Plato: A Continuous Learning Organization

Plato's Republic is the most beautiful educational treatise ever written.

—Rousseau, 1762

Plato is the visionary among Greek learning theorists. If Socrates is the Great Conversationalist and Aristotle the Great Systems Thinker, Plato is the Theorist of the Learning Organization. Not only did he devise the first blueprint for a learning organization, but he also contributed the first theory of the psychology of learning. We will look first at his vision of the learning organization.

Design for a Continuous Learning Organization

And the teachers will continue learning as well.

—Plato, 400 B.C.

Plato outlines his vision for a continuous learning organization in the Republic and in the Laws. At the center of his system is the concept of the Philosopher King, a sort of CEO and Chief Learning Officer combined into one, which Plato terms a Director of Education. In the ideal Republic, learning is available to all:

Schooling will be open to all and schools should be located in the city as well as the country. The Director of Education shall act as general tutor and interpreter of material that is to be learned. More-over he will direct the teachers to teach as well as to continue to update their curricula. And he shall also insist that the teachers themselves shall continue learning as well.

Plato's grand vision of a city-wide learning organization failed, but he did manage to create a smaller version in Athens, which he called the Academy. This school attracted such renowned students as Aristotle, who in turn taught Alexander the Great. And with this academy, the tradition of continuous learning, at least on a small scale, was initiated in the West, and it would never be halted again.

The Psychology of Learning: The Three Domains

Two horses draw my chariot, Reason and Emotion.

—Parmenides, 450 B.C., Socrates' teacher

Drawing on theories of philosophers who came before, Plato initiated the field of psychology, formulating three domains that, 2,500 years later, remain practically unchanged in the hands of present-day learning psychologists. Each of us, Plato writes, operates in three psychological domains:

  • We learn with one part of our nature

  • We feel angry with another part

  • And the third part is physical desire

In more modern terms the domains can be summarized as follows:

  • Learning belongs to the knowledge domain

  • Emotions belong to the feeling domain

  • Desire belongs to the physical domain

These three domains, with a shift in the third domain to physical skills, are the direct forerunners of our modern domains of "knowledge, skills, and attitudes (emotions)" in the training arena (see following section on Aristotle).

Maxims from Plato

  • The Charioteer "Reason" Steers Physical Skill and Emotional Attitude. Reason, for Plato, is the defining trait in the learning process. Reason not only links knowing with doing but, in a famous analogy, he compares Reason to a charioteer steering two horses—the horses of Physical Skill and Emotional Attitude. Reason, according to Plato, keeps these in check and on track.

  • Learning Through Games and Simulations. Games and pleasure are prime motivators of learning, according to Plato. "Mathematics should be learned through recreational games, the way the Egyptians do, through amusement and pleasure."

  • Learning Through the Theater of Humor. Plato often portrayed learning as a form of theater: "Serious things must be understood through humorous things," he writes. In learning it is effective "to utilize characters and scenes from the theater and the world of comedy."

  • Learning in Frequent Brief Intervals. "The young always do better when the learning process is divided into brief but frequent intervals."

  • A Blueprint for Lifelong Learning. In laying down the rules for life-long learning, Plato compares the process to the building of a ship of life: "Let us now speak of teaching," he writes in The Laws, "as the shipwright first sketches the blueprint of a ship in outline, laying down the lines of the keel before beginning construction, so we lay down here the blue-print for the voyage through life."


400 B.C.

Plato: Republic and Laws.


Thomas Davidson: Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals.


Robert Ulich: History of Educational Thought.


Robert Ulich (ed.): Three Thousand Years of Educational Wisdom.


Wade Baskin (ed.): Classics in Education.

The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning and Performance. A Trainer's Guide to Theory, Terminology, and Practice
The 30-Second Encyclopedia of Learning and Performance: A Trainers Guide to Theory, Terminology, and Practice
ISBN: 0814471781
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 110
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