COMING HOME TO PLATO’S CAVE OR, DEATH OF CRITICAL THINKING

Personal Notes

                        Girijaa Upadhyay. 2011.Acrylic on Canvas.

Darius Cooper

 

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or the Greeks, critical thinking started at home. Parents, teachers, people with any kind of authority like philosophers and senators, all were instructed to practice it and create a hunger and thirst for it in their children, their students, and anyone and everyone who chose to follow them. While Plato banned and exiled all artists from his Republic because they chose to pollute it by arousing dangerous emotions and feeling, Aristotle justified their inclusion and forced a poetics of investigation of all hamartias or flaws that created in the spectator the phenomenon of catharsis that resulted from such critical thinking ideas (amongst others) that were imposed on the reader and the listener.  The churning that Aristotle created even moved the stoics to examine the immoral actions of the mythological gods and the Homeric heroes (who had so morally outraged Plato) through the forging of new critical thinking tools like allegory where literal actions were given all kinds of speculative symbolical explanations.

The Hermeneutists who followed, in the Middle Ages, took over allegory and explained all kinds of contradictions found in the Bible:  from God’s unexplainable rash wrath at trying to destroy the world that he so creatively had made more than once, to Christ’s puzzling beatitude of meekness that made him forgive his cruel torturers on the cross.  And then came twentieth century’s three very naughty critical thinking boys who verified Hamlet’s objections about man not being the great thinking-feeling ubermensch, but merely a frightened, whining, confused son of a bitch or, in his antic terms, a mere quintessence of dust.

Darwin felt that man had not made any progress over his ancestral fathers and mothers after he had left them at the zoo; Freud shattered all haloes imposed on man by showing that he possessed a very powerful psyche that really controlled him; and Marx historically confirmed what a mess man had made of his immediate world, in almost all historical periods, by virtue of his greed so shamelessly calculated in the repeated determination of that deadly cash nexus.

This exciting journey of critical-thinking suddenly showed signs of disappearing as we approached the end of the twentieth century.  One would say that it was in the twentieth century, especially within the autonomous world of the university, that critical thinking had its last glorious hurrah.  While the French led the way in dismantling the logo-centric critical-thinking network of the West, and introducing the endless probability of de-constructive meanings, history too was asked to re-evaluate its meanings, its objective values and replace them with subjective ones so that the list kept by the grocer as to who he sold his wares to during a particular historical event was to be treated with the same historical gravitas as the official accounts of it published in the newspapers of the ruling class.  As colonies freed themselves from their imperial masters, especially in the East, the colonized point of view was now seriously challenged by a contrapuntal interpretation of those sacred canonized colonizer’s texts:  someone had to investigate why a West Indian woman was locked up in a colonizer’s attic; could an Irish orphan be able to remove the skin of India that had colonized his entire psyche once he put on the uniform of his father’s Irish regiment?

The mimicry of the post-colonial generation, whether it was in Algeria, Africa, or India was repeatedly questioned and the subaltern gender wars, usually hidden and suppressed, now burst forth in the open.

 

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nd then came the dreaded invention of a machine, first called word-perfect, and then called ideas-perfect that via a remarkable feat of technological ingenuity destroyed the individualistic progress of all initial critical thinking, just like that!  The availability of so much information that could be collected by merely touching a button did not involve any mental or cerebral effort as it had in the past.  It did not involve physically going to many libraries with a suitcase to carry a luggage-load of books home; poring through hundreds of pages; and then excitingly putting together a slowly emerging argumentative framework that could be fiendishly manufactured with the same kind of skill that Frankenstein must have used as he scientifically started to create a human form in his lab; or experience the same kind of excitement that Sherlock Holmes must have experienced as he tried to break the code that was so cunningly conceived under his nose in the form of strange dancing men that regularly appeared in sequences on the walls of his client’s rustic home.  Now, all that was needed was the tip of one’s finger on a button and voila!:  out came a Noah’s flood of information that destroyed completely any critical thinking implicit in even the gathering of it.

What was missing was both the curiosity and the knowledge that another finger on another button promised to supply—but would it?  It was like that horrible person who invented “spellcheck,” a button that corrected all your spelling mistakes, but why you spelled that word wrong in the first place or how you could not misspell it was never explained.

Machines do not encourage the asking of such questions, of course.  Your grammar-school teacher could have answered your question, but why have him or her actually standing in front of you in that primitive space called a classroom.

