Education & Pedagogy

Realism Philosophy of Education

What is Realism

Realism is a philosophical movement in education that emphasizes the importance of objective truth and the natural world in learning. It has its origins in the work of Aristotle. 

Here are some principles of realism:

  • A belief in the existence of an objective reality
  • A focus on empirical evidence as a primary source of knowledge
  • Rejection of idealism and subjectivity
  • An emphasis on the concrete, physical aspects of the world 

Realists believe that knowledge is rooted in the physical world and that the role of education is to help students understand and interact with that world in a meaningful way. 

Realists believe that reality exists apart from what people think. They think the physical world is objective and can be studied and understood through scientific inquiry and careful observation. 

Realism aims to prepare learners for real and practical life. It calls for teaching-learning methodologies based on the subjects and interests of the learners. 

Realism emphasizes the subject matter of the physical world, particularly science and mathematics. The teacher organizes and presents content systematically within a discipline, demonstrating the use of criteria in making decisions.

Realism is the theory that holds that the existence of objects is real. For this reason, it is also sometimes called objectivism. Both realism and objectivism are metaphysical theories concerned with the existence of things.  

In epistemology, realism holds that in the process of knowledge, things are independent of the existence and influence of the knower. Hence the main tenet of this theory in the epistemological field is that an object and its qualities are independent of and uninfluenced by the knower and the process of knowledge (Ornstein& Levine, 2008). 

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The Chief Tenets of Realism 

As a general rule the chief tenets of realism are the following:

  1. The existence of objects is independent of knowledge. 

According to the view of native realism, objects exist independently of our knowledge or perception of them. In other words, they argue that the existence of objects is not contingent upon our awareness or understanding of them. Native realists believe that objects possess inherent properties and exist in the world regardless of whether or not we are aware of them.

Scientific realism, on the other hand, also acknowledges the independent existence of objects. It asserts that there is a mind-independent reality that exists outside of our subjective experiences. However, scientific realism emphasizes that our knowledge and understanding of objects are based on empirical evidence and scientific investigation. According to this perspective, our thoughts and theories about objects are shaped by our observations, experiments, and inferences derived from the objective world.

  1. Qualities are inherent in known objects 

According to the naive realist, the qualities that are experienced in the objects are part and parcel of the object while the scientific realist distinguishes between primary and secondary qualities, maintaining that primary qualities belong to the object while the secondary are attributed to the object by the mind in the process of knowing. 

  1. Knowledge does not affect the object or its qualities. 

According to the naive realist the object or its qualities do not suffer by becoming the subjects of knowledge. Still, according to the scientific realist, this theory does not hold for secondary qualities. 

  1. Knowledge of objects is direct

According to the naive realist, knowledge of the objects is direct and perceptual. According to Representationalism, this is true of simple thoughts, for in complex thought knowledge is indirect since complex thoughts are compounded of simple ones. 

  1. Objects are common 

According to the analytical realists, objects are common while according to representationalism objects are commonly available only for primary or elementary thought. Scientific realism holds that the same object may be experienced differently by different individuals. 

  1. Relation between object and thought

Naive realism holds that there is a relation between an object and its thought, but the scientific realist rejects this theory (Shrivastava, 2003). 

Types of Realism

The main types of realism are the following: 

  1. Naive Realism

This is propounded by common sense according to which objects are independent of mind whether they are known or not. The object possesses its own qualities. Knowledge does not affect the object. The object is precisely what it is seen to be. Objects are known directly and objects are common for all. 

  1. Representationalism 

This theory is the product of Locke’s mind. It states that the object’s existence is independent of knowledge but metaphysical thought depends upon the mind. 

Primary, objective, individual, and secondary qualities are inherent in the object. Knowledge does not impress upon the object but it can influence metaphysical thought. Thoughts are the representations of objects. Knowledge of 33 objects is direct in the case of simple thoughts but indirect in the case of complex ones. In simple thoughts, objects are common or universal but not so in complex thinking. 

  1. Neo-Realism

This is a novel approach to the Platonic theory of reality. In this theory, it is believed that the total object is not the subject of knowledge but its aspects are, and they are independent of knowledge. The qualities of the object are its own and knowledge does not affect them. An object is what it is manifestly seen to be. Knowledge of the aspects of an object is direct while logical entities are universal. 

  1. Critical Realism

The theory was first propounded in America at the turn of the century and is critical. It also believes that the existence of objects does not depend upon knowledge in any way. The object is possessed of qualities and is directly known. Objects may or may not be universal. 

