Plato on Education

The School of Athens by Raphael

Numerous philosophers from the past have recommended their ideas for effective education for the people. However, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato is credited with the educational system that the modern world is using. Plato’s main influence as a great thinker lies in his philosophical ideas, but he was also a mathematician and the author of literary works called dialogues. He is one of the three most influential philosophers of ancient times, along with Socrates, who was his teacher, and Aristotle, who was his student.

Plato’s Theories on Education

The modern world boasts of its colleges and universities, but it was during Plato’s time that the institution of higher learning was invented. Plato founded a school of higher education and called it the Academy. As a result, present-day universities use the word “academics” when referring to subjects or courses that they teach. This alone points to Plato’s legacy to the modern educational system. Plato’s Academy was ancient Athens’ university of higher education, where subjects such as mathematics, physical science, astronomy, and philosophy were taught. Plato not only founded the Academy, but he also delivered lectures there. However, his students did not record any of his lectures, so scholars today can only imagine what they were composed of and how the master delivered them. Furthermore, there are no accounts of how the Academy taught its students. Scholars theorize that the school educated its students through a blend of dialogues, lectures, and conferences.

Plato discussed his thoughts on education in his most famous work, Republic. Through dialogue, Plato laid out his advice on how citizens could build a great Republic. Plato found education to be a critical tool in building a great Republic. To him, each citizen’s education should help not only the citizen’s mental improvement but also his physical and spiritual progress as well. In Plato’s vision of education, it is the wholeness of the student that should be developed. This may sound common and self-evident to modern people, but this was new in Plato’s time.

Plato’s principles of education rest on his idea of a perfect government. According to Plato, an individual improves to the limits of his talents when guided by a knowledgeable society. The great philosopher advised that children should be taken from their mothers while young and turned to the state. The state will then be responsible for the children’s upbringing and education and make the young citizens understand that they are to be the future guardians of the state. The state should carefully note each student’s abilities and intellectual inclinations to ensure that these talents will be properly nurtured. Among Plato’s primary concerns were developing the citizen’s physical skills and artistic and musical tastes.

In the modern educational system, it is taken for granted that learning is available to all. However, Plato was the first to recommend the practical idea that men and women should receive an equal education. He touches on this concept throughout his writings. To him, every child, whether a boy or a girl, wealthy or poor, has an inborn ability. And it is in the practical interest of the state that this inborn ability, or talent, be brought out and improved to its utmost. Plato stretches this concept by asserting that the state should observe which child has an appropriate talent to serve society and then provide suitable training for that child. By stating this, Plato established his doctrine that the family or the neighborhood is not the best education provider for the child, but the state is. According to Plato, children who were trained in this manner would be the most eligible to be members of the ruling class. This ruling class would clearly be the result of the state’s selective education based on the children’s talents.

Advancement through the Educational System

Plato was aware of how difficult it could be for the state to select which children should be trained by the state. He had thought about his system thoroughly and explained how children could advance through the system of education that he was envisioning.

First Level

Plato maintains that very young children should remain with their parents to learn the basics of morality. It is also during this period of development that Plato says children of both sexes should be allowed to intermingle during playtime.

Second Level

Once the children reach seven years, girls should only be allowed to play with girls, and boys should only be allowed to play with boys. Their education will focus on gymnastics and music to improve their sensibilities and make them responsive to the world. This stage in Plato’s system of education will last until the children reach seventeen years of age.

Third Level

After the second stage of education, the children will be made familiar with the harshness of life and the realities of the battlefield. They will undergo strict military training for two years.

Fourth Level

When the students pass the two-year military training, they will then be twenty years old. At this stage, the state will choose who is qualified for higher education. Those who do not qualify will be assigned to occupations that suit their capabilities. Those who qualify will move on to the next level, which is another ten years of training in grand subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, harmonics, and geometry. Plato outlined these subjects to help the students mature as seekers of truth. Plato believes that only those students who love truth should be considered prime candidates to move on through his educational system.

Fifth Level

After the students complete the fourth stage of training, the state will give them a test. Those who fail will stay in the military. The ones who pass will be allowed to enter the government and will undergo another five years of education. They will be further trained in logic, metaphysics, philosophy, and dialectics.

Sixth Level

In the last stage of Plato’s educational system, the students will be assigned to government positions where they will serve for the next 15 years. From these individuals, one will be named by the state to rule as philosopher-king. The philosopher-king will be the highest official of the land, and his work is to run the government and educate the people. Any order he gives will be carried out by those who are below his rank, and his decisions will be obeyed as law. Meanwhile, the other members of the ruling class will be continuously educated on philosophy.

Plato’s educational system may seem too extensive, taking up many years in an individual’s life. However, the extensive nature of his system is Plato’s way of separating the individuals who possess the ability to rule from those individuals who deserve to work in common occupations. Plato felt that only at the age of 50 and after several years of education in advanced courses could a philosopher-king and members of his ruling class be chosen. For a position as important as ruling a nation, Plato had to ensure that his rulers would be politically and morally prepared.

Elements of Plato’s Educational Philosophy

Plato envisioned a kind of education that was available for everyone, regardless of sex and social status. He reasoned that every citizen of a state should contribute to the state’s welfare and that the most certain way to ensure this was to educate all citizens. Plato did not see any difference in the quality of civic contributions a man and a woman might offer, and so he treated both as potential, responsible citizens. In this regard, Plato may have been influenced by his teacher, Socrates, who said that the perfect city is one in which men and women are allowed to do work for the city.

The organization and opportunities for advancement in Plato’s educational system were ordered in three levels: elementary education, during which the children were trained in music and gymnastics; military instruction; and higher education. Plato’s idea of higher education continues to influence the modern education system, wherein individuals take on master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. Plato asserted that education was the responsibility of the state. The state should treat the issue of education as a crucial matter and should be the only one to decide what should be taught and how courses should be taught. Plato looked down on the kind of training that was provided by the family. In his view, too much individuality is passed on to children through this form of training. Plato looked at individuality as dangerous to the state. He believed that only citizens who were educated by the government could make meaningful contributions to the state. Plato’s concept of total state control of education has not carried over to the modern world because of the dominance of democratic ideals and modern society’s aversion to censorship. However, the concept that the state is obligated to provide its citizens with a good education is one of the pillars of modern society.