Idealism is the oldest system of philosophy known to man. Its origins go back to ancient India in the East, and to Plato in the West. Its basic viewpoint stresses the human spirit as the most important element in life. The universe is viewed as essentially nonmaterial in its ultimate nature. Although Idealist philosophers vary enormously on many specifics, they agree on the following two points:
▬ The human spirit is the most important element in life; and
▬ The universe is essentially nonmaterial in its ultimate nature.
Idealism should not be confused with the notion of high aspirations - that is not what philosophers mean when they speak of Idealism. In the philosophic sense, Idealism is a system that emphasizes the pre-eminent importance of mind, soul, or spirit. It is possible to separate Idealism into different schools, but for our purposes we shall be content to identify only the most general assumptions of the Idealists in metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory, without regard to the idiosyncrasies of the various schools.
BASIC METAPHYSICS OF IDEALISM
In Idealism, all of reality is reducible to one fundamental substance: spirit. (You may better understand the nature of spirit in this context if you think of it as the total absence of materiality.) Matter is not real; it is rather a notion, an abstraction of the mind. It is only the mind that is real. Therefore, all material things that seem to be real are reducible to mind or spirit. The chair you are sitting on is not material; it only seems material. Its essential nature is spirit. On the universal level, finite minds live in a purposeful world produced by an infinite mind. It is as though the entire universe is made up of an infinite mind or spirit; which is, in effect, everything, and we are small bits and pieces of that mind. Because man is a part of this purposeful universe, he is an intelligent and purposeful being.
EPISTEMOLOGY OF IDEALISM
Idealists believe that all knowledge is independent of sense experience. The act of knowing takes place within the mind. The mind is active and contains innate capacities for organizing and synthesizing the data derived through sensations. Man can know intuitively; that is to say, he can apprehend immediately some truth without utilizing any of his senses. Man can also know truth through the acts of reason by which an individual examines the logical consistency of his ideas. Some Idealists believe that all knowledge is a matter of recall. Plato was one who held this notion. He based this conclusion upon the assumption that the spirit of man is eternal. Whatever he knows is already contained within his spirit. Objective Idealists, such as Plato, think that ideas are essences, which have an independent existence. Subjective Idealists, such as George Berkeley, reason that man is able to know only what he perceives. His only knowledge is of his mental states. Existence depends upon mind. Every stimulus received by the mind is derived ultimately from God. God is the Infinite Spirit.
IDEALISTIC VALUE THEORY
Idealists generally root all values either in a personal God or in a personal spiritual force of nature. They all agree that values are eternal. Theistic Idealists assert that eternal values exist in God. Good and evil, beauty and ugliness are known to the extent that the idea of good and the idea of beauty are consistent with the absolute good and the absolute beauty found in God. Pantheistic Idealists identify God with nature. Values are absolute and unchanging because they are a part of the determined order of nature.
EDUCATIONAL THEORY OF MODERN IDEALISM
Aims of Education
The purpose of education is to contribute to the development of the mind and self of the learner. The education-imparting institute should emphasize intellectual activities, moral judgments, aesthetic judgments, self-realization, individual freedom, individual responsibility, and self-control in order to achieve this development.
The curriculum is based upon the idea or assumption of the spiritual nature of man. This idea in turn leads to an idea of the nature of the larger units of family, community, state, earth; the universe, and infinity. In preserving the subject matter content, which is essential for the development of the individual mind, the curriculum must include those subjects essential for the realization of mental and moral development. These subjects provide one with culture, and they should be mandated for all pupils. Moreover, the subject matter should be kept constant for all.
The Teaching-Learning Process
Idealists have high expectations of the teacher. The teacher must be excellent, in order to serve as an example for the student, both intellectually and morally. No other single element in the school system is more important than the teacher. The teacher must excel in knowledge and in human insight into the needs and capacities of the learners; and must demonstrate moral excellence in personal conduct and convictions. The teacher must also exercise great creative skill in providing opportunities for the learners' minds to discover, analyze, unify, synthesize and create applications of knowledge to life and behavior.
Methods of Teaching
The classroom structure and atmosphere should provide the learners with opportunities to think, and to apply the criteria of moral evaluation to concrete within the context of the subjects. The teaching methods must encourage the acquisition of facts, as well as skill in reflecting on these facts. It is not sufficient to teach pupils how to think. It is very important that what pupils think about be factual; otherwise, they will simply compound their ignorance. Teaching methods should encourage learners to enlarge their horizons; stimulate reflective thinking; encourage personal moral choices; provide skills in logical thinking; provide opportunities to apply knowledge to moral and social problems; stimulate interest in the subject content; and encourage learners to accept the values of human civilization.