The Transylvania Times -

Everyday Education: Out Of The Cave And Into The Classroom


June 11, 2018

In my last article, “Kids These Days,” I discussed the difficulties young people face these days regarding the constant bombardment of information and influence coming from their phones. I also suggested they need some way to evaluate how to interact with others on social media, how to balance their physical reality with the virtual one, and how to understand the impact of social media on their developing sense of identity. I concluded by introducing philosophy as a way to help students develop an ethical framework so they can see these issues with clear eyes.

In one of his most famous dialogues, “The Allegory of the Cave,” Plato explains how society has chained us up from infancy and has taught us to see and honor only illusions. He claims as we sit shackled in front of a fire, silhouettes of objects and ideas are cast on to the walls of the cave, and because these shadows are all we have ever known, we understand them as real and valuable truths. In short, our teenagers’ phones are casting a lot of false truths on the walls these days.

Plato ends his dialogue claiming it is imperative for those who escape their confinement to spread the truth and demonstrate how our ethics and morals are the highest forms of truth.

We, as a society and as individuals, would do well to heed Plato’s ideas. There are many ways of teaching and discussing ethics with students. While teaching ethics specifically is not a part of the N.C. curriculum, we are required to teach students how to “determine [a text’s] central message, lesson, or moral” and to “work with peers to promote civil, democratic discussion and decision-making.”

These requirements are unquestionably related to the philosophical schools of thought that focus on morality and the “best way to live,” both in regards to the individual and how the individual relates to the collective.

I try to encourage these conversations in my classroom in a few different ways. Even though some artistic works don’t explicitly have a message or moral, many do, and those that don’t are still asking significant, existential questions.

We read a number of novels that ask questions about honesty, sacrifice, obsession, identity, compassion and cruelty.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how all these themes relate to social media usage and the emotional issues related to it. The trick is to directly address the issues in the context of social media.

For example, the protagonist in “The Crucible” sacrifices his good name (and other things) in order to bring about justice. Every single kid, at every level of ability, immediately claims they would take the same steps. It’s easy to say from a safe historical and cultural distance: “I would stand up and defend the vulnerable! I would march through Selma with Dr. King and John Lewis. I would face down the Nazis myself!”

Sure, some of them would, but considering some serious historical injustices and the number of people who conformed, many of them would go, herd-like, with the masses.

So let’s pose a question they can actually wrap their heads around in a personal context: Would you publicly rebuke a racist joke on Twitter if it were posted by a very popular kid you know? Would you attempt to shut down people calling someone stupid for their political beliefs? Would you report bullying on Snapchat, or more importantly, would you publicly ask people to stop and explain your ethical reasons for doing so?

These are the same questions our novels are asking, but we must appropriately frame the issues for the kids so they can actually apply the ethical issues we address in class. When you ask the aforementioned questions, you see a lot of kids drop their eyes, suddenly realizing addressing these commonplace injustices is pretty tough.

When we discuss deceit and identity construction in “The Great Gatsby,” the students and I discuss how Jay Gatsby uses his wealth to carefully build a public persona for himself, though privately he is an emotionally impoverished man who cannot find love.

If we stick to the generic issues of the book, we miss an important opportunity to make the issues real for students. So we should be asking questions like: What persona do you put forward on Twitter? Are you honest about your emotional well-being without being attention-seeking? Do others see you as kind and do you justify that by seeking out opportunities to put in a kind word when you see others struggling on social media? Do you mock people to feel better about yourself? Describe your online persona in three words.

Suddenly, the millionaire of the novel doesn’t seem so unrealistic in his attempts to control public opinion in order to get what he wants.

As teachers, we don’t face the danger of returning to the cave when we’re working with students. Most of us don’t worry about them pressuring, bullying or asking us to change our values and stand up for what is right. They face those tremendous stressers from their peers and the media.

It is our job to make the philosophical questions regarding ethics relevant to their lives, to engage them where they are, emotionally and cognitively, and to help them understand they have some larger role to play on social media — an opportunity to do the right thing. They can stand up for others. They can be vulnerable and connect with people who can help them. They can authentically and productively think about their public image and how they can use it to bring about positive change.

We should be helping them understand that while the blue light of the phone screen is not the white hot glare of the sun’s light, Plato’s symbol of truth, it can be used as one way to start conversations in order to bring ourselves and others up out of the cave and into the light.

(Tinsley is an English teacher and yearbook advisor at Brevard High School.)


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