The necessity of physically asking a question, human being to human being, is no longer deemed to be necessary since there is a machine in your room that has all but eliminated and replaced the figure of the teacher.  If the teacher has been replaced, why not go a step farther and eliminate the classroom as well.  Ideas can be communicated and exchanged now via a machine.  The presence then of an invisible person (once called a student) who will write them and the other invisible person (once called a teacher) who will grade them takes place as an on-line transaction inside a home, the only building that really matters in today’s dystopian universe, since most institutionalized buildings stand today on the verge of being demolished.  One really does not need a bank to-day since one rarely visits it.  All deposits go into it electronically and the ATM’s take care of all withdrawals. One room in your home is enough to perform all monetary messages.  Since all food and groceries can be ordered via phone and emailed, why have repositories of food, and when so much of the “outside” is now literally entering and becoming a fundamental part of that “sacred inside” one does not need to go out of one’s home at all.

 

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n this mechanized climate of convenience, the one organ in the human body that is asked not to exert itself (since it has done its exhaustive duty, right from the caveman days to 1999 when the twentieth century ended) is, if you can actually come to think of it, the human brain.  You don’t need to know how to count anymore.  There is a machine that does all the arithmetic for you.  You don’t need to know how to cook.  Machines have already cooked your food for you.  You only have to microwave it.  And you don’t need to even light a match.  There is a pilot flame that automatically goes “off” and “on” in all stoves and ovens.

Any activity that previously demanded even a modicum of thinking and feeling activity has been dispensed with.  Dial tones were rough on your parents’ fingers.  So now we have touch tones.  TV clickers have eliminated the physical task of changing channels.

When I actually spell out, for example, the complex drives of the id, the super ego, and the ego on a blackboard, my students don’t actually write them down in a notebook.  They merely whip out their cell phones, aim the camera, and take a picture of my calligraphy.

Similarly, what I say and what we discuss is taped.  Where then is critical-thinking taking place in this kind of constant mechanical intervention?  If I had my way, I would confiscate all electronic devices at the door, and only allow my students the books that we will analyze, and the files in which they will have to write their notes with the pencil I insist they should use when underlining the chapters covered in the text and the pen they would have to use to actually write their notes.

Critical thinking’s other nemesis has been the problematic idea of specialization.  And this sickness first made its appearance in the university and has now escaped and leaked into the outside world.  The acquiring of knowledge, for today’s generation, is not only very narrow, but it is also very selective.  For example, if there is a student in my upper-level English critical-thinking class, which he has totake to fulfill his basic English skills requirement, and has decided to become a plumber, then all the knowledge he wants to acquire and develop is the one related only to plumbing.  In my class he is now subjected to evaluating philosophically Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and how it is so effectively worked out in Bernardo Bertolucci’svery complex political film The Conformist.

My bewildered student, struggling with both texts, one day walks into my office and asks me point blank:in what ways will Plato’s parable and Bartolucci’s film contribute to his present and his future if all that he is interested in is making his career and livelihood in plumbing!  At first, I calm him down and compliment him that his critical-thinking abilities,which I am trying to develop in the classroom,haveat least made him distinctly aware of a critical problem regarding knowledge.

And that, I say, is a very good beginning.  Asking questions are as important as finding answers.  Now, as for the answer which he is seeking from me, I reassure him, I could offer him not one but several.  But, I conclude, I will not undertake to do so.

As a critical-thinking exercise, I suggest, you, figure this one out for yourself; if not now, then later, maybe even when you have become a successful plumber.  Then, if you so choose, come back to me, and let me know how you worked out that connection and what all the interesting discoveries it enabled you to come to terms with as well were.

Till today I’m still waiting, and like Godot, I don’t think he will ever turn up.  He probably has run back into Plato’s cave, shackled himself once again to his bench along with his fellow one eyed peers, and is quite content watching all those shadows flickering on the wall before him of taps, water, and pipes.

 

Darius Plaque imageDarius Cooper teaches Critical Thinking in the Humanities at San Diego Mesa College, California, USA.  His essays, poems and stories have been widely published in several film and literary journals in USA and India
A sample: Between Tradition and Modernity:  the Cinema of Satyajit Ray (Cambridge University Press).In Black and White:  Hollywood Melodrama and Guru Dutt(Seagull Publications).Beyond the Chameleon’s Skill (first book of poems) (Poetrywalla Pub).A Fuss About Queens and Other Stories (Om Books).
Read his review of Kedarnath Singh's poetry 'BETWEEN THUMBPRINTS AND SIGNATURES'.

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