GREAT PHILOSOPHERS OF EDUCATION: PLATO
INTRODUCTION TO THE LIFE AND PHILOSOPHY OF PLATO
Of all the great educators who shaped the concept of education into what it is today, Plato’s name deserves to be ranked among the top. Plato was a philosopher who lived in Classical Greece. Apart from being a philosopher, his fame also rests on being a mathematician and writer of philosophical dialogues. He was the most famous student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. The works and teachings of these three major philosophers laid foundations of Western philosophy and science.
Plato has contributed greatly to develop the fundamental principles of education. The first institution of higher learning in the entire Western world was founded by Plato. The name of this school was the Academy. Today we use the word ‘academics’ to broadly refer to college and university courses or studies. It might interest you to know that the word ‘academics’ was originated from the name of Plato’s school.
To put it simply, the Academy was a university for higher learning that included astronomy, physical science, philosophy and mathematics. In addition to being the founder of the Academy, Plato delivered lectures there. However, we don’t have access to his lectures because they were never published. Moreover, the details of how the Academy functioned are not recorded anywhere, but historians are of the opinion that it made use of a method of teaching which combined lectures, seminars and dialogues. Plato’s ideas on education appear in his major work The Republic, which is written in the form of Socratic dialogue. As the name suggests, The Republic is Plato’s ideas and recommendations on how to make a Republic. The importance of education to produce a Republic is given ample stress in the work. He used the term ‘paideia’ to refer to such an education. The word paideia can be loosely translated as the process in which the physical, spiritual and mental developments of an individual are of supreme importance. In other words, it is the education of the complete individual. Plato’s ideas on education appear in his other well-known work named Laws. It was his final work which he was still working on at the time of his death.
His philosophy on education was primarily based on his vision of the ideal Republic, where an individual was served best when he is subordinated to a just society. He suggested that young children should be removed from their mothers’ care at a young age. In his opinion they should be raised and educated as wards of the state. Great care should be taken to give them education according to their abilities so that they become capable of safeguarding the city and caring for the less able individuals in the society. He argued for an approach to education that touches all the aspects of human life. He advocated for a learning model that includes skills, physical discipline, music and art.
Plato’s ideas show resemblance to many modern educational principles. For example, we can see the concept of “education for all” keeps coming in his writings. He didn’t consider talent as something that is distributed genetically. Instead, he believed that it could be found in any child irrespective his/her social class. He carries this idea a step forward by arguing that children who are suitably gifted should receive training from the state. Through this argument he made it clear that the responsibility of education doesn’t rest on the family or society, but solely on the state. This, according to him, will make the young people equipped with knowledge and qualified to assume the role of a ruling class. Through this argument, he was pointing towards setting up a system of selective public education. This system will confer higher degrees of learning on a selected few. They will get educated in various fields and disciplines and in that process they become qualified for healthy governance.
PLATO’S THEORY OF METAPHYSICS AND EPISTEMOLOGY
Plato’s ideas on education can be understood only if we get a better idea of his philosophical principles. In this module, we will look into detail his philosophy and his principles and theories on education.
Plato’s Metaphysics: According to Plato, reality can be known only through mind. There is a world we experience though our senses. But there is a higher world, which is independent of the world we experience through senses. It is likely that our senses deceive us from coming to know this higher world. So it is absolutely necessary that the higher world exists of what is unchanging, universal and absolute.
Thus Plato makes a distinction between things and “forms”. He defined things as that aspect of reality which can be perceived through senses. He used the Greek word ‘Eidos’ to denote the other aspect, which can be translated as ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’. Plato considered the world of forms as the real world. The other world that we perceive through senses is like an imitation of the real world.
Plato’s ideas on this are closely related to the ideas represented by his teacher, Socrates. He argued that reality is not available to people who uses their senses and to him, a man who sees with his eyes is actually blind. He considered physical objects and physical events as shadows of their ideal or perfect form. Plato formulated his ‘Theory of Forms’ based on these ideas. According to this theory, what possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality is the ‘Ideas’ or the ‘Forms’. The world we know through our sensation doesn’t have the quality to possess this kind of reality because it is a material world that keeps changing.
Plato’s Epistemology: As we have already seen, Plato makes a clear distinction between the reality presented to us through our senses and the essence or ‘Form’ of that reality. To put it simply, reality is always changing. Our knowledge of reality is individual and particular, not universal. He argued that there are three sources of knowledge.
1. The first kind of knowledge is what we obtain through our senses. This includes knowledge of objects, taste, colors, touch and so on. Plato didn’t consider this as real knowledge.
