on education

thoughts from a graduate student at the university of mary washington

idealism, realism, and education. week four.


on idealism

Plato’s The Cave is an allegory for how we attain knowledge. Plato believed that our senses would lead us to false realities and that only our minds and our souls could experience true enlightenment. This is evident in the opening scenes, where we are to envision people living, chained, in a cave, and their only perceptions of reality are the shadows on the walls; the half truths of knowledge. Our sensory world changes, but knowledge is eternal and unwavering, therefore, we cannot trust our senses to tell us what is real. Plato believes that the soul will rise above the mercurial world of the shadows in the cave and  that we should interpret the journey upwards to be “the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world.” (Plato, 380 BCE) Once our souls have been enlightened, we have an obligation to go back into the cave and direct others to enlightenment. The educational implications of the message set forth in The Cave are that educators should be exemplary models and ask leading questions of their pupils to guide them to discover what is true and right. As Socrates states in The Cave, professors of education cannot put knowledge into a soul. It can only be learned by the individual, intrinsically. In other words, only your mind can seek the truth. In Foundations of Education, this pillar of idealism is expressed as well. “The individual, through deep thought and introspection, searches his or her own mind and discovers in it the ideas that are copies of the macrocosmic mind.” (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011, p. 171). Plato also favored arithmetic and geometry for teaching students because math was evidence that there were eternal truths that the mind could come to know. He also believed that everyone should be able to go to school to cultivate their knowledge of these eternal truths, but recognized that learning differences and high intellectual standards left very few able to make it to the top, as it were, and become philosopher-kings.

Emerson’s essay The Over-Soul is also deeply rooted in idealist philosophy, which asserts that a person’s soul “is the permanent element of human nature that gives individuals the power to think and feel.” (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011, p. 170). Emerson writes that knowledge is unchanging and far-reaching, and that the soul creates reality and leaves the human world behind (Emerson, 1841). Like Plato, Emerson thinks that the mind already knows everything it needs, and it is up to us to enlighten ourselves to unlock that knowledge. “[The mind] converses with truths that have always been spoken in the world…” (Emerson, 1841). Emerson also illustrates the idealist notion of the macrocosm, the idea that all things are part of each other and a universal mind when he writes that, “We are wiser than we know. If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know this particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts his dread omniscience through us and over things.” (Emerson, 1841)

Like Plato, Emerson believes that knowledge cannot be attained by being told what it is or what to believe. It is intrinsic to the individual mind, having been there for eternity for a person to discover it for themselves. He says that it does no good to teach from without, rather, from within is where knowledge must come. Teachers of this world are simply spectators, and cannot teach things from within. As with Plato, a teacher’s role would be to guide students on the path to enlightenment within themselves.

on realism

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, would it make a noise? 

The short answer? Yes.
Whether you’re there or not, the tree still fell and made a great big boom.

Realists believe that reality is objective. It exists outside the self in the natural world.  Realists believe in experiential learning and using the senses and the scientific method to determine what the world is and how it relates to us. Because of this, a realist would turn to the physical laws that act on all matter, independent of observation. Gravity would pull the tree to the ground, a wave of energy would rise up and and make a noise, probably the aforementioned great big boom.

on idealism, realism, and student learning 

Idealist teachers see themselves as guides for children realizing their fullest intellectual potential (Ornstein, Levine, & Gutek, 2011). The role of both student and teacher is to be well versed in the universal truths of the classics and to be well entrenched in the finer aspects of their culture. Students would be expected to look within themselves to find the answers to key questions, being guided by Socratic questioning from their teachers. Expectations would be high, and teachers would be very boring, proper people with exemplary status in the community and numerous citizen awards. The quest for the universal truths would be central to an idealist education.

Realist educators teach kids about the world they live in with objective knowledge from that world. Students use experiential learning to bring their ideas about the world “into correspondence with reality” (Ornstein, Levine & Gutek, 2011, p. 175) under a teacher’s guidance. It is important for realist educators to be well-versed in their content area. Everyone should receive an education, and standards would be set to measure student achievement in the content areas.

i know you are, but what am i?

If I were asked to pick between just the two philosophies (and what do you know, I have been!), I should think that I lean more toward a realist philosophy than that of idealism. While I do believe in a higher being and the universal knowledge that it brings, I also believe that knowledge is objective and directly tied to the world and time in which we live. I firmly believe that kids can’t learn if you don’t have them manipulate their environment and apply the knowledge they’re gaining to the world around them. I believe that you cannot be an effective teacher without having mastered your content area, and I also believe that a teacher should be a well-rounded individual with schooling in many disciplines. I believe that understanding the world we live in also helps us to understand why we are the way we are and why we do the things we do. As much as I fancy having a soul, I believe that my power to think comes from my brain and various evolutionary mechanisms, and not from a ball of energy that I can’t prove exists outside my body. And while I appreciate higher-order thinking skills, I recognize that not all children will be able to master them. Every student should be equipped with basic, objective knowledge to help them succeed in the world in which we live.

This is a great clip of the comparison of idealism and realism. He’s not the most enthusiastic, but he’s easy to follow! If you’re interested, he has an entire series on YouTube on the Philosophy of Education, of which this clip is a part. It helped me solidify where I stand between the two philosophies.




Emerson, R. (1841). The over-soul. Retrieved from http://www.emersoncentral.com/oversoul.htm

Ornstein, A., Levine, D., & Gutek, G. (2011). Foundations of education. (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Plato. (360 BCE). The republic. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.8.vii.html

posted under EDCI 506
One Comment to

“idealism, realism, and education. week four.”

  1. Avatar September 23rd, 2012 at 5:02 pm nkelley88 Says:

    You and I are very similar on our beliefs on being more of a realist. I enjoyed the answer you gave for the “tree” question! And surprisingly you and I posted the same video, great minds think a like. I found it to be a really helpful explanation of the 2 theories, it helped me to understand them better because I found the readings a little hard to follow. Good job!

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