Monday, June 01, 2009

Why a teacher should be an Aristotelian, not a Platonist

Someone once said that we are all either Platonists or Aristotelians. What does this mean, and why should it matter to those of us involved in education?

Perhaps the best way to explain is to use a famous painting. In “The School of Athens,” Raphael portrays Plato and Aristotle walking toward the viewer. Plato is pointing up, while Aristotle is gesturing down. Raphael did this very intentionally to show us, in a picture, the different way the two men thought.

Plato thought that the things that were most real were ideas, while Aristotle thought that the most real things were things. Plato taught that everything has an essence or nature: every man shares a human nature; every dog shares a dog nature; every tree shares a tree nature; and so on. The natures or essences themselves were not in the things, but existed in a sort of heavenly realm, and every example of these natures in this world—every man, or dog, or tree—is an imperfect representation of the nature that exists apart from any actual thing in this heavenly realm.

It is this heavenly realm that Plato is pointing to in Raphael’s painting.

Aristotle, on the other hand, while he believed in natures and essences too, believed they resided in the things themselves. Human nature was not in some heavenly realm, but in each and every man; dog nature was in each and every dog, and tree nature was in each and every tree.

This is why Raphael has Aristotle gesturing down, toward the Earth.

In the Christian way of looking at things, which involves the idea of the Incarnation of God in the flesh, the essences, the natures (what have been called the “transcendent ideas”) are not completely transcendent: they are incarnated in the world.

There are a lot of implications to the thinking of these two great philosophers, but one of them has to do with how we teach. One of the great insights of classical education is that we often mistakenly try to teach from the top down rather than the bottom up. We start with abstractions and work downward toward the concrete rather than the other way around. This is one of the most egregious mistakes a teacher can make.

There is an order of knowledge and an order of learning—and they are different. In the order of knowledge, the most important things come first. In the order of learning, they often come last. Teaching commonly involves a very counter-intuitive principle: that you begin with the least important thing and work toward the most important.

This is what we do when we teach reading: we start with the least important thing—sounding out words—and work toward the most important thing: understanding what we read. In math, we begin with mere calculation, which, in the total scheme of things, is really not very important, and we work toward the mathematical concepts and principles.

The educational landscape is littered with the corpses of educational reform efforts that ignored this proper sequence. The whole language movement attempted to bypass the seemingly trivial skill of sounding out words in favor of the more important goal of “understanding.” The New Math committed the equally egregious sin of teaching children mathematical concepts before they grasped the less glamorous procedures of math. The result has been several generations who can neither read nor understand, and who can neither understand concepts nor calculate.

When it comes to teaching, we should be Aristotelians, not Platonists.

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