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Socrates, Plato, and Madera

Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune

Madera South High School librarian Jordan Mattox, center, is mesmerized by the discussion at Student Champions, part two.


Student Champions embrace philosophy

Last week, Madera Unified School District employees completed part two of the district’s Student Champions course.

The program was conducted from the MSHS gym and fed via Zoom to each of the district’s elementary, middle, and high schools for viewing by their staffs.

The content for the seminar was set in a story from ancient Greece. MUSD Superintendent Todd Lile reached back in his own educational journey to provide the tone for phase two of the course.

The theme prompted teachers and staff to examine their

assumptions, especially as they relate to students and their cultures.

Lile began the day by telling the story he had learned in a class on ancient Greek philosophy. By retelling the tale, Lile saw an opportunity to make his point: educators need to look within themselves to discover how they came by their beliefs about the lives of their students. Lile began by challenging everyone with this story he has told to every class he ever taught.

“About 2,400 years ago - or 95 generations ago - Socrates engaged his student Glaucon in front of his class about the nature of education. Socrates asked his students to imagine a cave deep in the earth inhabited by a race of people who were born, lived and died, all bound by chains. They never perceived those chains because they never knew life without them and they could not stand up nor turn around. Year after year these prisoners stared at shadows cast upon the wall. They labeled, discussed, studied, and learned the shadows, never knowing they were cast by their captors from a bonfire behind them.”

“One day, one prisoner is freed of the chains and dragged up through a dark passage to the light above. Slowly, the escaped prisoner ascends until, suddenly, he finds himself blinded by the light. Faced with the burning light and true warmth of the sun, he is desperate to understand this new world with no roof, a glowing moon, and endless stars, the former prisoner seeks to understand all that is new. After learning about the earth, the heavens, the seasons, and wonder of our world, this freedman feels compelled to return - survivor’s guilt — to his former people to explain what his new experience has shown.

“When he makes his way back into the cave, the smartest of the captives, who are best at labeling the shadows, won’t give up their status as the brightest of those who live in the dark. The freedman was rejected by his people. He returned to the surface, and the cave-dwellers to this day remain bound in the dark, discussing shadows and illusions without ever knowing true light or the vast beauty of the world.” 

Lile says the cave and shadows represent thoughts, ideas, and illusions others wish us to have. The chains represent many things that restrict our curiosity, things like traditions, politics, and tribalism. The passage represents the upward struggle to learn and grow. The vast world symbolizes the truth worthy of exploration. The sun represents the good, eternal truth.

Lile maintains our perceptions of reality are formed from our earliest experiences and how those experiences are explained to us by our elders. Their own experiences shape what they share based upon who taught them, generation after generation.

“Madera has taught me so much and I cannot unlearn it,” says Lile. “I’ve traveled the world and feel a bit guilty. I cannot explain what I know about our students, this district, and our town. I’ll try to share what has shaped me because it shaped many of you and is currently shaping our kids.

“Though I am unsure my retelling of the allegory resonated with everyone, I know it resonated with some. We also know that, most likely, the upcoming community and educational leaders were in the audience on Monday. If they choose to self-examine for the sake of their students and probe their own ideas around historical barriers for students that have shackled us for generations, we have a chance to find a personal understanding of our roles in uplifting the lives of Madera’s youth.

“My faith in that possibility is strong. An entire organization can change if each member finds their own personal understanding of why. Across California there are precious few pockets of systematic success against these historical barriers. WE BELIEVE Madera’s students are worth the uncomfortable and inconvenient journey that starts with self-examination.”


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