Plato’s views on ‘student satisfaction’: The appetitive, spirited, and rational soul

Dr Panos Vlachopoulos (@PanosMQ), a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education and a Philosophy graduate, reflects on Plato’s Theory of the Tripartile Soul and its relevance to the notion of ‘student satisfaction’.

Imagine that you have been presented with a moist, warm piece of chocolate cake, a slice of your own handmade but half-burnt pie, and an apple. Which one would you end up picking to eat?

According to Plato’s Theory of the Tripartite Soul, if we chose on merely our desire for pleasure we are most likely to pick the chocolate cake; if we pick based on our mood (part of the soul by which we are angry or get into a temper) we may choose out of pride our own half burnt pie; finally if we choose logically based on facts about what is best for us we will choose the apple. Which of these choices will end up with us being ‘satisfied’? Plato has introduced his Theory of the Tripartile soul in his Dialogues the ‘Republic’ and ‘Phaedrus’ to argue that the human soul (psyche) is divided into three parts, labelled appetitive, spirited, and rational.

According to this theory, if humans are left to their own instincts to decide what is good for them, they are most likely to choose based on desires (appetite) to satisfy their needs in ways that are easier and most pleasant to them. They are also likely to choose based on their mood, which sometimes may be aligned with the desirable or with the rational. However, an educated human would most likely choose based on the rational (logical part of the soul), the thinking part which loves the truth and seeks to learn it. But this latter choice may be a painful one, or one that places them under pressure. Satisfaction is often connected to easy and often irrational choices. 

Where does this leave us in relation to one of the most problematic concepts in universities, that of ‘student satisfaction’? Is the term ‘student satisfaction’ an irrational one, and why? Plato would argue that it is irrational because students need to be placed under intellectual pressure and be challenged to learn. Such engagement may not always promote the feeling of satisfaction. If this is the case, then why do universities across the globe, but also in Australia, place ‘student satisfaction’ and the idea of the student as customer and consumer as one of their central objectives? Do we understand the implications of such an objective? Can we not see that we may risk reducing academia to a commodity and academics to Sophists? Most importantly, can we not see that we put students in a disadvantageous position when we ask them to become consumers of a service that they cannot fully understand before we educate them to do so? Perhaps it would help if higher education policy makers should acquaint themselves with Plato’s Dialogues.

Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter or through email.