoner of the cave in Plato’s allegory, who reached the highest form of knowledge, returned to his friends to share that knowledge and bring them out of the cave into the sunlight.
Why is that so hard in the 21st century?
It’s easy to persuade people without knowledge that shadows are something real, and sadly illiteracy is an excellent tool for manipulation. On the other hand, freedom lies in education.
Are we ready for a different world?