Plato’s Theory of Education Explained

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Though a lot of beliefs and knowledge in the past have become outdated in favor of new discoveries, plenty of philosophers remain relevant with their ideas that continue to exist and hold true in this day and age. Take, for example, the Greek philosopher Plato. A student of Socrates and later on the teacher of Aristotle, he (along with both Socrates and Aristotle) would later be cited as one of the many philosophers who set the foundation for Western thinking, including religion, philosophy, politics, and more.

But what many may not realize is that Plato’s own theories and philosophies of education are what currently shape the educational system of most (if not all) countries, not just the west. What exactly did Plato do or say to shape today’s education from nursery to post-secondary education? We explain in this article.

Plato’s Theory of Education

Historians cannot find any evidence on Plato’s early education as a child, but seeing as he belonged to an influential aristocratic family from Athens, it’s assumed that he went through the Athenian form of education that was oriented towards culture, arts, academics, and intelligence. However, some sources claim that Plato was a bright student who was given the best teachers of his time, at one point learning philosophy under another great Greek philosopher Socrates.

Plato valued education and the way it changes people. He was known for thinking about an ideal government and society and believed that to maintain a stable state, it was necessary that all citizens were educated. Plato was known for having ideas about a perfect state, and he believed that education was one of the keys to eradicating evil and achieving this. Because if people were educated and sound, then the need for establishing laws were unnecessary; but if they were uneducated, then the laws were useless.

For Plato, education was more than just memorizing facts while sitting in a classroom from youth to maturity. Instead, education was a life-long process and even adults could be trained and educated, thus created a system in which even adults were trained.

Life-Long Education

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In Plato’s The Republic, Plato wrote that education was not limited to youth and that one could continue to learn even after they reached maturity. It wasn’t just the mind that was affected by learning, but also the soul in different stages of growth. Thus, in different stages of life, people observed certain ways of learning. It starts in infancy and childhood, where the character is trained through emotions. By adolescence, people can begin to understand logical reasoning as well as science and philosophy. Younger adults can start to understand more advanced physical and intellectual concepts and search for their own versions of their truth (you can read more about Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” to understand more about Plato’s beliefs on “the truth”).

But while Athenian education was limited to male children, Plato takes it one step further and argues that for a truly perfect state, both boys and girls needed to receive an education. Plato didn’t see a difference between what men and women were capable of, and their roles in a perfect society required both sexes to be educated.

Education System According to Plato

Today, most countries see education as a right and have structured educational systems where children of a certain age are required to attend school. This mirrors Plato’s belief that a state must have a structured system where children of both sexes must attend school. This is because he believed that every member of society, though they will each have their own specific role in society later in life, must all have equal education at the start of their training.

If you look at it in a certain way, it mirrors the kind of educational system we have in the present. The compulsory education children in the United States ages 6 to 18 attend are all general knowledge from basic to advanced levels. From there, a large percentage of students begin to make their way towards the workforce after high school and prove to be capable of performing work with the skills they built during their education. On the other hand, you also have people who go on to specialize in their skills and education through post-secondary education like certification programs, vocational school, undergraduate programs, up to doctorate programs.

In fact, the way Plato categorizes the stages of education is what generally influences the way we categorize and sort students into in terms of year levels. Plato divided the system of education into two – elementary and higher education – and divided classes based on age and class.

What Plato Didn’t Influence

Image by Gianni Crestani from Pixabay

There were some parts of Plato’s theories and beliefs that, although may be seen in other people’s ideas, never made it to the general consensus of how education should be upheld.

For instance, Plato believed that in order to maintain a utopian society, the government (specifically, the ruler or whoever was in charge) had to control the education and the information their people learned. He believed that it was a means for a ruler to shape its people’s beliefs and provide them with patriotic devotion towards their state and the duties they needed to perform.

While we see a sense of nationalism in the way that schools from all over the world shape their curriculum to be centered to their country, Plato’s beliefs beg the question of what would happen if an unfit ruler used the power of controlling what their people learned for their own benefit. By regulating what people should and should learn, a corrupt ruler can easily sway what people think to their own advantage because there would be no source of information for their people to contradict them.

And because Plato was in favor of governments controlling what people learned, it was no surprise that Plato also believed in censorship of literature and art. Plato did not believe that people could discern right from wrong for themselves and could be negatively influenced by the wrong type of literature and art. And the only person who had the right to decide what should and shouldn’t be censored? The ruler.

Naturally, the idea of total censorship and giving whoever is in charge of total power over knowledge and information would never slide in this time. Plato’s theory and belief in who gets to decide on everyone’s knowledge is based on the assumption that whoever is in charge would do so for the greater good. But realistically speaking, in today’s day and age, where most information is just one Google search away, limiting what we learn for the sake of one ruler’s successful reign, would (and is, in countries where censorship is high) have not sat well with scholars who believe knowledge should not be controlled.

Plato believed that an educated state could lead to the perfect state. And this is what led to an educational system similar to the one we see in most countries today. While some parts of his theories on education can be disagreed upon given the current state of moral values, his philosophy proved that it was possible for people to continuously learn and not just limit education to youths.

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