Critical realism does not hold that the object is previously what it is seen to be or is seen to be exactly what it is. When the object becomes the object of knowledge it is influenced by knowledge. Knowledge can be direct as well as indirect. The relation between the knower and the known is not direct but takes place through the medium of thought, which is the subject matter of knowledge. 

Different people can have different knowledge of an identical object. These different theories of realism have been arranged in order of their historical appearance and none of them has been found to satisfy completely. 

Everyone has been objected to and found wanting in some respect. 

Comparison of Idealism and Realism 

In the varied fields of epistemology, metaphysics, and evolution, idealism and realism present two almost completely differing theories. They differ in the following respects: 

  1. Difference in Epistemology 

Idealism and realism differ in the following respects on the various questions of epistemology: 

(i) According to idealism objects have no existence apart from their ideas, while according to realism, objects have an existence independent of any knowledge of them. 

(ii) Idealism maintains that qualities are imposed on the object by the mind while realism holds that qualities are a part of the object. 

(iii) The idealistic tenet is that knowledge influences the object and its qualities while the realist theory is that objects cannot be affected in this way. 

(iv) According to idealism objects are known indirectly through the medium of their ideas but realism holds that objects are known directly. 

(v) In idealism it is believed that different objects appear differently to different people but in realism it is believed that objects are universal. 

2. According to idealism objects are not what they appear to be since their knowledge is indirect but realism maintains that objects are precisely what they appear to be. 

(i) According to idealism objects have no existence apart from their ideas, while according to realism, objects have an existence independent of any knowledge of them. 

(ii) Idealism maintains that qualities are imposed on the object by the mind while realism holds that qualities are a part of the object. 

(iii) The idealistic tenet is that knowledge influences the object and its qualities while the realist theory is that objects cannot be affected in this way. 

(iv) According to idealism objects are known indirectly through the medium of their ideas but realism holds that objects are known directly. 

(v) In idealism it is believed that different objects appear differently to different people but in realism it is believed that objects are universal. 

3. According to idealism objects are not what they appear to be since their knowledge is indirect but realism maintains that objects are precisely what they appear to be. 

(i) According to idealism objects have no existence apart from their ideas, while according to realism, objects have an existence independent of any knowledge of them. 

(ii) Idealism maintains that qualities are imposed on the object by the mind while realism holds that qualities are a part of the object. (iii) The idealistic tenet is mat knowledge influences the object and its qualities while the realist theory is that objects cannot be affected in this way. 

(iv) According to idealism objects are known indirectly through the medium of their ideas but realism holds that objects are known directly. 

(v) In idealism it is believed that different objects appear differently to different people but in realism it is believed that objects are universal. 

(vi) According to idealism objects are not what they appear to be since their knowledge is indirect but realism maintains that objects are precisely what they appear to be. 

4. Metaphysical Differences. 

From the metaphysical standpoint realism and idealism differ in the following respects: 

(i) According to the idealists the universe exists within the mind while the realists are of the opinion that the natural world is independent of the mind. 

(ii) The idealists believe in some kind of synthesis between man and nature while the realists deny the existence of any such synthesis. 

(iii) Idealism states that man is the center of the universe while realism does not attach the same importance to man with reference to the universe. 

(iv) Idealists are idealistic while the realists are realistic. 

5. Difference on cosmology. 

Realism and idealism differ in the following respects on questions regarding cosmology: 

(i) According to idealism the mechanistic explanation of the universe is not adequate while realists propound this mechanistic explanation. 

(ii) Idealism holds that creation of the universe is teleological while the realists do not believe in there being any purpose in creation. 

(iii) In explaining creation the idealists lay the stress on normative and social sciences while the realists rely more heavily on the natural sciences in their explanation of creation. 

(iv) Idealism puts forth a value judgment of the creation while realism is more factual in this analysis. 

(v) According to idealists the world is known through the mind while realists do not attach so much importance to the mind in understanding the universe. 

(vi) Idealism stresses the mental and spiritual in its explanation of the world and realism, the material and physical. 

From the above analysis of idealism and realism it should be fairly obvious that the two theories are almost contradictory and mutually exclusive. In evaluating the two it must be said that idealism seems more appropriate for understanding the values of human life, which is, in fact, the aim of all our knowledge and science. 

A more comprehensive standpoint, on the other hand, will make it clear that both idealism and realism view the universe from different standpoint, and hence the difference in their respective metaphysics, epistemology and cosmology. 

To a liberal, dynamic philosopher with broad vision the two will appear to be complementary. In their respective ways both show glimpses of truth and according to one’s standpoint one may be as satisfied with one as one may be with the other. It depends on one’s mental make-up as to which will appeal to one. Nevertheless, it must be said that idealism, on the whole, is a philosophy that is more mature, refined, optimistic, comprehensive and it elevates the lot of mankind. Nothing can be gained denigrating realism but there can be no denying the superiority of idealism. 

