A Historical Perspective

Plato was an early Greek philosopher, mathematician, and writer. He was born in Athens, Greece between 429 and 423 BC. He was born into one of the wealthiest families in Athens (http://www.iep.utm.edu/plato/). While Plato’s father died at a young age, his mother remarried to Pyrilampes, a friend of the influential statesman and general of Athens, Pericles. Thus, from a young age Plato was well connected with the political elite. Worth noting, Plato’s birth name was Aristocles. However, he gained the nickname "Plato," which means broad, from his wrestling coach, because of his broad build.

Plato served in the military from 409 BC to 404 BC during the Peloponnesian War. When the war ended, he joined the Athenian oligarchy, the Thirty Tyrants (http://www.egs.edu/library/plato/biography/). His uncle Charmides, was one of the leaders of the Thirty Tyrants. However, Plato opted to leave the group due to his disagreement with the Tyrants use of violence. Once democracy was restored to Athens in 403 BC, Plato along with his two older brothers went to study under Socrates. Under Socrates, Plato began to focus on studying questions of virtue and formation of a noble character. However, after studying under Socrates for only four years, in 399 BC Socrates was sentenced to the death penalty for "...capital crimes of religious impiety and corruption of youth..." (http://library.thinkquest.org/18775/plato/biop.htm).

It was Socrates’ death that led toward Plato’s distaste and disenchantment with political regimes. Plato was convinced that he didn’t want to participate in Athenian politics and decided to travel the world with his friend Euclides. During a span of twelve years, he visited Megara, Theodorus in Cyrene, Pythagoreans in Italy, and scholars in Egypt. His travels exposed him to philosophy, geometry, geology, astronomy, and religion (http://www.egs.edu/library/plato/biography/). Inspired by what he learned while abroad, Plato returned to Athens and founded a school on land that was once owned by Academus. Thus, Plato rightfully named his school the Academy. It is often referred to as the first University in Europe. He hoped that the academy would provide thinkers a place to work on ideas of how to better govern Athens.

Throughout the rest of his life, Plato wrote about his theories and philosophies. The most famous of his writings is titled the Republic. The Republic focuses on issues such as justice, courage, and wisdom. In addition, he sought to answer questions about how to live a good life, and wondered about an ideal governmental state. Much of the Republic focuses on how to fix what Plato perceived was wrong with Athenian politics. In fact, it can be said that the Republic, "...is history’s first consultant’s report to leaders about an organization that was failing" (Sims, 2011, p.7). While the Republic is a fascinating dialogue for its emphasis on leadership topics, it is also important for those studying the formation of knowledge and education. Plato’s thoughts on how citizens should be educated, lays the foundation for experiential education.

Thus, when tracing experiential education through a historical perspective, it is essential to start with Plato. In fact, most academics agree that modern day understanding of experiential education can be traced back to Plato. Plato’s writings effectively illustrate the AEE’s definition since his teachings were "purposefully engaged in direct experience and focused reflection". He is often considered a humanist because of his beliefs that knowledge is innate.

Worth note is Plato’s belief that leisure was epitomized through reflection, exercise, and studying. Plato recognized that there were three parts to every person: body, mind, and spirit. In order to really be an educated individual, people needed to be able to bring balance to all three parts. He believed that true education involved merging the body, mind, and spirit. Therefore, rather than believing that the body and mind needed to be trained separately, Plato thought "...to ensure a proper harmony between energy and initiative on the one hand and reason on the other...anyone who can produce the perfect blend of the physical and intellectual sides of education and apply them to the training of character, is producing harmony of far more importance" (Smith and Knapp, 2011, p. 19). The dualism of body, mind, and spirit is a common theme throughout the history of experiential education. An understanding of the balance of the physical with the soul is essential to understanding how experiential education evolved over time. This idea will be revisited throughout this paper.

Plato believed the guardians, what he called the class of ruling elite (e.g. kings and governors), was defined as people who are eager to learn and had a thirst for knowledge and wisdom. The guardians were responsible for taking on the role of the teacher, and teaching the young. They would teach the young how to balance the body, mind, and spirit. Guardians had control of what students learned and therefore, when comparing Plato’s philosophies to today’s learning once can assume that the teacher guides learners through experiences to help them find balance. As previously noted, the AEE defines experiential education as "...a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills and clarify values" (AEE, 2011). Therefore, when comparing the AEE definition of experiential education with Plato’s style captures learners through both "direct experience" and "focused reflection". However, Plato’s ideology also illustrates "clarifying values". The philosopher king leads helps people clarify values by showing them the path to enlightenment and understanding.