Idealism is an ancient philosophy that had a strong influence on education through the 20th century. Recently, this position has been overshadowed by realism, however, the influence of idealism can still be felt in education to this day. In this post, we will describe idealism, explain its implications, and examine how an idealistic teacher views education.
Idealism is focused on reality as consisting of ideas, the mind, and the self. In other words, the mind makes the material world rather than the other way around as found in realism. Plato is the primary author of this philosophy.
The context of Plato’s life was one of change. This was during the time of the Persian Wars in which Greece, Athens in particular, did remarkably well. War naturally brought new ideas to both countries which was leading to changes. In addition, there was a push for individualism from a group of philosophers known as the sophists which were straining the communal culture of Athens.
Some have stated that Plato’s idealism was a reaction against this threat of change. Truth for Plato was permanent and unchanging. Since the world was changing, there could be no truth in this world. Truth must be found somewhere else. The real truth was found in the world of ideas a place that was beyond the senses used in this world.
Plato has rather negative views towards the senses. In his “Allegory of the Cave”, Plato essentially asserts that people who go by their senses are chained and trapped inside a cave of ignorance where they are bound to watch shadows of reality. Those who break free from these chains are those who have gone beyond their senses and used their intellect to reach the world of ideas. Naturally, only an elite handful of chosen ones or philosopher kings are able to do this.
For idealists, the source of knowledge comes from intuition (knowing without conscious thought), revelation (knowing through supernatural encounters), and rationalism (knowing through conscious thought). What is important here is what is missing, which is empiricism (knowledge through the senses). Idealists do not require empirical verification of what is true. In the world today, this is almost laughable but was a core component of education for centuries.
Ethically, idealism emphasizes a belief in an external ethical standard for man. Man cannot be the one to decide what is right or wrong. Instead, morals are determined by the world of ideas through the intellect. There is something called the Absolute self that the individual self is trying to imitate. This Absolute Self is considered by many to be God as seen from a Christian perspective. Again this is something that would not be considered seriously by many educators.
There is an eternal consistency to truth for an idealist. Something is true when it fits with the harmony of the universe. Even art must make sense and must be used in a way that is consistent with the perfect form of the world of ideas. This explains the sonority of early forms of music that have been lost gradually over time.
Idealism and Education
An idealistic teacher is going to focus on the development of the student’s mind. There is a constant striving for perfection in the study of various subjects. Speaking of subjects, the curriculum consists primarily of the humanities and math. History and literature help students to see what is ideal for humans and the study of math is powerful because of its universal nature along with it being self-evidently true. Generally, any subject that brings students into contact with ideas rather than things should be considered for the curriculum
The teacher’s responsibility is to pass their knowledge of the ultimate reality to the student as the teacher has more experience in this and the Absolute Self. Therefore, the teacher is an example for the student. Knowledge is seen as something that is transferred from the teacher to the student either verbally or in writing. This implies that lecturing and direct instruction are key methodologies.
One of the more shocking positions of the idealistic teacher is that the school is not an agent of change. The idealistic teacher and the idealistic school do not train and educate “change agents”. Rather, since absolute truth is unchanging the school should naturally reflect an unchanging nature and support the status quo. Anyone familiar with education in universities today would find this difficult to accept.
With a focus on an otherworldly perfect standard, idealism is strongly out of place in a world that is governed or perhaps controlled by what they see and experience. Whenever people try to appeal to some sort of unqualified standard it is looked upon almost with ridicule. The exception seems to be when people share an emotional objection to something. Feelings have replaced some form of ethereal standard because emotions are experienced rather than thought about.
The overemphasis on ideals is perhaps the weakness of idealism. Plato thought that people who only rely on their senses were trapped in a cave and unaware of true reality. However, the same can be said of a person who is trapped in the world of ideas. The person who is truly free is the one who can move between the senses and the mind or who can move between the reality of t ideas and the physical world. Moving between these positions provides a flexibility that neither has by itself.