In his Republic, Plato strives to answer pivotal questions about education: What is it? What is its goal, its purpose in our lives? How should it be accomplished? He begins by describing education as a quest to seek, know, and love truth. It is not a simple acquisition of facts, but a journey that transforms the soul. Its purpose is to bring us to know and love what is just, beautiful and good, and to enable us to live a life guided by devotion to the truth. Plato suggests that delight is vital to achieving this great end, and that a love of learning stimulates an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and is the key to helping instruction “abide in the soul.”
The fundamental function of education is to turn the eyes of the soul around and direct them to the light. Education causes us to see and think differently, and to perceive the world as illuminated by the truth. It changes our tastes and encourages us to wholeheartedly pursue that which is true, beautiful and good. Rightly understood, education becomes a quest for wisdom and virtue. It cultivates a longing for and understanding of the truth, enabling us to choose what is good not simply because it is morally right, but as a matter of taste. This delight-filled education is not transitive, but has a lasting, transformative effect which Plato describes as a complete “turning around” of the soul, which is accomplished when the process itself is engaging, progressive, and unified by a central focus.
Throughout the dialogue, Plato demonstrates a uniquely engaging teaching style. Unlike many educational paradigms in which an instructor delivers facts for students to receive, the model he presents forces students to seek the truth themselves. He uses questions to guide his interlocutors, never handing the answer out easily. He does not attempt to “put sight into blind eyes”, rather he turns the eyes gently to focus on the truth and arrive at understanding. His example shows that the primary function of education is not to give truth but to incline the tastes to love the truth. An educator’s purpose is to act as a guide, cultivate delight and make the truth accessible. The students must be responsible for reaching for that truth and making it their own.
Secondly, Plato encourages a progressive approach to learning. His conversation makes it clear that even the wise instructor is not at the end of the path of knowledge. While yearning to see and know what is, he recognizes that this quest is an endless road that no one will reach the end of. He listens to questions with interest and shows a willingness to entertain new ideas and learn alongside his fellows. Education is not a program for children that ends when the student begins a career. For those who will take it, it is a lifelong journey. Some are further along and some are only beginning, but all are on the road together. Instructors need to continuously pursue knowledge, providing a living demonstration of the learning process. This creates a bond of unity and joy between teacher and student. Students watch and are inspired by the growth of their instructor, learning along with them and striving to live in like manner. Instructors display curiosity in fresh ideas and teach with passion and enjoyment. This progressive nature of education stimulates the mind and creates an environment of life and vibrancy.
Perhaps the most beautiful and essential aspect of this teaching method is its central guiding principle. Above all else, Plato makes it clear that his great desire, that the great desire, is to see and know what is good. He explains that “what provides the truth to the things known and gives the power to the one who knows, is the idea of the good”, and that the good must “receive still greater honor” than truth, knowledge and justice. Plato equates the good to the sun—it radiates light, gives life, and illuminates truth. Without this focus on the good, the soul “fixes itself on that which is mixed with darkness”, and truth and justice are dimmed and lost to the realm of opinion rather than knowledge. Discovering what is good, and then seeing, knowing, and living by it—this is the central object of education and the principle that unifies every branch of study.
For Christians, the “idea of the good” is already made known. It is Christ, and Him crucified. While we need no longer search for what is good, we have the great privilege of seeking a deeper understanding of Christ and living lives that glorify Him. This then should be the primary focus of our education—knowing, glorifying, and enjoying Christ. This applies to every educational realm. Natural sciences help us better understand who God is through inquiries about the beautiful world He has made. Human sciences show us the unending mercies of God throughout history and enlighten our understanding of virtue and moral order. Liberal arts enable us to develop skills to better glorify Him. Christ is the “logos” of a Christian education—the central, unifying principle that ties it all together. His glorification is the clear objective of learning, and we honor Him by cultivating wisdom, virtue, and a love of the truth.
Though Plato lived in a time and country of darkness, before the Son of God brought truth to the world, his approach to learning beautifully aligns with Christ’s commandment “to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light.” (Acts 27:18)