Realism in Education 

The following may be considered landmarks in the field of realistic thinking in education: 

1. Erasmus (1446-1537). According to Erasmus knowledge is of two kinds: Object knowledge and world knowledge. 

Of these the world knowledge comes first and then comes object knowledge. However, object knowledge is more important than world knowledge. In the curriculum Greek, Latin and Grammar should be taught first of all. This helps in gaining proper object knowledge after which teaching in other subjects may be started. 

2. Rabelais (1483-1533). Rabelais supported social, moral, religious and physical education in place of classical, linguistic and literary education. He pleaded for free thinking. According to him books should be not only mastered but also practiced. The teaching should be made interesting. This is also true in physical education. The aim of education is to make practical life better. 

3. John Milton (1608-1674). Milton’s philosophy of education is available in his book entitled, Tractate on Education. According to Milton the aim of education is to know God, to love Him and to be one with Him. Milton presented a plan of education for the child from 12 to 21 years of age. First of all, Latin, Grammar, Arithmetic, Geometry and morality should be taught. After it education may be imparted in agriculture, physiology, handicraft, natural philosophy, geography, etc. Poetry, literature, languages, economics, politics, history, etc., may be taught as supplementary studies. Milton gives more importance to ideas than words, to practical efficiency than ostentatious achievements. He defined education in these words, “I call, therefore, a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public of peace and war”. 

4. Michael de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne represented socialist realism which aimed at making children a worldly man. Socialist realism supported a utilitarian viewpoint in education. It criticized bookish knowledge and supported the idea to make knowledge practical. Montaigne was a humanist and a naturalist. He was a realist and a socialist. In fact, he was a socialist realist. The aim of knowledge, according to him, is to enhance knowledge and reasoning power. Nothing should be admitted without understanding. It is improper to take abnormal interest in goods. Knowledge must be practical. The child should be trained for worldly activities. Virtues should be created since these are the bases of enjoyment of the world. The function of philosophy is not only to talk about thinking but about livelihood. It gives us a knowledge of virtues. Moral knowledge should be gathered from the biographies of great persons. 

5. Richard Mulcaster (1531-1621). Mulcaster represented sensuous or empirical realism. According to empirical realism real education emphasizes training of senses and not memory. Education is a natural process and should be based in nature. Philosophy of education should be scientific and not imaginary. Word knowledge should follow the perception of the object. New practical ways should be adopted. According to Mulcaster the aim of education is to develop physical and mental power. Children are the center of education. Mother tongue should be the medium of education. The teachers should have a sound knowledge of the method of teaching

6. Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon was also a supporter of empirical realism. He condemned bookish education and tried to make it practical. According to him practical knowledge may be gained through the study of Nature. Subjects such as philosophy, literature and language should be considered secondary. Knowledge can be gained by an inductive method. This is particularly true in the field of science. Bacon is known as a great supporter of the inductive method in science. 

7. Ratke (1571-1635). Ratke was also a supporter of empirical realism. He favored education through mother tongue. He maintained that one thing should be taught at one time. Teaching should be done in free environment. Learning should be discouraged. Object knowledge should be acquired by direct experience and experiment. 

8. Comenius (1592-1670). Comenius presented far more clear ideas than other realist philosophers. He laid emphasis upon mother tongue, graded curriculum, suitable textbooks, practical application of teaching and four stages of educational structure. 

9. Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841). The aim of education, according to Herbart, is the multi sided development of interests. The child should be made interested in his social environment. The aim of education is character development. This, however, cannot be achieved by preaching but by presenting moral examples before the children. 

10. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Herbert Spencer was a naturalist as well as a realist. Complete living is the aim of education and also the aim of life. This may be realized by doing the following activities: 

1. Self-preservation, i.e., care of health. 

2. Earning a living (Preparation for vocation). 

3. Fulfilling duties regarding race-preservation. 

4. Fulfilling duties of a citizen. 

5. Utilization of leisure. 

All these activities should be done scientifically. 

Aims of Education in Realism

The realistic aim of education is a happy and integrated life. According to the American educationist Franklin Bobit, happiness in life may be achieved by fulfillment of human responsibilities and obligations such as: 

1. Activities concerned with language, 

2. Activities concerned with hygiene, 

3. Citizenship activities, 

4. Ordinary social activities, 

5. Leisure activities, 

6. Activities of mental health, 

7. Religious activities, 

8. Activities concerning race-preservation, 

9. Vocational behaviour activities, 

10. Vocational activities. 

The child should be provided complete knowledge of society. He should know the social circumstances, social organization and natural environment. 