2. The second kind of knowledge is an individual’s opinion regarding an object. But Plato dismisses this also as unreliable because different people can have different opinions about the same object.
3. The third kind of knowledge is the knowledge attained through mind or wisdom. He considers this as the highest degree of knowledge. This includes virtues such as truth, beauty and goodness. He argues that this kind of knowledge is not based on sensations, but it is based on original thinking. Hence it is idealistic. Here he emphasizes the universality of knowledge. The chief characteristic of the third kind of knowledge is that it is found in the form of universal truth.
Plato’s epistemology is also known as Platonic epistemology. It states that knowledge is innate. According to Plato, learning is the development of ideas buried deep in the soul. The key concept of Platonic epistemology is the Doctrine of Recollection or anamnesis, which holds humans are born possessing all knowledge. When we learn something, we are actually recollecting it.
Plato believed that the highest aim of education should be to make individuals capable of possessing the knowledge of the Good. Education, in his views, should nurture an individual into a better human being.
STAGES OF EDUCATION BASED ON CLASSES
We have already seen in the introduction of this unit that Plato advocated a system of selective public education. He insisted that those children who are suitably gifted should be educated by the state. This education will qualify them assume the role of the ruling class. There he was faced with a problem- how to choose that class which is eligible to be educated by the state? He came up with a detailed structure of how this should be done. He was extremely clear about his ideas of what education should be and how should it be imparted. His writings on education describe different stages of education. Here is an overview of the stages of education Plato proposed:
• The first stage: According to Plato, the education of children should be started at the age of seven years. Before this early stage of education they should stay with their mothers or elders and learn moral education from them. At this stage boys and girls should be allowed to play with each other.
• The second stage: From the age of seven years girls and boys should be separated. Boys should play with boys and girls with girls. This stage should go up to the time children become seventeen years old. The Elementary education will comprise of music and gymnastics with the aim of creating a harmonious person. The purpose of Elementary education is to prepare the soul responsive to environment.
• The third stage: After 17 years, young people should be brought to battle field to learn real life experiences. This means, the elementary education that goes till 17 years will be followed by two years of compulsory military training.
• The fourth stage: The fourth stage starts at the age of 20 after the youth have served two years of compulsory military training. At this age the selection to qualify for higher education will happen. Higher education will be given to those who qualify. Those who fail the test will be sent to work in different occupations and productive trades. Those who qualify for higher education will be sent to the armed forces.There they will receive training for the next ten years. The higher education given to those who qualify will consist of an advanced course in geometry, astronomy, harmonics and mathematics. The purpose of higher education is to help the Soul in its search for truth. Plato gave emphasis to the qualities an individual need to have in order to enter higher education. According to him, the children who are surest, bravest and with natural gifts to facilitate their education should be given priority.
• The fifth stage: The fourth stage of education will continue for 10 years. After the ten years of training another test will be conducted. Those who fail this test will remain the armed forces. The candidates who pass the test will be sent to join the government, where they will receive further training. They will receive an advanced course in dialectics, metaphysics, logic and philosophy for another five years.
• The sixth stage: After those five years, they will take up positions in the government for 15 years. One individual will be chosen from this governing class and he will act as the philosopher administrator. The task of this person will be to look after government and the education of the state. He will occupy the highest position and his word will be considered as the final word. This supreme individual and all the other members of the governing class will receive training and education throughout their lives. This education and training will be primarily on philosophy.
Thus Plato proposed an educational guideline till the age of 50. Children begin their education at the age of seven where they receive training in reading, writing, counting, music and sports. At the age of 18 they receive military training and at the age of 20 they enter higher studies. From 30 years onwards they receive training in science and Philosophy along with serving their positions in civil service. Finally at the age of 50 they are ready to rule.
This model proposed by Plato is meant for lifelong education. The objective of this model is both moral and political. Individuals receive training not in the form of an apprenticeship, but an education that is meant to enhance life skills in a holistic manner.
MAJOR EDUCATIONAL PRINCIPLES OF PLATO
Through his writings Plato advocated certain educational principles. In this module let us have a look at the principles and methods upheld by Plato.
• Education for all: Plato didn’t make any gender or class differences with regard to the question of education. He advocated that every boy and girl should be educated to his or her limit.
• Organization and curriculum: Plato’s model of education was organized into three broad phases- elementary education, military training and higher education. The curriculum of elementary education consisted of gymnastics and music. As we have seen in the last module, he divided higher education into two stages. In the first stage, the curriculum of higher education would include geometry, astronomy, harmonics and mathematics along with music and literature. The curriculum for the second stage of higher education would focus on dialectics, metaphysics, logic and philosophy.
