The University of Texas at Austin
  • Seeing for yourself

    By Paul Woodruff
    Published: April 4, 2011

    Paul Woodruff is dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies and Darrell K Royal Regents Professor in Ethics and American Society.

    Plato compares lack of education to life in a “cave-like dwelling,” where people are locked in chairs underground facing a wall on which images are projected by invisible people. The cave-dwellers do not see themselves or each other. They do not know what they are doing, or what it is to be human. They are held captive, utterly passive, dependent on the puppet masters who control what is put before them on the back wall of the cave. They are like students who see only what is on the screen in a windowless lecture room, or on the Internet. They have no basis for questioning the PowerPoint slides they are being been shown.

    Then, says Plato, they would believe that the truth is precisely what they are allowed to see — although we know that what they are seeing is only the shadow of man-made things. What hope do the cave dwellers have of knowing the real truth? They must be liberated from the cave. Plato imagines that education is like this: someone compels a few cave-dwellers to turn around and forces them to move up out of the cave into the light. This is painful for them, as they have never seen the light, and they hate to leave their comfortable images behind.

    Who is this someone who forces you to turn around, painfully, and clamber out of the cave? Plato insists there are no teachers in the cave. Someone makes you look, but does not tell you what you see. The someone is not transferring knowledge to you. But learning does happen. You must see for yourself. No one else can do the seeing for you. Even so, your education requires a very special someone, someone who is willing to use force, who is not afraid of causing pain, and who holds back from trying to transfer knowledge from one mind to another.

    Plato knew a special someone in Athens, a man named Socrates, who denied to his dying day that he ever taught anyone anything. But around him, people learned and never forgot what they learned. Plato picked up the spark that ignited all of western philosophy. Plato’s model of education is as old as Athens and as new as this week’s class in philosophy. Everyone should encounter someone — a special someone who may not be gentle or kind, but who has high standards and insists that students see for themselves, so they do not take any one else’s word for the truth.

    That is education in the humanities. It is precious, it is hard, and it gives life to the mind. No one should be left behind in the cave.


    For more from Dean Paul Woodruff in Know, read his Q&A about leadership.

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      maths revision said on Sept. 14, 2011 at 1:25 p.m.
      Very inspiring Dean Woodruff! Education is a right, without it we would all lose something! Thank you so much!
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      Donald Ross said on July 31, 2011 at 11:29 a.m.
      Thank you Dean woodruff for pointing out how much we have all learned through the ages from Plato and Socrates, no matter how much we rely on modern technology, the ancient teachings will always be required. May no one be left in the cave!!!
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      Jo Anne Christian said on April 12, 2011 at 11:22 a.m.
      Like so many messages that are important, this one is succinct and to the point, and infinitely inspiring. Many thanks.
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      Alice Shukalo said on April 8, 2011 at 10:23 a.m.
      Dean Woodruff's posting reminds us of what it means to open oneself to learning and what it means to teach. Learning calls into play our capacities for curiosity and for searching. Learning involves questioning and thinking, using information rather than merely remembering it. Critical to this process is the role of the teacher. As Dean Woodruff gently points out, a good teacher, a "special someone," has the fortitude to create discomfort by demanding intellectual growth. He does well to remind us, too, that good teaching involves resisting the temptation to "transfer knowledge" from the teacher to the student. Critical thinking is hard work; no less so is the attentive, committed teaching that is necessary in order for critical thinking to find a foothold. Thank you, Dean Woodruff, for recalling to us the role of mindful, engaged teaching in the process of learning how to learn.
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      James S. said on April 7, 2011 at 1:04 p.m.
      My Socrates was Dr. Burton Pierson (, professor of Genetics. Dr. Pierson, likening his methods to that of an Olympic Swimming Coach, taught my classmates and I to train ourselves to be "world-class scholars." He lead us out of our cave and taught us to use the light to discover and retain knowledge. He set high-standards, believed that we could achieved them, and was always available to guide us in our quest for knowledge. Unfortunately, Dr. Pierson was laid off after the Spring of 2010 along with many other great professors. No other professor has better inspired myself and my peers to believe the mantra "What Starts Here Changes The World". Given the state of tuition fee's and the staggeringly large sums this University spends on its athletic program(Mack Browns $5 million salary) I feel that this Universities priorities are not congruent with its mission statement.
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      Tom Blackwell, P.E. said on April 6, 2011 at 6:46 p.m.
      Before reading Dean Woodruff's posting, I had written the following: While working on the Education for Our Future initiative, we encouraged consensus-building through Community participation, but did not reveal that obtaining an education is, in fact, difficult work. The popular notion is that obtaining wisdom (or at the least, knowledge) must appear ‘Sesame Streetesque’ (entertaining) in order to be palatable to students. This belies the fact that, when it is most effective, it is difficult and sometimes painful (although ultimately very rewarding), since it involves ridding themselves of previous dispositions, and the continual acceptance of the fact that they do not know as much as they had previously thought. Continual belief-testing and critical thought are neither simple, nor easily-obtained skills.
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      Aaron Wall said on April 5, 2011 at 6:54 p.m.
      I knew such a special someone in the Fall of 1993. He was then the Director of Plan II, and he taught me Philosophy. I went on to teach Academic Writing at UVa, and each semester, we started with Plato's Allegory. I wanted to help my students to see as well as Dr. Woodruff had helped me. They all wrote well. They wrote from the heart. And I loved teaching them. Thank you, Dean Woodruff.
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      Barbara Carlson said on April 5, 2011 at 10:05 a.m.
      Thank you, Dean Woodruff, for this superb, laser beam of a message; I have sent it to many who are considering their next steps.
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