It is through Plato that we know Socrates, but Plato is no mere mouthpiece. All western philosophy has been described as ‘footnotes to Plato’. Like Socrates, he believed in the power of questioning as a method of teaching and most of his writing is in the form of ‘dialogue’. Indeed his dialogues do not feature Plato himself, they illustrate by example his view that the learners must learn to think for themselves through dialogue. But he was a direct, detailed, and controversial commentator in his utopian vision of education in The Republic, The Laws and other dialogues.
Plato’s Academy is thought by many to have been the first University, open to both men and women. He founded The Academy in 387 BC, a philosophical school that remained in use until AD 526, when it was finally closed down by the Emperor Justinian. Astonishingly, having run for 900 years, it rivals any current western university for longevity. Above its door were the words Do not enter here unless you know geometry, as he saw mathematics as important training for the mind, along with the idea of clear hypotheses and proofs.
School, he proposes, should start at six with the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. A strict curriculum is recommended in the early years and the educational system should be designed to determine the abilities of individuals and training provided to apply to the strengths of their abilities. In other words, a severe form of streaming. These ideas were to be revived by the humanists during the Renaissance and shaped the Western schooling system with its focus on the 3 Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic.
Mathematics, he thought, provides an education in sound reasoning towards the immaterial Forms, simply amassing knowledge was seen as wasteful. However, and this is where we should take note, he did not recommend that young minds should be introduced the mathematics and abstract reasoning too early. This simply induces rejection and rebelliousness. At this early stage one must develop character.
Now here comes a recommendation that sounds shocking to modern ears, that we should reject the teaching and consumption of fiction at an early age; literature and especially poetry and drama. For those who believe that education is about ‘storytelling’ Plato has some salutary warnings. Fiction can cloud a child’s mind and reduce their ability to make judgments and deal with the real world. More than this, he thought that fiction could lead to self-deception, in particular acting, where learners develop a false-sense of themselves. He also thought that they may be tempted to emulate some of the immoral behaviour in such texts. Morality was, for Plato, the bedrock of the educational process and education was a structured and intense process.
In the Phaedrus, he also cautions us about being too reliant on a technology such as writing. It may have the opposite educational effect from that intended, as it creates a sense that something is learnt but actually results in forgetfulness. He wars us that writing may be the enemy of memory, as one is not recalling from one’s own mind but the written text. Interestingly this is a strong finding in recent cognitive science, where effortful learning through retrieval is recommended.
Mind and body
Music and sports should be brought into the curriculum with more serious attention paid to military training at the age of 18. The Greek ideal of body and mind is seen in an educational context with a structured approach to education across one’s entire lifetime. Gymnasion was literally a “school for naked exercise” and they were common in Greek cities, with complex buildings, run by public officials, often linked to games and festivals. Educational activities such as lectures, philosophical discussion and the reading of literature were also held there.
We must remember that Plato doesn’t see education for all, and certainly not slaves, merely a minority destined to rule, although The Republic can also be seen as an analogy for the individual mind. He sees the mind developing over time with age as an important factor in education. The child is not capable of sound reasoning and must be protected from harmful cultural influences but in time, at 18 and 21, higher educational goals are introduced, with philosophy at 30. It is only at the age of 50 that the educated person should be allowed to rule – as philosopher kings.
In education, the ‘classical’ education that so influenced 19th century schooling, still so influential in Western Universities, show that this Greek tradition lives on. Greek is still taught in many schools and the Glory that was Greece is still recognized in the philosophy, history and drama that is still studied to this day.
The word gymnasium lives on in Germany as a form of school and elsewhere as a place for physical exercise and sports. An education involving both mind and body lived on in the European tradition of education with its focus on competitive sports and the revival of the Greek ideal of the Olympics. We even have the Greek lettered fraternities in the US.
Plato’s lasting contribution to educational theory has pros and cons. It led to severe, selective streaming, cast doubt on the use of literature, poetry and drama and put an undue emphasis on abstract, academic knowledge at the expense of the vocational. This last point is perhaps the most pertinent, as it was based on a very abstract and metaphysical theory of knowledge (Forms). On the other hand, it led to rigour in mathematics and reason, laying the foundations for The Academy, the forerunner of the modern University. Theoretically, he mapped out a developmental educational theory that rested on the Greek ideal of mind and body and saw education as developing at different ages, an early conception of lifelong learning.
Plato (1955) The Republic, London: Penguin (translated by H. P. D. Lee).
Plato (1955) The Laws, London: Penguin (translated by H. P. D. Lee).
Murdoch, Iris (1977) The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato banished the Artists, Oxford University Press.
Hare, R. M. (1989) Plato, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Brown, P.C., Roediger III, H.L. and McDaniel, M.A., (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.