Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Of Caves and Conferences

I loved teaching the allegory of the cave.  It’s from Book 7 of Plato’s Republic, and it’s considered one of the classic moments of Western thought.  Socrates tells the story of people who live in a cave but don’t know it.  They’re chained to a wall, and spend their time watching shadow puppets on the opposite wall.  (Picture a movie theater, and you’ve pretty much got it.)  They think the shadows are real.  

One day, one of the citizens somehow breaks the chains.  He’s weak and stumbly, but as he gets his footing, he notices what’s going on.  He also sees the entrance to the cave -- in a literal sense, he sees the light.  He moves towards the light and eventually outside.  It takes a while for his eyes to adjust, but once they do, he realizes that there’s a much larger world out there, and that everyone he knows is stuck in the cave.  He has to tell them.

So he goes back.  As he reenters the cave, it takes time for his eyes to adjust.  As they do, he stumbles, all the while proclaiming to his friends that the things of their world are not real.  They watch him stumble, and spout nonsense; they decide he’s mad, and they kill him.  

It’s a great teaching device because it’s vivid.  I used to teach it as being about the tension between philosophic truth and group loyalty.  You could never expect everyone to see the light -- it’s simply not going to happen -- so what do you do in the meantime?

But based on some of the discussions (both formal and informal) at AACC, I’m thinking there might be another, more useful interpretation.

What if the philosopher -- the one who saw the light -- didn’t go alone?  What if he brought a team?

I mention it because many of the success stories of reforms started with “we sent a team of ten people to…”  Almost none started with “one person went to…”  

When one person comes back with an idea, he’s often set upon in similar, if less dramatic, ways.  The objections are often off-point, but the sheer volume of them can lead to a sort of brute force effectiveness.  It’s easy to move to ad hominem -- “these are obviously the lunatic ravings of a madman, or at least of an administrator, and you know how they are.”  In terms of the pursuit of truth, the objections are often dilatory at best, but politically, that may not matter.  Any complete telling of the Socrates story needs to mention how it ended.

At many community colleges, travel funding to send large teams is scarce.  In my entire career, I’ve been able to do it exactly once.  That was when I was at Holyoke, and the League for Innovation conference was held in Boston.  Given (relative) home-field advantage -- by which I mean, no need to pay for hotel stays -- I was able to send a group of about ten.  The group crowded into a presentation on OER, and came back with the enthusiasm of converts.  Better, since it was a mixed group of administrators and faculty, it was harder to discredit the group with ad hominem attacks.  They were able to get some real momentum going on campus; I’m told that the momentum there has continued since then.  It had critical mass.

Group travel is costly, by definition, and travel funds make tempting targets for cuts when things get tight. But stagnation is much more expensive over the long run.  If critical mass can move up the implementation of a good new idea by a few years, it will more than pay for itself, and in the process it will do a world of good for a cohort of students that otherwise would have missed out.  

Plato wasn’t really into teams.  The term “philosopher-king” doesn’t really make sense in the plural.  He didn’t think much of the masses, either; at best, a well-crafted noble lie might slow the decline of a city-state for a while, but eventually, collapse was inevitable.  Eventually, the weaknesses of contingent flesh would destroy the fleshless Platonic ideals, just as sex often destroys Platonic relationships.  He accepted the inevitability of decline, adopting a sort of “beautiful loser” pose that has become far too familiar in academe.

But that’s his problem.  Fans of cheesy 70’s science fiction may remember the movie “Logan’s Run” as a version of the cave allegory, but with a happy ending.  (It also features some seriously amazing 70’s hair.)  In part, that’s because Logan didn’t go alone.  He had Jessica with him.  

In this, as in so many things, cheesy 70’s science fiction may show us the way.  If we want to see new ideas come to campus without setting off the usual destructive shows of local solidarity, we may need to make a point of sending teams.  Maybe we don’t have to choose between truth and community.  Maybe we need to send the community.  Build critical mass into the moment of discovery.  They can’t all be crazy.