Realism is another philosophy that has had a tremendous impact on education and the world in general. The modern world seems to be almost exclusively realist in terms of its worldview thanks in part to the scientific position that most individuals take on matters.
In this post, we will look briefly at the characteristics of realism. In addition, we will also examine how a teacher who believes in realism may approach teaching and realism’s impact on the broader educational process.
Just as Plato was reacting to the change that was surrounding him when he developed his views on idealism, his pupil Aristotle react to idealism by proposing realism. Realism states that objects we perceive with our senses are independent of our mind. In other words, what see exist independently of us and our mind.
However, realism is not a rejection of idealism but in many ways an extension of it. Aristotle thought that everything was made of a combination of form and matter. Form was similar to the ideals of Plato’s idealism and matter was the new contribution that Aristotle was making which is a focus on the material aspect of an object. Form or ideas can exist without matter, such as the ideal or form democracy. Yet matter cannot exist with a form, such as a physical chair with the idea or form of a chair.
Aristotle further proposed that studying the world or matter would lead to a better understanding of universal ideas. This concept has had a strong impact on research in the development of inductive methodology also known as the scientific method.
Reality as seen through idealism is the physical world. The world is similar to a giant machine in which humans are both passively acted upon and actively influencing as well. There are also natural laws that govern the physical world that can be discovered through observation.
Knowledge is gained only through the senses. Something is true because it was observed. The natural law is within the reality of the natural world and the realist is looking for this through specific examples. This inductive process helps the realist to understand the world around him. In many ways, the Natural Law of the realist is the Absolute Self of the idealist. The difference is in how each is discovered. The idealist thinks about the Absolute Self and knows through intuition that there is an external standard. The realist observes the Natural Law with is senses which confirms the Natural Law’s reality.
Natural Law also extends into the realm of ethics. It is through observing nature and the world that what is right and wrong, beautiful and ugly can be determined according realism. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson alludes to realism when he speaks of “inalienable rights.” In other words, Jefferson was proposing that some of the rights of man are obvious if one examines the world in which they live.
Realism and Education
A realistic teacher stresses that students learn through their senses. This involves teaching methodologies that have students doing and experiencing things rather than just listening. This can include such activities as field trips, group work, projects etc.
On a darker side, a realist teacher may believe that students are a product of their environment. This has been interpreted as meaning that students do not truly have choice as they are simple responding to the stimuli in their environment. This has lead to a push in education for a focus on behaviorism and even classical conditioning. Furthermore, most learning objectives are behaviorist in nature because a teacher can “see” a behavior which is evidence that the student can do something. Off course, this has clash with cognitivism (idealism in the 20th century) which focuses on the mind rather than the behavior.
The teacher’s role is to provide sound information about the reality of the physical world and the Natural Law. This is further supported by a focus on math and science, which today is viewed as a focus on STEM majors. One thing all STEM majors have in common is a focus on what can be seen and a disinterest in the realm of ideas and the highly theoretical. Critical thinking is focus almost exclusively on problem solving and never for the development of an opinion. What really matters are facts and not so much what people think about them.
With the focus on the senses, one thing the teacher and the students will notice is that the world is in a constant state of change. This has led to a rejection of a permanent Natural Law due to the ephemeral quality of reality.
Realism is the primary worldview of education today. Seeing is believing as the saying goes. Almost nothing is taken seriously unless there is clear observable evidence to support it. Of course, many people believe that feelings and personal experience counts as evidence. This is because feelings and personal experience have actual occurred in the individual person’s life.