Can We Escape The Cave?

On the current state of higher education in America

Where does a current college graduate stand in relation to the famous Platonic cave allegory? Has the former student felt the bitter sting of the sun’s light? Has he returned to lead his former brothers-in-arms on the painful road to wisdom as he has endured?

Or does he still stumble in the darkness, with the false assumption that he has felt the light?

When I was a child fantasizing about my prospects of living the American Dream and pulling myself up by my bootstraps, college was the undeniable golden ticket. My first-generation immigrant parents did not understand much about American society, except that it was sure better than where they from.

There was a very certain path that could be followed by anyone on the road to “success.”

There was no doubt in my mind that in order to achieve “success,” I had to study hard, do well in school, and eventually go to an exceptional university.

All would fall into place from there.

As I have grown older and more…aware of my place in the world, it has grown more and more difficult to justify my collegian status with a grander sense of fulfillment. All is falling into place as expected, but my take on the “all” has changed.

That is to say, it is difficult to understand why I along with millions of others have gone through this four-year program, one which we deem the most esteemed journey for young, bright men and women.

You can’t get a job or future without a college degree!

Digressing to the topic of the cave, I feel I have seen the sun and understand the grand and ultimate power of knowledge or wisdom.But I remain unaware as to why I was removed from my chains of ignorance in the first place and why I am now returning (against my own will?) to the darkness. Who is the puppet master who removed those chains or am I still seeing shadows?

I am a business and political science major, meant to either tame the wilds of the “free” market or face the beast of the American “justice” system.

On the one hand, I am very excited to accept the challenges that both career fields would provide me, as well as the opportunity for a well to do and steady income, of course. Also, I have, after all, trained very diligently to be very successful in one or both professions and know I would do a top-notch job in both.

On the other hand, I cannot help but feel somewhat underwhelmed with my higher educational experience.

Do not get me wrong, there are some amazing engineers, CEOs, and future doctors among us, but the path for us is worrisome.

I imagined university would be a place of powerful young thoughts and noticeable youthful efficacy toward changing this world for the better. Instead, the logistics of the day to day grind toward A’s and B’s and the punishing effort required to ensure our “futures” has usurped any world-changing aspirations among us.

And no, I do not mean the next world-changing consumer electronics product or online business model. I mean, why does a sense of “societal lethargy” permeate through the ivory towers which my peers and I reside. Certainly, the engagement of the young in civil affairs has been low for quite a while but I can only speak to the je ne sais quoi of the disinterest which I observe daily.

I just mean to say, there exists a defeatist attitude regarding my generation’s ability to create a “better world.” We seem chained down by the yolk of practicality and the decreasing marginal utility and future value of attempting to see the sun.

Vaclav Havel’s greengrocer allegory seems more apt for the current American higher education system than Plato’s cave. Havel spoke of attempting to live within the “truth” rather than simply continuing to hang up the daily signs of propaganda.

The “truth” is a scary place to live though. The calling of a stable income, a path up the corporate ladder, the chance for a fulfilling career, all are much more…comfortable existences than attempting to strive for the sunlight.

I thought for over $100,000 a year, universities would be creating the bright lights of tomorrow but it seems that high price is only meant to further stratify society along income lines. What difference exists between the community college student working two jobs to support their family versus the President of some fraternity at some university raising money for the homeless? (Refer to the graph above)

I am not purporting to support income redistribution or a survival of the fittest society either way, but I worry that the discussion of such matters is horrifyingly absent from the minds of the higher educated.

Above the moans of my peers who face the torture of linguistics midterms and the murder of the corporate recruiting trail, I hear the quiet whimper from outside of the library window. I look out and see the sunlight receding from view as I turn back to finish reading an anthropology study guide that I really should have started earlier.

Is justice everybody doing their jobs and minding their own business? Is the American Dream a supposed “equal opportunity” for all? Is higher educational a glorified vocational path that says “We have it. You don’t?”

Has the dark and shadowy puppet master claimed the university as his ironic home for further chaining and blinding? How can we escape the cave if the institutions tasked with the unchaining do not see it in their best interests for us to leave?

There is no longer much “higher” about higher education, than its exorbitant sticker price. Where has the education gone?

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