Learning is the art of leading practical life. This requires a scientific attitude. Scientific attitude is a rational attitude. It is objective and sensuous. The aim of education is to enable the child to acquire knowledge of definite and real objects and to analyze it through reason. 

In the sphere of education, realism made its appearance as the revolt against theoretical and verbal education. From the earliest ages educationists have been trying to relate education to the social and natural environment, but very often this truth was forgotten and the process of education was allowed to become very theoretical and merely verbal. At all such times, realism has appeared as the reaction to this tendency. At the root of realism were two factors—the disutility of ancient and medieval ideals, and the development of the scientific tendency. 

By the sixteenth century an awareness had broken upon men and ancient ideas could not satisfy their needs because they were impractical. 

In Europe, during the Renaissance, there was a reaction to old Monasticism and Scholasticism. It came to be believed that men must aim at evolving humane qualities, and for this it was felt that a study of the literature in Greek and Latin was essential. 

After the Renaissance, the next tendency which became prominent was Humanism in which the Greek and Latin literatures came to be called humanistic because of their unique contribution to the progress of mankind. 

Individuals in favor of these literatures came to be called Humanists and their ideas on education gave rise to the concept of Humanitarian education. 

But very soon it was realized that the only thing which could be derived from Greek and Roman literature was a definite style and grammar. 

When Cicero’s style became the object and aim of education, humanitarian education was converted to Ciceroism. An unnecessary emphasis upon the study of dead languages and bookish language within the school drew education far away from real life, and bore little relation to the life outside it. 

After the period of humanism came the period of Reformation. This, too, did not go beyond obeying a set of rules and concepts, but it gave a tremendous fillip to research by showing a deep inclination towards reason and intelligence which encouraged free thinking. It was the unprecedented growth of science.

 A revolution in the sphere of knowledge was created by the researches of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Harvey, Bacon and others. In this manner, realism came into existence as the result of the growth of science and an inclination to search for the truth. 

According to the realists, education should be made to conform to the social and individual needs of the child so that he may lead a happy and contented life in the future. 

Whatever the other ideals of education, its primary purpose was to prepare the child for real life, and the criterion of successful education lay in its ability to prepare the child for adult life. 

One of the major problems which the individual has to face in adult life is the problem of earning one’s livelihood. Hence, education must take care that it enables a man to earn his livelihood. And when the emphasis came to be laid on livelihood, it was only natural that the realist pattern of education should stress the need for teaching scientific subjects rather than artistic or literary subjects. In this, efforts are made to harmonize the child’s education with real life. 

The environment of the school should be such that it creates qualities which are required in life outside the school. Ancient and medieval education was both bookish and exclusively mental. According to the realists, the first function of education was to develop the qualities of determination, reason and intelligence so that he should easily solve the problems of life. For this reason realists favor the empirical methods of teaching in which all education is done through actual experience. 

The realist thinkers also favor education through the medium of the mother tongue through the medium of demonstrations, tours and actual experiments. 

This brings education nearer to life, and also stimulates the use of one’s own intelligence instead of making demands only upon the educator’s memory. In this manner, it can be concluded that the realists want education to keep in mind the social and individual needs of the educators. 

Curriculum in Realism

According to the realists the child should be allowed to choose subjects according to his ability from a detailed curriculum. 

He should be taught what is useful in his life. Learning according to one’s abilities results in success in practical life. Subjects should be related to one another. They should be planned according to the needs of the society. 

Education should enable the student to adjust to changing social circumstances. Phrases such as, ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’, ‘art for the sake of art’, etc., are meaningless. The curriculum should have utility. Subjects such as literature, art, music, dance, etc., are unnecessary. The curriculum should lay emphasis upon science subjects—physics, chemistry, biology, astrology, etc. 

Methods of Teaching in Realism

Realist thinkers emphasize objectivity, knowledge of scientific facts and the knowledge of the real. Students should be helped to know objectively. This requires knowledge through sense organs. Words are symbols to convey experience. They help in communication of knowledge. Practical verification is the test of all knowledge. Propositions which cannot be verified are nonsense. Facts are related to the present. The teacher should enable the student to know the world. He should not give personal opinions but clarify the facts. 

In fact, the facts should themselves be revealed without any distortion. Thus, the realists support a fact-centered method of teaching. According to the realist the knowledge of the real involves two laws: 

Law of aggregation and the law of conversion of simplicity

There is continuity in nature. In concept formation the feelings should not be allowed to interfere. 

