Education in the cave, or: What imprisons us?

Sara Ahbel-Rappe

Plato in his Republic tells the famous myth of the cave (514a–517a), describing people chained and forced to look at shadows of real things which move behind their backs. When one of them is able to break out and see the real world, illuminated by the sun, he is moved by compassion (ἐλεεῖν, eleein: 516c) and decides to descend back into the cave in an attempt to liberate his former fellow-prisoners.[1] This is, obviously, a myth and an allegory, which has been interpreted many times in the history of the Western thought. In this essay I’d like to consider not primarily its symbolic significance, but a situation in which a philosopher and a Classicist literally returns to the cave – that is, to the prison.

For the past four years, I have taught as a volunteer in the women’s state prison, a mere twenty minutes away by car from the University of Michigan, where I have been teaching for the past 29 years. Michigan law prevents any state monies from being directed toward secondary education for felons, so the entire program is run through volunteer teachers. In my own backyard, Huron Valley Correctional Facility, there are almost 2,000 prisoners packed into a space designed for 1,200; inmates are housed in offices and libraries, where the roof leaks into the classroom space; and overdoses and suicides are not infrequent. 30 students and I met in a classroom at HVC once or twice a month for a course in Great Books entitled “Toni Morrison and the Classical Tradition”. I say 30, but on a given day, several students were called out for suicide watch or were doing time in solitary confinement.

Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Pittsfield Township, Michigan, USA.

In my class, we read Morrison’s novels alongside translations of the Classical works most aligned with them, doing close readings, thematic studies, and a variety of creative assignments designed to help the students step into the timeline of Morrison’s sweeping historical vision, punctuating the chronology by scoring it with the notice: I am here. We paired Song of Solomon (1977) with the Odyssey; Beloved (1987) with Medea and with Sophocles’ Electra; and A Mercy (2008) with Paradise Lost. We spent a fair amount of time in the class reading Greek tragedy, including Sophocles’ Electra. It was the Electra that formed the intellectual and emotional nadir/climax of the course as we discussed the myths that revealed the terrible destinies of the house of Atreus. 80% of all female state prisoners, a population that has grown by over 600% in the past thirty years, are mothers.

In the prisons, these women live out the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the mother-daughter dyad, terribly contested, but somehow still intact. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter we read about a Kore, Demeter’s daughter, kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld, and about her mother’s suffering and grief. When I think about my best and brightest students, I think also the unthinkable: Medea (who killed her little brother and then her own children), Clytemnestra (who killed her husband, Agamemnon), and Electra (who helped her brother kill their mother, Clytemnestra). The students created narratological and visual maps, tracing family curses, interpreting dreams and finally writing their own Odysseys, coming-of-age stories rooted in Morrison’s reading of Homer.

Mural of Toni Morrison, Vitoria-Gasteiz, País Vasco, Spain.

Students wrote about growing up in homeless shelters, their mothers stoned and without the ability to offer maternal protections; their boyfriends, like Aegisthus (the husband of Clytemnestra), demanding complicity or yet worse. One student spoke of her tragic cycle as prison itself: her entire family is in prison, including her father and all of her siblings, with the exception of one younger brother. Another student told me she was born in prison: her mother gave birth to her while she was in prison. (And, by the way, WHV, the prison where I have been teaching for the past five years, mandates that women give birth in shackles.)

The next class I co-taught with an astrophysics graduate student – “Borderless Cosmos” – trie to help the students engage in the traditional philosophical exercise of contemplating the vastness of the physical cosmos and the limitlessness of space as well as the fact that we, like all sentient beings, share in the very same physical nature of the stars themselves. The students read the astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–96), and the astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson (born 1958). They studied together the pale blue dot of earth hanging like a sapphire in the galaxy, and wondered about the force of borders, walls, and fences that scarred this gem.

Earth as seen by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) above the crater Compton, 2015.

