The Evolution of Educational Theory

By Gaia Grant


How Plato understands justice in the state,

and how it differs from the modern western democratic notion of justice?

Plato suggests that justice is the priority issue and ultimate aim of the state (which was, in his time, the city-state). The means to achieving this state of justice, he claims, is by recognising the different classes and capabilities of individuals, educating these different classes accordingly through a specially designed and structured curriculum. Social harmony and state justice are achieved when these principles are adhered to.

Plato identifies and names three classes of individuals –  the “bronze” artisan class, the “silver” military class, and the “gold” elite ruling class. The focus of his educational program is the upper “gold” class, who are deemed to be capable of being educated to reach the ultimate state of “reason” through solid instruction in mathematics and dialectics. By developing a balance of authority and wisdom, through both strict theoretical instruction and a long period of “on-the-job” practical training, this ruling class would then be capable of handling all matters of the state and ensuring that justice prevails.

Since Plato’s time there has, however, been a significant shift in western thought from an authoritarian approach to social control and shaping through to democratic social structure and more individualised and open forms of learning. The fundamental beliefs that individuals have different intellectual capabilities and are destined to belong to different social classes are in contrast to the beliefs that form the basis of democratic social and educational theory: which recognise individuality and individual potential, with an emphasis on the need for autonomy and a positive learning environment. Justice, according to the latest theories, is achieved when individuals are given the opportunity to reach their potential, and to participate in decision-making processes. Both individual freedom and fairness to all are important. Plato’s traditional concept of state justice therefore differs greatly in both fundamental principles and practical concepts.

(300 words)


How Aristotle understands the concept of happiness and what he see as its place in education

Happiness (eudaimonia), according to Aristotle, should be the ultimate aim of individuals and the state. The concept of happiness that Aristotle describes, however, is not a light emotional state that is transitory and vulnerable to external circumstances, but rather the development of a deeper sense of “goodness” within the soul or psyche. Goodness, in turn, is the process of determining the correct state of the soul.

Happiness is considered an end in itself, as the final achievement of right and true acts. When our conscious acts are appropriately directed to the pursuit of true happiness, he says, we are able to live our lives according to the principles of goodness. By identifying the meaning and source of this happiness and the goodness that determines it, humans can give themselves something to aim for, and therefore direction for appropriate conduct.

The aim of education, therefore, is to allow individuals to recognise and experience goodness and ultimately happiness through learning about and eventually independently performing excellent activities. By exposing the young to good acts and encouraging good habits, Aristotle claims that education can help to nurture these qualities. Eventually, he believes, personal desire will become the driving force, and individuals will want to continue to practice good acts through self-motivation rather than through compulsion or habit.

These good acts, or “virtues”, are both intellectual and moral. Intellectual virtues include wisdom, intelligence and prudence. The moral virtues include liberality and temperance. While moral virtues are present in nature but must be trained by habit, a wise teacher can only teach intellectual virtues over a period of time.

Through such a practical and systematic approach to education, which considers the developmental requirements of individuals, Aristotle says people can be taught how to attain goodness and therefore happiness, resulting in state harmony.

(299 words)


The adequacy of Rousseau’s account of moral education up to the age of adolescence

Rousseau’s philosophy of education was, at the time it was introduced, a radical diversion from traditional education, which focused on teaching academic subjects rather than starting with the emotional and social needs of individual children.

In Rousseau’s time, a strict moral and social education began at birth – by swaddling babies and restricting their feeding, play and self-expression – and was immediately followed by intellectual instruction. Rousseau, however, insisted that children should learn about the world from sensory experience, by being exposed to goodness in a protected environment. He said children would not be ready for logical thinking until later in life, after turning 15.

Following Plato’s and Aristotle’s leads, Rousseau has recognised that children go through developmental stages. His developmental theory varies from those of his predecessors; however, in the ages of each stage, the types of changes that take place, and the appropriate educational responses to these changes.

From 0 to 2yrs, he believes, the child needs to explore his/her own feelings and bond closely with mother. Between 2 and 12yrs there should be an exploratory play environment, but protection from harmful influences. From 12 to 15yrs the child’s natural curiosity can, he says, be enhanced through discovery learning.

Because Rousseau claims the basis of the state is moral not political, developing goodness is the aim of education. Although not clearly defined, the emphasis on learning goodness from “nature” is refreshing, and the belief the child is innately good, rather being born into sin, is enlightening. The late timing of his stages has been challenged by modern psychology, however, and the concept of protecting the child from harm while allowing for free exploration is seen as contradictory.

Though the intentions of the theory are positive, therefore, the applications are not practical and are no longer thought to be appropriate.

(300 words)


Dewey’s ideas on immaturity, and the positive educational features he sees it as having?

Dewey challenges the usual assumption that immaturity is a disadvantage for a child, and says instead that it is a positive advantage at this stage in life, because the concept of immaturity actually implies the potential for growth. Rather than indicating a lack of maturity, if the emphasis is put on what is yet to come, the child can be perceived as having significant power and potency.

The two major traits of immaturity identified by Dewey are dependence and plasticity. Once again dependence, for Dewey, is a positive rather than negative trait, as it encourages interdependence, which he sees is a positive social attribute. Plasticity, similarly, is not the weakness of having no firm shape or “backbone” of your own, but rather refers to the ability to adapt to the situation according to previously learnt experiences. This, in turn, leads to the development of positive dispositions, and eventually constructive habits. It allows the individual to “learn to learn”.

The potential for growth, Dewey believes, is the greatest asset an individual can have, and he says that education should aim to increase and perpetuate that potential. Because education is development, and because development is growth – even life itself, the educational process is the process of promoting growth and through continually “reorganising, reconstructing, transforming”. This means, consequently, that there is no other end to education than continued growth. Further the aim of eduction, he says, should be as broad as possible to allow for any future possibilities.

Although the concept of growth in education is enlightening and liberating, it is a theory that is difficult to implement successfully in practice because of the extraordinary teacher skills needed and environmental standards required. Additionally, the outcomes for particular learning experiences are never really clear or measurable, which is a concern for contemporary educators.

(300 words)

©2000 Gaia Grant

T-Thoughts articles may be reproduced with written permission and must also be acknowledged with a web link back to the Tirian pages.

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