Idealism plays a very large part in the philosophical thought of today’s Western world. Many people think that idealism has died out, but in reality it still strongly exists. Idealism bases itself on the premise that ideas are most important in life and that people should focus their thoughts on ideas, which are perfect. Reality, in essence, is spiritual or non-material Ideas play a large role in idealism. The word idea comes from the Greek language and used to mean, “A shape, form, or image.” Idea has now developed to mean, “A prototype as a real entity, creative thought, or notion, a concept”.
Idealism is one of the oldest of the traditional philosophies. It dates back to the days of Plato, around 400 B.C. Plato is said to be the founder of idealism. He has been called the greatest of all Greek philosophers. Originally, Plato had been a follower and student of Socrates, but after the death of Socrates, Plato branched off with some of his own ideas. In 387 B.C., Plato started his own school, which was called a university for the first time. This school existed for almost one thousand years. Plato's philosophic thought had a large impact on the rest of the world. Idealism has influenced many key people and organizations including American public schools and the Christian church throughout the Middle Ages.
Froebel had a definite idealistic view of education. He wrote, “All the child is ever to be and become, lies, however slightly indicated, in the child, and can be attained only through development from within outward.” Rousseau popularized the idealistic idea that children overall are good. They are born with a good nature, so they naturally want to do good things. Many recent influential people have also taken up idealistic thought. W.T Harris was a superintendent of a public school, and the national commissioner of education in the United States for many years. John Dewey was another educational figure who was largely influenced by idealism.
Idealism, as with every other major philosophy, has several key concepts. To the idealist, the only ultimate reality is mental and spiritual thought. The universe, as people see it, is not actual reality. Everything they see is only a concept in their minds. All things in the world exist in the mind. This world of ideas is perfect, orderly, eternal, and unchangeable. Ideas became absolute.
Idealists imply that everything is connected to each other. If they can grasp the concept behind one thing, it will inevitably lead them to eventually understand everything. This is best represented in this poem of Tennyson’s:
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower– but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
In education, the mind was emphasized above all else. Idealists believed factual information was important; however, facts were not enough. Reasoning within one's own mind was an important process in idealistic education. Learned facts must be taken and reasoned with to come up with the real meaning. Idealists look at reality in one of two ways. First, macrocosm states that an original cause, possibly God, is the main existence. Everything else in existence is a lesser form. The other version of reality is microcosm. Microcosm explains reality as a small part of the whole picture. It submits that a student is a small spiritual being that is a part of a spiritual universe of which everything is comprised. However, all idealists would believe that all that exists is within the universe. Each person is an individual reality, part of the larger “being”.
If one were to ask the idealist teacher what knowledge was, he would say that knowledge is ideas. If one were to ask the teacher what schooling was, he would reply, “School is a social agency where students seek to discover and pursue truth.” The idealist teacher also believes that only the brightest students should be educated. The more intelligence a student has, the easier it is for him to understand concepts. Of course, these concepts and ideas comprise the truth that idealists seek. The idealistic teacher must always strive to get academic excellence out of his student. The teacher forces his student to think for himself.
Several things stand out when considering the educational practice of idealism. The focus of idealistic education is on the teaching rather than on the learning. The teacher tells the student precisely how to believe and how to think. The student knows exactly where he should stand. The idealist teacher holds up the importance of each student making a difference, because each student is different. The teacher attempts to use the student’s personality to develop a unique person with an individual will. Personal guidance by the authority is stressed.
Idealistic teachers tend to have a particular style of teaching. All teachers are a type of role model; however, the designated function of an idealistic teacher is to be a role model. Women were the majority of schoolteachers, especially in the elementary school. The reason for having women teach school is that the teacher was the moral example. Women were often more moral than men, particularly years ago. Idealistic teachers have a distinct way to discipline students. These teachers do not have certain rules. They believe that a good, prepared teacher will not have any problems with classroom control. These teachers prefer to use positive examples in class to encourage other students. They would rather take a student aside and reason with him to try to make him behave. George Kneller does a satisfactory job of describing idealism’s disciplinary technique. He said, “When a pupil becomes a disciplinary problem, the idealist teacher tries to show him the effect of his misconduct on the rest of the class. The teacher asks the wrongdoer what would happen if everyone behaved as he does. Is he setting a good example for his classmates to follow?”
Idealists stress memory and recitation as the primary way to learn. Teachers do not have an exact method of teaching. They would rather adjust and conform to the circumstances in the classroom as they teach. Because idealists believe that the best way to learn is in a one-to-one situation, they avoid group learning situations. Idealists love books, and they function as a large part in their educational practice. Their curriculum is fairly normal with a heavy emphasis on subjects such as history and literature. When an idealist teacher tests, he prefers subjective testing. A teacher rarely gives tests; he would rather find out a student’s ideas and thoughts on a subject.
Hamm, Russell L. Philosophy and Education. Danville: Interstate Printers, 1974.
Henderson, Stella. Introduction to Philosophy of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.
Kneller, George F. Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1964
Ornstein, Allen C. Levine, Daniel U., An Introduction to the Foundations of Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.
Rushdooney, Rousas J. The Messianic Character of American Education. Nutley: Craig Press, 1963.
Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988.
Wilson, Fred L. “Science and Human Values.” Rochester Institute of Technology 5.11 (1999): 5. 21 Oct. 1999 <http://www.rit.edu/~flwstv/plato.html>.
Windelband, Wilhelm. A History of Philosophy. New York: Harper, 1954.
J McRae BA MA Psy from Desert Southwest U.S. on April 26, 2020:
Very good article. Extremely well-written. Thank you.
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jia on July 27, 2013: