Idealism and Realism: Philosophies of Education

Everyday, we face choices that are influenced by our individual beliefs. Do we eat breakfast because we truly believe it is the most important meal of the day? Do we stop at the red light because we know it is the law, or do we speed through because we can’t afford to sit an extra minute? Do we go to church every Sunday because we believe that is the only proper way to worship? Do we send our kids to school because we believe an education is the sole gateway to success? These questions of why we make the decisions we do and why we believe indefinitely in the need, and importance, of education have been a part of the philosophical discussions this week in class. We learned the intricacies of these philosophies, but focused mainly on Idealism and Realism. Although these two ideologies vary on a philosophical level, they both maintain similar beliefs in regards to educational standards. So let’s take a look at what these two ideologies consist of and their contributions to education.

Emerson’s essay, The Over-Soul, depicts the ideologies associated with Idealism. Idealism is the philosophy that “construes reality to be spiritual or nonmaterial in essence” (Gutek, Levine, & Ornstein). The Over-Soul discusses the notion of “the eternal ONE”(Emerson), signifying the Idealist belief that the universe was created by a single, mighty power, and this power is an integral part of the human mind and spirit. It is “this deep power in which we exist” (Emerson) that Idealists believe humans learn to become good and worthy, and embrace all that the universe has to teach. To learn and understand the truth, one must recognize and acknowledge the Divine. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave also represents the revelation of the “Absolute or God…to those who have sought the truth” (Gutek, Levine, & Ornstein). Plato describes the truth of the Absolute or God metaphorically as the “divine light of the sun” (Wise-Geek), while falsities and ignorance sit “in darkness with the false light” (Wise-Geek). Plato believed, as an Idealist, that knowledge is the only way in which to “free the others in bondage” (Wise-Geek). The goal is to reach a “high-order of thinking” (Gutek, Levine, & Ornstein) and an understanding of universal truth.

In regards to Realism, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, it will still absolutely make a noise, for according to Realists there is a “material world that is independent of and external to the knower’s mind” (Gutek, Levine, & Ornstien, 2011). The universe is made up of matter and this matter is “always present in the object” (Gutek, Levine, & Ornstein, 2011). Therefore, regardless of whether a human is in the woods to directly hear the tree fall, the tree itself will still make a noise because it is composed of matter (a solid object), and the universe, according to Realists, still projects reality without the human mind knowing. The human mind does not need to know, or be present, in order to create existence; existence is external.
The Realist approach to education is a more suitable experience for individuals who do not believe in a higher power. Idealism can create skepticism and bias experiences for those who do not believe a higher power exists and influences human knowledge. By emphasizing the “world as the creation of a great universal mind, the mind of the Absolute or God”(Gutek, Levine, & Ornstein), Idealists fail to acknowledge the separation of church and state; there is a push toward a religious belief, and foundation, that some individuals may not agree with. When teaching in a Idealist manner, teachers need to recognize a fine balance so that all students can have an equal experience. On the other hand, Realists strictly emphasize the importance of cognitive learning, dismissing the emotional aspect of learning. Students will not have as high of an intellectual experience and freedom as those in an Idealist classroom.
Although Idealists and Realists have varying perspectives of the purposes and tactics of education, there remain mutual ideologies. For example, both believe in a structured and organized curriculum to implement the adequacies of mathematics, sciences, and language. Both also believe in high standards to ensure individuals reach their highest educational potential. Both ideologies offer unique and beneficial experiences to learners. By finding a fitting balance between the both, teachers can provide their students with a deeper understanding of knowledge and a more diverse perspective of learning.
ArtLex Image. Retrieved September 26, 2011 from
Emerson, R.(1841). The over-soul. Essay IX. Retrieved September 25, 2011 from
Gutek, Levine, & Ornstein.(2011). Foundations of education. California: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Idealist Image. Retrieved September from
What is the allegory of the cave.(2011). Retrieved September 25, 2011 from

Comments are closed.