Plato & Education
Plato (427 BC - 347 BC), an ancient Greek philosopher, is considered to be the father of educational philosophy. He founded the Academy in Athens in 387 BC and wrote a number of philosophical works including The Republic, which outlines Plato's utopian society and his thoughts about political and educational issues (Gutek, 2009). The keystone of the text promotes the classic tradition of reason, whereby education becomes the process of "perfecting those natural powers of intellect which all people have" (Wingo, 1965, p. 28). Historically, Plato's tenets of philosophical thought are the tenets of perennialism, an educational philosophy based on idealism. Idealism is directly traced back to Plato, with concepts of the idealistic perspective influencing education today.
Keywords: Antithesis; Dialectic; Idealism; Intrinsic Motivation; Mentoring; Paideia; Perennialism; Reason; Seminar; Thesis; Universal Truth
Plato (427 BC-347 BC) is considered to be the father of educational philosophy. He founded the Academy in Athens in 387 BC and wrote a number of philosophical works including The Republic, which outlines Plato's utopian society and presents his thoughts about political and educational issues (Gutek, 2009). The keystone of the text promotes the classic tradition of reason within education whereby education becomes the process of "perfecting those natural powers of intellect which all people have" (Wingo, 1965, p. 28). Plato was the student of Socrates (469 BC-399 BC), a Greek philosopher who emphasized paideia, education in the broadest sense, including "all that affects the formation of character and mind" (LoShan, 1998, p. 11).
Plato's philosophy is a direct reaction to the state of flux of the Athenian culture during his time. Nash, Kazamias, and Perkinson (1965) point out that Plato lost faith in the existing forms of Athenian government and the foundations of its society. Sophists, a new group of traveling lecturers, promoted individualism rather than a communal culture, which led to a relativism that threatened to destroy the communal culture (Knight, 1998). Barrow (1976) suggests that their method was "to give public lectures for high fees, limiting education to the rich and excluding the poor" (p. 13). To Plato, the Sophists were superficial instructors who lacked solid pedagogical techniques (Powers, 1996). Plato believed that citizens of Athens should follow an Absolute or universal truth, "the final and most ethical of all things and persons" (Knight, 1998, p. 40). As Wingo (1965) explains, "To Plato, knowledge based on reason is regarded as superior to that based on sense experience" (p. 8).
Writing on Platonic and Socratic philosophies, respectively, as they influence present-day education, Kohan argues: "The former educates childhood to transform it into what it ought to be. The latter does not form childhood, but makes education childlike" (Kohan, 2013).
Historically, Plato's tenets of philosophical thought are the tenets of perennialism, an educational philosophy based on idealism. Idealism is directly traced back to Plato, with concepts of the idealistic perspective influencing education today. LoShan (1998) suggests that Platonic education can certainly serve as a model in any city at any time in history, as it is an ideal model "that any polity would do well to emulate as best it can, under the constraints of its history and circumstances" (p. 44). These specific concepts gleaned from Platonic philosophy include the idea that there is latent thought in all children. Platonic philosophy also proposes that the teacher can discover the process for acquiring this latent thought through the skillful method of asking probing questions to stimulate this recollection of ideas. Another tenet that directly relates back to the teachings of Plato is the idea that the teacher is the moral and cultural model of students. The beliefs of German philosopher Georg Hegel and American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson can be traced to Plato, as well as those of Augustine, Descartes, Berkeley, and Harris (Gutek, 2009; Ozmon & Craver, 2008).
Plato was a follower of Socratic education. This form of education encompasses the following points:
- Human beings should seek to live morally excellent lives.
- General education (today called liberal arts education) cultivates the knowledge every person needs as a human being.
- The kind of information that cultivates morally excellent persons…act according to reason.
- Concepts, the basis of true knowledge, exist within the mind and can be brought to consciousness [with] probing questions stimulat[ing] the learner to discover the truth…by bringing latent concepts to consciousness.
- Humans define themselves in terms of the criteria of universal truth.
- Socratic education involves mentoring (or modeling) (Gutek, 2009, p. 20).
Plato believed that there is a world of perfect ideas that are "unchanging…universal and timeless concepts of truth, goodness, justice, and beauty" (Gutek, 2009, p. 21). Perfect ideas are forms of the Good, which are considered the world of ideas at its highest point. The world of matter is "not to be trusted" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 7). People are considered good and honorable when "their conduct conforms to the ideal and universal concepts of truth, goodness, and beauty" (Gutek, 2009, p. 21). According to Ozmon and Craver (2008), Plato argues that people should concern themselves primarily with the search for truth. Truth is "perfect and eternal, [and] cannot be found in the world of matter, which is imperfect and constantly changing" (p. 7).
The Allegory of the Cave
Plato's Allegory of the Cave provides an example of the concept that students must move beyond the world of matter to that of ideas. In the Allegory of the Cave, prisoners are chained in darkness in a cave. They see only shadows, which they take for reality. One prisoner is freed from his chains, advances up the steep slope and walks into the sunlight where he sees the true source of heat and light. He remembers his friends in the cave and returns to tell them of his discovery. They do not believe him and threaten his life.
According to Ozmon and Craver (2008), people live in "a cave of shadows and illusions, chained to our ignorance and apathy" (p. 8). When one loosens his chains, he begins his education. Dialectic is the manner that carries one from the world of matter to that of the world of ideas. Dialectic (a critical discussion) moves participants from "mere opinion to true knowledge" (Ozmon & Craver, 2008, p. 7). The good teacher leads the student as far as capable (Reed & Johnson, 2000).
To Plato, knowledge is not created, but discovered through education. Barrow (1975) relates that "education is the process of turning the mind in the right direction," specifically in the search for the truth. The essence of education is the nurturing of the student. Nettleship (1935) stresses that Plato sees the human soul as "emphatically and before all else something living, something which we can feed or starve, nourish or poison" (p. 5). Plato sees education as "the method for providing the natural and proper nurture of the souls" (p. 19).
Commenting on Platonic philosophy in present-day education, Ormell writes, "Anyone who aspires to philosophise about education (or anything else for that matter) needs to learn to 'stand back' from the all-too pressing and distracting detail and to try to see the situation 'as a whole'. The kind of cool perspective one can get from such standing back is the chief good which philosophy aims to provide" (2012).
The education of the average Greek gentleman is comprised of both mental and athletic methods. These methods begin at an early age; Plato believes that the young are plastic and malleable and that those who impact the young must take care in the handling and shaping of young minds and bodies. Nettleship (1935) states that a continued neglect of an education produces "aggravated results," wherein "the eye of the mind grows more and more unaccustomed to the vision of beauty and truth" (p. 84). Besides developing a knowledge base and the physical being of the young, Plato promotes a foundation of character education whereby the child is "to be bred in the belief that beings greater than himself have behaved in a certain way," and that his "natural impulse to imitate is thus to be utilized in forming his own character" (Nettleship, 1935, p. 33).
Idealist Education Today
Elements of Platonic thought can be seen in today's classrooms under the guise of Idealism. The goal of Idealist education is to seek and to find Truth; a universal truth that is absolute. The purpose of Idealist education is to "expose students to the wisdom contained in the cultural heritage so that they can know, share in, and extend it through their own personal contributions" (Gutek, 2009, p....
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