• Women and education: Plato gave special emphasis to the education of women. He advocated that the same kind of education should be given to men and women. Women should be given the same physical and educational training and they should be taught the art of war. According to his teacher Socrates, an ideal city is where both men and women are used for the same purposes. Plato’s educational principles emphasized that each member of the society should undertake his or her work and responsibilities. Plato believed that women are equal to men. Some women are physically smaller or weak, but some others are physically equal to men. Those women who are physically strong should be allowed to learn the same skills as men do. In his book The Republic Plato describes how women should receive the same education and be given the same duties as given to the men.
The role of the teacher: In Plato’s philosophy of education, the teacher is considered as a person with supreme importance. He compared the teacher to a torch bearer who leads a man lying in the dark cave, out of the darkness into the bright light of the outside world. The teacher should be a constant guide of the students. He should also be a person of high integrity and must possess high self- worth. A pleasing personality, in-depth knowledgeand professional training are the necessary qualifications of a teacher. Apart from these, he should be sincerely committed to his profession and have high sense of responsibility. In a nutshell, the teacher should be a true role model, who leads a true moral life.
• Education as a state function: Plato viewed education primarily as a state function. Therefore, matters related to the philosophy of education should be at the heart of any discussion of government. In his works The Republic and the Laws, he advocated that education should be completely under the control of the state. In addition to providing teachers and buildings necessary for education, the state should control the curriculum and methods of teaching. The Athenian education was failed since parents failed to instil
the virtues and training the children. The tender sentiments and individualizing tendencies of family life was criticized by Plato. In his opinion the family training cannot be trusted; instead, the training of the children should be under the control of government and conducted as a state function.
• Plato’s View on Moral Ethics: Ethics is regarded as one of the most important branches of philosophy. Plato gave special attention to moral and ethical education. He presented his ideas for an ideal society in his work The Republic by giving a detailed account of the curriculum and system of education. He believed that an ideal society should care for the youth and the guardian is responsible for the moral education of children. Every person should know what his duties and responsibilities are.
• Teaching methods: Plato proposed different methods of teaching for different stages of education. He recommended the play method for children at the elementary education level. Students of this stage should learn things by doing. Later when they enter the stages of higher education, they should be trained in the process of abstracting and thinking. Plato believed in the role of motivation and interest in learning. He was against the use of force in education. In his own worlds “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” He further explained it by saying, “Do not then train youths by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”
• The importance of storytelling in education: He considered storytelling as an important tool for the formation of character. Stories should contain models that the children can imitate. The ideas young children take in at the early stages of their development become fixed, so the creation of legends and fables should be strictly supervised. Scaring children with stories of monsters, lamentations and the horrors of the hell will make children cowards. So mothers and nurses should stay away from telling children such stories.
• The importance of play in education: In Plato’s opinion, the character of young children is formed when they play. Discipline is necessary, but it should not be imposed to the extent of humiliating young children. Children should be kept away from single minded pursuit of pleasure and an absolute avoidance of pain. Luxury leads to children becoming bad tempered and irritable. But at the same time, excessively savage repression makes children subservient. Plato argued against both these methods. During the process of education, young children must be restricted from wrong thoughts and actions until they are old enough to understand the importance of virtues. Plato also gave emphasis to the importance of self-discipline. He maintained the view that man should learn to master his emotions and become a ruler of his own pleasures and passions.
• The importance of physical education: Plato’s educational philosophy gave stress to the importance of physical education. He advocated that young children should be brought together for games. But by the time they turn 6 years, girls and boys should be separated. He suggested that girls too should receive training in riding, archery and similar subjects. Likewise, both boys and girls should engage in dancing and wrestling which would help to develop grace, strength and endurance. The importance he attached to physical education and games can be found in his own words. “No one in the state has really grasped that children’s games affect legislation so crucially as to determine whether the laws that are passed will survive or not”. He expressed his ideas on physical training further in The Republic, where he says “Physical training may take two or three years, during which nothing else can be done; for weariness and sleep are unfavorable to study. At the same time, these exercises will provide not the least important test of character.”
Plato’s philosophy of education is so extensive that we might require volumes of books to comprehensively analyse it. In this unit we tried to gather an overview of the major principles and models proposed by him. If we closely examine the philosophy of education propounded by Plato, we can see that his approach was a holistic one. He focused on the overall development of individuals giving special importance to both morality and intellect.