Monday, May 2, 2011

Plato: Aims and Philosophy of Education

The Revolution: A novel from prehistoric times

Although it is not apt to start an essay on a philosophy with a critical remark, for before learning how to criticize, one should learn the content to be criticized, yet , notwithstanding its great merits and value, it seems necessary to criticize Plato's philosophy of education right at the outset.

Plato's philosophy of education aims at preparing learners for future life. This preparation for the future life is almost rejected by modern educational philosophers like Rousseau and Dewey. But this rejection of the aim to prepare children for future life does not in any sense divest Plato's thought of its significance even in the 21st century. Heidegger in his essay On Plato's doctrine of truth clearly established the relevance of Plato's thought for the 20th century, and those remarks are well taken even in the 21st century.

Plato's significance lies in giving a clear understanding to educators about the meaning of different concepts that appeared in the discourse on education in the history. These concepts include ideas, reason, goodness, metaphysics, dialectics, sense perception, representation, virtue, art as a medium of instruction, motivation and truth. If one looks closely at these concepts , one can easily find that in any discourse on educational philosophy, these words make more frequent appearances. Plato's philosophy helps us in understanding these terms.

Moreover, traditional education , and age old believes about education have their origin in Plato's philosophy, so it is only through a study of Plato that one can understand these things right at the source.

Plato presented his philosophy of education in his Republic. Like most of his other dialogs , the main interlocutor in Republic is Socrates.In the Republic , the basic theme of inquiry is justice. The basic question around which the dialog revolves is , " what is the meaning of justice." Socrates defines justice through establishing an analogy between society and individual. Just as a society comprises classes, an individual has faculties. According to Socrates, a society has three classes. These are:

1. Rulers or Guardians
2. Warriors
3. Artisans and Workers

Corresponding to these classes individual has three faculties:
1. Intellect corresponding to Ruling Class
2. Feelings corresponding to Warriors
3. Desires and Appetites corresponding to Working or artisan class

Each of the the classes and faculties has its own guiding virtue. So the virtue of intellect is wisdom. An intellect works properly when it is guided by wisdom , and wisdom is to know the ultimate truth , the absolute good. Wisdom means to know what lies beyond the appearance , the metaphysical truth. Thus wisdom is equated to philosophical knowledge.

Moreover, the virtue that the class of rulers or guardians should possess is of wisdom. So, according to Plato it is because of their wisdom , the knowledge of the ultimate reality, that rulers become proper rulers. Wisdoms or philosophical knowledge , termed as Sophia in Greek, is the ability to know the metaphysical causes behind the reality, the truth and knowledge of the God.

In order to express feeling, one needs courage. So the virtue or the goodness of feelings lies in their courageous expression. Therefore, warriors should have courage, for they are responsible for expressing the discontent of society, they have to defend any infringement in the values or geographical boundaries of society. They have to guard the economic interests as well, for a society accumulates wealth and neighbors can covet it. Courage According to Aristotle is a mean between cowardice and rashness. A person who is not able to feel fear is not courageous. Only that person is courageous who feels fear and is naturally inclined to deal with fearful situations.

Homer in his Iliad wrote that cowards and courageous people are differentiated clearly in an ambush. In an ambush a coward sweats and trembles, and feels like fleeing away from the situation. Whereas a courageous person , who is naturally inclined towards dealing with his fears, feels excitement and remains steadfast.

Artisans or the producers class has to create wealth . However their goodness lies in temperance, self control. They have control their appetites, for if they can't control their appetites than anarchy can result. So the virtue of the working class is temperance. Temperance, according to Aristotle , is a mean between licentious attitude and insensitivity towards pleasures. So masses should neither be licentious nor insensitive towards pleasure, but in between these two states.

So , according to Plato a society maintains justice if its classes are virtuous according to their class specific needs, warriors are courageous, Rulers are wise and masses have temperance . If these classes act in complete harmony with each other and in each class members have the class specific virtue, then the society will become a just society.

Now the question is , how one can ensure that each class has its virtue? How this can be ensured that rulers are wise, warriors are courageous and masses have self control? Plato suggests that this can be ensure through education alone.

So Plato recommends an education system which is uniform and which pursues the general aims of the society itself. The aim of the society is to maintain both justice and peace.

Plato has designed his educational plan for the education of guardians or rulers. Thus his basic question is how to educate a person in the earlier part of his life to enable him to become a philosopher, a lover of wisdom and truth in the later years. How a person becomes a philosopher? Plato says that through the knowledge of absolute good, or the metaphysical truths , one becomes a philosopher. So the aim of education in Plato is to enable the learners to know the metaphysical truth. Thus metaphysics is the aim of education and learning .

Now the question is what is metaphysics? Plato has answered this question in his famous allegory of cave . Metaphysics , initially means to know the causes of the things present in this world ; causes that are behind the appearances. For Plato these are ideas, intelligible forms that allow things to appear as they are, things on the other hand , in their existence, are only imperfect copies to these eternal forms or ideas.

The highest idea or the highest form is the absolute good , or God for Plato. True knowledge lies in knowing  this cause of the causes, the absolute truth. Plato in his allegory of cave explained the absolute truth or the cause behind everything through the simile of the Sun.

Plato actually used the metaphor of vision and light to explain metaphysics and the reality. Things are there and eye is also there , but if there is no light , eye can't see anything. So, light is the precondition for vision, without light no vision is possible.

The greatest source of light is the Sun, it is because of the bounty of the sun light that everything is visible; without sunlight no vision is possible. Similarly , the reality of the things present in the world is not in them , in concrete things, but in the ideas of which these things are mere copies. However, ideas and form cannot be perceived by senses, these can only be intellectualized; ideas are intelligible and not perceptible.

But these ideas cannot be understood until the great enabler, the truth of the truth , the God does not allow the mind to understand these objects. So ideas can only be understood with the help of divine light. And the absolute good , the great enabler is also knowable; one can know the God.

Thus, the aim of education is to enable a person to acquire the knowledge of this cause of the causes, the absolute good. Education prepares a man for the vision of absolute reality.And that is why, education right from the beginning is a preparation for the future.