I also taught a course in the men’s correctional facility in a program called the Inside-Out Prison education exchange. In this program, an instructor brings 15 undergraduate students to a prison once a week, to study alongside 15 incarcerated students, side by side in a prison classroom. In this class, our topic was “Socrates and other prisoners of conscience”: we read works of Plato, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi, Gandhi, M.L. King, Angela Davis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The University of Michigan students, who hailed from departments as diverse as political science and nautical engineering, showed their commitment to the class by making the long trip to the prison together, taking turns driving vans after hours, and each week going through the ritual pat-down before entering onto the prison grounds.

The class read through an impressive list of books written by some of the world’s greatest humanists, all of whom happened also to be incarcerated – not for what they had done, but for who they were, and even what they thought. The class exchanged ideas about the readings and, more importantly, learned to explore the world through each other’s eyes. We came ever closer to issues that touched on our own identities and began to see each other as, first and foremost, human beings who wanted to understand more fully what it was to be human.

Well: we come back to the philosopher and the cave. What are our choices? What do we owe each other? The idea that academic philosophy, a discipline that, by its own admission, privileges what it defines as “innate genius” or “sheer intelligence” – an innocuous claim until you realize that it results in the exclusion of women and people of color – owes anything to the two million disenfranchised souls who sit in shackles, may seem far-fetched. But, surely, it would not have seemed so to Plato. My visits to the cave have changed my understanding of my activity as an academic, especially the danger of not continuing to visit the cave: writing books that few will read, or – worse still – that even for those who do read them fail to help the reader out of her cave, possibly poses an even greater threat than the injustice done to the philosopher, of which Glaucon complains in the Republic: “Do you mean to say that we must do them this wrong, and compel them to live an inferior life when the better is in their power?” (519d).

An illustration of Plato’s cave allegory (credit: 4edges).

At the end of the class, we held a “graduation ceremony” complete with catered dining in the prison gym, with food prepared by culinary students inside the prison. During the event, student groups presented the results of their collective researches on urban injustice, the school-to-prison pipeline, the Muslim ban, and transgender people and the law. At stake was the social reality of how one’s identity or life circumstances tended to create a momentum toward incarceration for many different kinds of individual. A group of Muslim students, inside and out, explored the meaning of being Muslim in America. One group yielded their presentation time to a transgender woman serving a lengthy sentence at the all-male facility, so that she could present her experiences, to a gym filled with incarcerated men, of what it was like to live as the prison’s only transgender woman, denied access to therapy, and the victim of multiple rapes.

One of the assignments I have been doing is working with the students to create short fictions of their own, collecting them into a self-published volume illustrated by the class members. The first time we did this assignment, the students chose a theme for everyone to write about. Their theme seemed inspired by the Myth of Er, from Republic Book 10, where Er observes the choice of lives awaiting souls on their transmigratory journey. In this scenario, incarcerated students could choose a “rebirth plan” rather than serving out their sentences or completing their lives as the individuals they now found themselves to be. The students decided to create a collective science fiction novel, Transformation Island, in which they would be offered a choice between rebirth in a new life or finishing out their current life, their current sentence, and in some cases, their life sentence.

Disturbing as it was to me that in this fictional exercise, quite a few of my students gladly chose rebirth over finishing their lives, it made sense given the facts I knew about the prison system and the stories they shared about their lives before prison. Yet one student, a woman of about 30 years old, wrote that she embraced her life, prison and all. My student began her essay, “ I am an African American Woman, a convicted felon, and, some would say, a person who would want to be reborn in another life as almost anyone else: Tom Brady, Ivanka Trump, a rock star? A rich white man, born to privilege? Not at all. I embrace and even celebrate my life, in prison and once I am free.”

The Stages of Life, Caspar David Friedrich, 1835 (Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, Germany).

