July 27, 2014

Plato and Education

4 out of 5 stars

At a Glance

Plato and EducationThe Book

The book is an introduction to Plato’s philosophical and educational thoughts. Plato was arguably the first philosopher of education (Barrow). This book seeks to offer authoritative accounts on main topics to the non-specialist reader.

The author is defending Plato’s classical interpretation of the role of educators against his prominent ‘liberal-democratic’ critics, such as Bertrand Russell.

The author claims that the greatness of Plato is his ability to still relate to our modern times. Throughout the book, readers will note how Plato’s words still echo with contemporary issues. I think this is the feature that makes this book (and any similar work) a timeless work.

Book Construction

The book has 8 chapters; the first two offer an introduction and set a historical background. The third discusses The Republic as a political framework and an educational charter. Chapter 5 expands on the Republic and asks other works of Plato about the distribution of education. Chapter 6 moves to discuss methodology of education. And finally the last three chapters are concerned with curriculum. With chapters 6 and 7 focusing on knowledge and art respectively, and chapter 8 examining moral education and “upbringing”.

The Author

Professor Robin Barrow has a PhD in Philosophy. He works in Simon Fraser University. He has authored numerous books on Philosophy of Education, Epistemology and Moral Philosophy (24 to the date of this review).

What I Took from the Book

Much of the book is reflecting material, meaning one can spend hours of end entertaining the implications of what is discussed in the book. Here are some main points I found quite interesting


The Republic

The republic is mainly concerned with the question “what is justice?” rejecting the claim by Thrasymachus that Justice is noting more than the advantage of the stronger! While Socrates for examples saw that in essence justice is inherently good to any man who can truly understand it. Plato draws from the two arguments that there should be an outline for a perfect state where justice is universal and served. This is done through The Guardians; lovers of wisdom and truth, who play the role of good watch–dogs. In this state children will be brought up under the nurses appointed by The Guardians. Until they reach an age of morality maturity when they can make their own minds about day-to-day issues, having “learnt” the one truth about all the major issues.


A tricking discovery I found is that Plato seemed to be an advocate to censorship! In page 21, Barrow says referring to the Homeric poems: “Plato’s intension is to censor this material radically […] anything that is false and anything that might encourage immorality or moral laxity must go”. The main question here is who gets to decide what might encourage immorality? I guess Plato would say, the Guardians, of course. (clearly this could easily lead to an oligarchy)

Higher Education

Higher Education in the Republic seems to be very selective and only available to those who have proven their competence and went through military education. The main topic they study is the rigorous training in abstract thought. What I find fascinating is how Plato was able to notice that practical knowledge is ever changing and it makes no sense to teach the method of today for those who will live tomorrow and discover the best methods for their time. So instead they should be taught only abstracts.

“One cannot know something that is false and one cannot know something that is uncertain or changing” (adapted from Plato, page 45).

But our whole physical world is ever changing; does this mean we can no nothing? Plato gives us the answer by concluding that the physical or material world is not in fact real at all and hence not worthy of knowing any thing about! What shall we learn then? Abstracts and forms. That’s why Plato built us a world of ideas and pure forms where a physical object like a table for example or an activity like running a marathon are mere imperfect manifestations of two pure forms or ideas; the idea of a table and the idea of running a marathon (read on the Theory of Forms if you’re not familiar with this). And finally, the knowledge, therefore, is rendered to the knowledge of the world of forms or ideas. This is essentially what Plato meant by teaching only abstracts in higher education.

Method of education

The method of education is also a critical matter, and according to Plato, the preferred method is discovery (page 33), learning by discovery. Barrow points to an excerpt from Socrates’s Meno, where he (Socrates) is teaching a slave of his how to double the size of a square. Instead of saying, “this is how you do it”, Socrates dives into a series of bit-size questions aimed at the slave. The Slave discovers the “truth” and Socrates turns to Meno to explain how he teaches the slave without dictating to him anything but rather giving him questions. In other words, the teacher here leads the curiosity of the student. Here’s the excerpt (from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/meno.html)

Soc.: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?
Slave: I do.
Soc.: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?
Slave: Certainly.
Soc.: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?
Slave: Yes.
Soc.: A square may be of any size?
Slave: Certainly.
Soc.: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?
Slave: Yes.
Soc.: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet?
Slave: There are.
Soc.: Then the square is of twice two feet?
Slave: Yes.
Soc.: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.
Slave: Four, Socrates.
Soc.: And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?
Slave: Yes.
Soc.: And of how many feet will that be?
Slave: Of eight feet.
Soc.: And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet-what will that be?
Slave: Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.
Soc.: Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions; and now he fancies that he knows how long a line is necessary in order to produce a figure of eight square feet; does he not?
Men. Yes.

What I find truly fascinating is the fact that Socrates is here teaching (or should I say mentoring) not only the slave, whom he refers to as ‘boy’, but also Meno in the same manner. Notice how he directs a question at Meno in the end!

This method of teaching requires 4 main foundations, (1) the teacher must know the answer, (2) the practice has to look –to the student- as not teaching, (3) the exercise is constructed in a way where the teacher has to give some information as is (for example the term diagonal) and (4) the teacher has to be very committed and patient with the student. It’s only left to say that these four foundational remarks -paradoxically- constitute the main criticism to this method.

What I think of the Book

An absolute rewarding read! I recommend this book very highly, although I would draw your attention to two points related to reading this book. First, this book is not particularly new there are, I’m sure, lots and lots of other books that revolve around the same issue. So you might want to check them as well. And secondly, this book can be boring at times, but being a less that a hundred pages, this can’t be a real problem. You will get over the boring parts and enjoy the intellectually rewarding ones soon enough.

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