From Instruction to Construction: Plato & Aristotle

William Rankin
Jan 30 · 5 min read

In a previous edition of my career, when I was a professor of literature and literary theory, I used to tell my students that much of literary history could effectively be seen as an argument between Plato and Aristotle….

Plato believed in an absolute “reality” that exists outside of human perspective and experience — a perfect realm of universal “forms” that shape and give meaning to everything. He believed that the physical universe around us is an inferior, decaying shadow of these forms — nothing but a poor copy. Since only a few “elect” people can see beyond the distracting surface of the material universe, most people don’t really understand what’s important. And what’s important is not the concrete, physical world, but only the “abstract” one that hides beyond it in the perfect, ethereal plane. Human creation (whether by art, skill, or application) is merely another distraction associated with the inferiority of this material world: it’s okay for the “lesser” people, but not appropriate for those “elites” who know what’s what.

Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that the universe is a product of human recognition and construction: we perceive patterns around us, name those patterns, and give them meaning through our deployment and refinement of them. Nothing exists outside of shared, human perception, which means that both the material universe and the people around us are necessary and important. The “elites” for Aristotle are those who can perceive or create these patterns, yet this isn’t the only path to elevated status. People also become “elite” by articulating those patterns clearly so they can be incorporated in the art and craft of others. Teaching is therefore essential for Aristotle, closing the loop between perception and creation. “Abstract” knowledge is irrelevant as long as it stays unapplied, because in that case, it’s truly useless. Knowledge only matters when it is embedded in and manifest by people who incorporate it in their creations, work, and teaching. All real knowledge is therefore inherently social and creational, fully embedded in the messy material world that Plato shunned.

While all of this might seem esoteric or irrelevant in a discussion of education and learning, it isn’t. The tension between these two views has important implications for one of the central arguments in education: is it more important to know or more important to act? In other words, which takes precedence: “Platonic” information or “Aristotelian” application?

Is it more important to know or more important to act?

What’s happened in schools over the past couple of centuries is interesting. Much of existing academic practice is dominated by a “Platonic” approach. For example, most schools and teachers present math as a series of formulas to be memorized and problems to be worked with little concern for application in any sort of meaningful context. And no, “word problems,” contrived specifically to illustrate a concept that has already been decomposed and delineated don’t count. Many teach history as a series of dates, characters, and movements to be memorized with no real concern about how those connect with current issues or events. Others teach chemistry and physics as a series of “cookbook recipes” to be followed without any requirement for the scientific principles or procedures they illustrate to be applied to any real-world situation either outside or inside of the lab…

In discipline after discipline, what we get is an emphasis on information as an abstract concept, untainted by contact with real-world application. Plato over Aristotle.

Of course, such approaches are encouraged and supported by most of the standardized-testing ecology. Cohorts of publishers, governmental and bureaucratic agencies, and even professional educational organizations produce or require exams that emphasize abstract information over applied skills, conceptual knowledge over an ability to act. Whether it’s due to the need for these assessments to function on an industrial scale or whether this emphasis is more philosophically grounded is irrelevant. The testing ecology is the most frequently cited reason teachers give for preferring a “Platonic” approach. Demonstrate something more skills- or application-based, and most teachers will voice excitement and interest … but they’ll almost immediately temper that excitement with that phrase we’ve all heard a thousand times: “I’d love to try that, but I have to get my students ready for the test.”

They’re not saying this lightly. And in the current educational climate, they’re not wrong. Nor does it seem to matter that modern neuroscience, rafts of well conceived and conducted studies, and theorists dating at least as far back as Dewey and Montessori have all pointed to the value and superiority of the “Aristotelian” approach. Not much changes. Despite most teachers avowing interest in application and skills-based approaches — and despite decades of educational conferences featuring compelling examples of just how powerful the “Aristotelian” approach can be — Plato still somehow stays in ascendancy. There’s almost a kind of gravity, constantly pulling at more skills- and application-based approaches until they collapse and crash.

So sadly, the world simply won’t be changed by yet another testimonial about learning-by-making.

However, there’s another aspect of the “Platonic”/“Aristotelian” divide that bears considering if we want to effect meaningful change in education. Rather than focusing only on what we do (or don’t do) with information in each approach, we also have to consider the interpersonal environment that each approach creates. By failing to consider both of these aspects, we simply can’t offer a full and coherent solution. Nothing will change because something will always be missing or misadjusted. And I’m convinced that any solution that tries to manifest the informational method of one approach in the environment of the other is doomed to failure. This, more than anything else, is the reason that so many teachers say “that sounds exciting, and I wish I could give it a try, but it just won’t work.”

In the next post, I’ll consider how the human element inherent in each of these approaches — the interrelationships among people — is linked to its informational model. Those teachers who hold to a “Platonic” approach aren’t doing so because they don’t understand — or even, in many cases, don’t appreciate — an “Aristotelian” approach. They often do. They hold to a “Platonic” model because they have investments in it, and legitimate concerns about what might happen to the social and informational structures in their classes should they change their approach… Without dealing with these investments and concerns, most teachers have no incentive to change and no mechanism to do so.

Age of Awareness

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William Rankin

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Bill is a learning designer whose Unfold Learning Group works to improve access, humanity, and agency in learning, replacing the Taylorite education factory…

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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