In the law of conversions of simplicity, it has been pointed out that space and time are divided for the sake of convenience. 

The whole is the aggregate of parts. The parts do not lose their existence in the whole. Therefore, the proper method of teaching is to begin with the part and reach the whole. 

Knowledge should be analyzed into principles, and principles into hypotheses. Facts should be analyzed into propositions. Thus, the method of teaching should involve analysis and rational classification. Realist approach to education is child-centered. The method of teaching should change according to the requirements of the child. 

The intellect of the child should be developed to enable him to know the facts. 

Experimentation should be the basis of facts. Knowledge is uniform in nature. The teacher should have firm faith in science. He should have a scientific attitude and develop the same in the educand. He should himself investigate and encourage the educands to do so. He should know the experimental method and train the educands in it. He should understand the needs of the student and fulfill them. He should render a clear, lucid and systematic understanding of scientific facts to the student. He should keep his personal opinion apart from objective teaching. 

He should keep an eye upon child psychology and adolescence psychology and mold his methods of teaching accordingly. He should make a selection of subject matter according to the interests of the student. 

Contribution of Realism to Education 

Like other systems of philosophy of education, realism has its advantages and disadvantages. Its impact can be seen everywhere. The realist philosophers influence practical education. In the seventeenth century, academies for the teaching of natural sciences developed everywhere in Europe and later on in America in the eighteenth century. Technical and vocational education has become a common feature of education everywhere. Thus, the following may be considered to be the contribution of realism to education. 

Education in Technical and Vocational Subjects 

Every society needs technocrats and people trained in different vocations. Therefore, in every country of the world today the plan of education is based upon the needs of such persons in the development of the nation. 

Practical Bias The realist insisted upon the practical nature of education. Modern education is empirical, experimental and practical. 

Practical Aims. Even in the field of ideals of education practical aims such as national development, earning a livelihood, personality development or realization of happiness are being emphasized. 

These aims conform to real social aspirations. 

Widening of Scope Realists have widened the scope of education to include scientific and technical subjects as well as social sciences and humanities. 

Scientific Teaching Methods Modern teaching methods are more scientific. Help is taken from audiovisual means of education particularly in the teaching of science subjects. Laboratory training is a must for science teaching. More stress is laid on the inductive method. 

The universities are encouraging research in sciences and humanities. 

Objective Attitude Today’s education is objective. Personal opinions and feelings are ignored while objective facts are emphasized. Sense Training Modern education is empirical, particularly in primary and nursery stages. 

Stress is laid on sense training so that the child may use his different senses with maximum efficiency in order to directly gain knowledge of the world around him. 

Realistic School Organization 

Modern school is organized to be a mini-society. Discipline means self-control and adjustment to facts. The students are required to develop all the traits of personality required in social life. The programmes in the school are geared to make him a responsible member of society. 

In spite of the above mentioned advantages and favorable influences of realism on education, there have been certain disadvantages and limitations in realistic philosophy of education. Of these the most important are as follows: 

Too Much Emphasis on Objectivity The terms objective and subjective are relative. Absolute objectivity is impossible. No scientist claims absolute objectivity. Knowledge as well as ignorance, both are subjective as well as objective. Realist’s exclusive emphasis on objectivity ignores so much content of knowledge. It neglects imagination, feeling, emotion and sentiments which are also important facts of individual and social life. This leads to negligence of values which, of course, are not facts. 

Too Much Emphasis on Facts 

Facts and values are interwoven in the fabric of individual and social life. By their exclusive emphasis upon facts the realists tend to ignore values. The theory that values are social facts has led to immoral and corrupt implications. In a sense, values are sui generis. They are self-evident. 

No real human life is possible without values. The realistic attitude often becomes factual but not value-oriented. Practice, of course, is useful but theory has also its value. Facts and ideas, both are part of knowledge. 

Positivism and Meliorism Positivism pleads that science alone is the real knowledge. According to Meliorism we can make this world better only through science. Both these have some grain of truth but they have their limitations as well. Science cannot substitute philosophy, art and literature. Liberal education should find a place for all these. 

Some people have better talents in philosophy, art and literature. Therefore, it is wrong to make science compulsory at all stages of education. Not only academic subjects but even some sort of training in ethics and religion are necessary for a happy life. Exclusive emphasis upon science makes education one-sided. The above criticism is no condemnation. The contribution of realism is undeniable. The above discussion only shows its limitations. As has been already pointed out earlier, every type of philosophy has its positive and negative contribution to education. This is as much true of realism as of idealism, naturalism and other types of philosophies of education ( Sharma, 2002). 


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