In the end, she wrote, “if you are the captain of your soul, you won’t choose to be someone else,” playing on the metaphor of the ship captain in the book six of Plato’s Republic (488a–489a). The reference is learned, yes. Many people in the universities have access to these words but do they know what they mean? This student, who had never read Descartes’ Meditations (1641) and had never read Pascal’s Pensées (1670), wrote a poem to describe her quest to make that ascent out of the cave. It was a poem about doubt:

My question is where is this fiery furnace?
Is hell somewhere other than Earth
Or did I enter into it at birth?
Infant members
Burning like embers
God, answer me
Make it all simpler.

I fear losing my belief in you
Don’t make me leave you
I need you…

So I pray my final prayer
Heavy in the air;
Still I’m begging you
Be true
Be real, heal me of this distrust
Because this is it
You are or you aren’t
It is or it isn’t
All powerful free me from this prison
Restore my vision

Prayer Prayed
Execution stayed…
Or was it?

Because here I sit
In the midst of this dungeon
And still I feel it in the pit of my stomach

(Quoted by kind permission of the author.)

The ending reminds me of the Pascal’s famous “Wager”:

there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness.[2]

Statue of Blaise Pascal, Augustin Pajou, 1785 (Louvre Museum, Paris, France).

One month ago, this same student wrote to ask for a recommendation letter to apply to an affiliate university. She was out of prison now and saw herself no longer as a felon, but as a young student and community member. I want to add to this story by relating an anecdote. Back in January, it was my spouse’s birthday and we celebrated with our daughter by going to the local vegan restaurant. The waitress greeted us and then said, “Sara?” It was in fact the same student. The last time I had seen her, she was wearing a blue, orange striped, thin cotton uniform, and cheap boots, sitting in a prison classroom, with a bucket to catch the water leaking from the roof.

When we speak of education in the cave, it’s important to remember that Plato includes everyone in this category. No one, and certainly not the most educated, the Sophists and their disciples, is excepted from this allegory. Socrates includes himself as one of the incarcerated.

Plato’s allegory of the cave, Jan Saenredam (after a painting of Cornelis Corneliszoon van Haarlem), 1604.

Thus, we are still, in Plato’s terms, in prison. Of course, there is the prison industrial complex itself: the school-to-prison pipeline, the opioid crisis, failed neighborhoods, the criminalization of poverty, the fact that in poor neighborhoods the largest community resources are the penal system and drug cartels. But beyond this, our body is the original prison, Plato tells us, in the Phaedo:

“The lovers of knowledge,” said he, “perceive that when philosophy first takes possession of their soul it is entirely fastened and welded to the body and is compelled to regard realities through the body as through prison bars, not with its own unhindered vision, and is wallowing in utter ignorance. And philosophy sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment is the fact that it is caused by the lusts of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant in his own imprisonment.[3]

And in the Republic, as I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, Plato claims that our mind is another prison. All of us, says he, are those “strange prisoners” in the cave (δεσμῶται ἄτοποι, desmōtai atopoi, 515a). Isn’t it my duty to escape this prison, and then reach over to help you? My teaching in prison reminds me that I am not yet out of prison. And so, with this realization, I ask you to reach over and help me, to find the path to the sun, out of prison.

Sara Ahbel-Rappe teaches Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and occasionally in the Michigan DOC.

Further reading

M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York, 2012).

N. Heitzeg, The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline, and Racialized Double Standards (Racism in American Institutions) (Praeger, Santa Barbara, CA, 2016).

S.W. Davis and B.S. Roswell (eds.), Turning Teaching Inside Out: A Pedagogy of Transformation for Community-Based Education (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2013).

E. Capettini and N.S. Rabinowitz (eds.), Classics and Prison Education in the US (Routledge, Abingdon, 2021).

For a piece on how the allegory of Plato’s cave is woven into the works of C.S. Lewis, and the challenges it poses for the modern world, take a look here.


1 This passages of the Republic can be consulted here in P. Shorey’s translation: all other passages cited in this piece can be consulted in Greek and English via the same site.
2 Pascal’s Pensées, translated by W.F. Trotter in 1910, accessible here.
3 Phaedo 82d–83a, in H.N. Fowler’s translation, accessible here.