Differences Between Idealism & Realism in the Philosophy of Education

Ancient Roman statue of Plato
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Realism and Idealism are two competing philosophies in the field of education. Dating back to ancient Greece, these theories influence the philosophy of education to this day.

1 Idealism

Idealism is the school of educational thought promoted by Plato in 400 B.C. Plato thought that humans could be improved from within, by correcting their thoughts and discovering knowledge already there since birth. Idealism focuses on reasoning and how a person can bring knowledge up from inside of himself. In this view, the world exists solely in the minds of people and that ultimate truth relies on a consistency of ideas. The more perfect our ideas become, therefore, the better we can serve the world. In Emmanuel Kant's idealism, the world exists, but our minds are separate from it.

2 Realism

Realism is the school of educational thought promoted by Plato's student, Aristotle. Realism holds that the only reality is the material world, that study of the outer world is the only reliable way to find truth; the world is an objective phenomenon that our minds must adhere to. We achieve greater and greater knowledge through proper study of the world. In Realism, a person is an empty vessel for knowledge, which can only come from outside of the self, through observation. This philosophy was the progenitor of the scientific method, a system of inquiry relying on objective facts.

3 Different Methods

Idealism seeks to ascertain an ultimate reality through logic and introspection. Plato held that individuals are born with great knowledge that can be unlocked through a study of ideas and through the Socratic Method, a series of questions that lead the pupil to greater knowledge. For instance, in Plato's dialogue "Meno," Socrates helps a slave boy discover an inner knowledge of mathematics, despite no prior training. Thus, every student is equally capable of tapping inner resources of knowledge and wisdom. Realism, on the other hand, seeks to instruct students as though they were empty vessels for knowledge. Any practical methods are appropriate, including technology. This philosophy also accepts the scientific testing of students to place them in appropriate classrooms.

4 Philosophy and the Teacher

Realism and Idealism are fundamentally opposing views, and a teacher's philosophy will be evident in the classroom. An idealist, for instance, will seek the role of facilitator, guiding students toward truth. Students will be able to seek truth independently, thinking freely with the careful guidance of the teacher. As a facilitator, the teacher will not act as an absolute authority but as a gentle guide for the student. A realist, on the other hand, will seek to infuse students with knowledge from without. A realist will seek to employ the scientific method of hypotheses and careful study over a use of pure logic and reason, as found in an idealistic education. Realism is consistent with behaviorism, which is a system of learning through punishment and reward. Being reliant solely on information from the external world, realism discounts the original thought of the student. The teacher, then, will be seen as the highest authority, a figure to which students must answer rather than a guide who can be questioned.

Hobie Anthony is a fiction writer who has been published in the "Los Angeles Review," "Crate," "Ampersand," "Birkensnake," "Fourteen Hills," and various online literary magazines, including, "The Rumpus." He holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Guilford College.