Philosophers + Contemporary American Education

For a handy matrix that compares educational philosophers (Erasmus, Rousseau, Jefferson, Mann) to contemporary issues in American education, click HERE

Horace Mann: Teaching as a Profession

My personal views of education most closely reflect those of Horace Mann. As he contributed to the rise of today’s public school system, I imagine this to be the case for many educators. Mann articulated the role of public education (a task that even Thomas Jefferson was unable to successfully accomplish), developed procedures required to support such schooling, incorporated a value system within the educational sphere (an echo of earlier philosophers), and designed teacher and instructional strategy (Gutek, 2011).

As an educator, it is motivating to view Mann as the creator of teaching as a true ‘profession’ versus a mere ‘job option’. Gutek (2011) explains that because of Mann, teaching became ‘a career that required commitment and professional preparation’. It is this requirement and assurance that ultimately provides for educators as experienced professionals that are qualified to create the type of learning environments that are best conducive to student achievement. For example, the training of teachers allows for the incorporation of research-based strategies, consistency and equity, and the standardization of objectives. I believe Mann would endorse Jefferson’s ideas of ‘life-long learning’ and call for educators to consistently seek professional development and other opportunities that allow for them to bring best practices into their classroom and that support the self-analysis of Mill in allowing for a flexibility and revision to meet the needs of students.

Mann’s ideas also reflected American society and its values and ethics (Gutek, 2011). Although this was a somewhat homogenous society during his time, I believe Mann would recognize the vibrant nature of current American society and seek to ensure cultural pluralism and a culturally responsive classroom. I believe he would ask that schools create an environment of inclusion, instead of exclusion, and celebrate individuality that benefits the community as a whole.

While speaking of ‘representation of the whole’, Mill’s views can prove useful. He spoke of the ‘need for an education that harmoniously and simultaneously cultivates and integrates the human being’s cognitive and affective dispositions’ (Gutek, 2011, p 304). Not only should educators turn to self-analysis for improvement and flexibility, we should teach our students how to reflect on their learning, how to engage in mutual goal-setting, and how to relate their education to their real-world experiences. As educators, we help to bring relevancy into our lessons, but our students have to also actively build real-world connections to truly absorb the most of their education.

Thomas Jefferson would then tell us to use what we have learned through public education to give back to our society. He believed in the relationship between ‘theory and practice’ (Gutek, 2011) and would task the classroom to take what they have learned and build a harmonious society that championed the free thinking of the people. As educators, Jefferson would encourage us to enrich the minds of our students, and to break free of limitations in order to see just how far we could go.

With this, Pestolozzi would agree. His progressivism called for a break from memorization and drills, to create a learning environment that centered on the child (echoing Rousseau) and served to educate the ‘whole individual’ in the same manner as Mills. He reminds us that teachers should serve as facilitators of learning, and that our first task is to create a caring and nurturing environment in which our students are poised to succeed (Gutek, 2011).

Therefore, the philosophers continue to echo the tenets of those before them: importance of ethics, existence within the societal context, and focus on the needs of the individual. As educators, we can continue to nurture our students, plan for the needs of the individual, and seek a cohesive group success based upon respect and inquiry.


Gutek, G.L. (2011) Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Using Enlightenment Ideas to Create Equity in Education

As a UVA graduate and resident of Charlottesville, I felt at home reading about Thomas Jefferson and his educational advocacy.  In discussing Jefferson’s Bill for “the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”, Gutek (2011) points out that although it never became law, it served to open dialogue regarding ‘equity in education’ and whether it is possible for ‘education to be equal and academically excellent at the same time’.

Equity is a buzz-word today as districts attempt to differentiate for student success.  For those who do not understand differentiation, equity often becomes a key-word for fairness or consistency.  It is also latched on to as the magic ticket to decrease early dropouts, increase cultural inclusion, and install early interventions to prevent failures.
I believe equity in education is imperative, but we have a ways to go.  Certainly gender equity is starting to receive success – more women than men are pursuing education, but there is still a gender divide in terms of economic reward post-education.  And if education’s purpose is to provide for a greater society and social opportunity, as our philosophers would argue, then our journey is far from over.  Furthermore, education is no longer the economic ticket it used to be a generation ago.  Studies show that a bachelor’s degree for our parents’ generation signified financial health and security, but now we are seeking higher degrees as an alternative to a failing job market, which hurts the economy with added indebtedness instead of bolstering the success of our workforce.  When students come from disadvantaged or disenfranchised backgrounds, although they can access a Jeffersonian ideal of public education, they often cannot take the next steps, or do not have support at home and must wade through the battle on their own.
It would be interesting to hear Jefferson’s views and guidance on the disparities we face between school districts, examining allocation of resources and so forth.  It’s certainly no secret that schools in economically disadvantaged areas, relying on dwindling tax allocations to support the education system, are not in a position to provide the same educational opportunities as those systems that reap rewards of industry and locale.  Could Jefferson fix our budget and create equity of advantage in our schools?  Would our modern Congress be more willing to pass legislation to create equity across the state?  As I type these questions, I am saddened at the likelihood of delegates and districts ever agreeing to such a leveled mandate.
Gutek, G.L. (2011) Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Mill’s Concept of Self-Analysis

Gutek (2011) explains Mill’s implication that ‘in the educative process, the learner is to be appreciated as an individual personality ho has her or his own ideas, interests, needs, and values.  Attention needs to be focused constantly and consistently on the learner, who possesses unique potentialities to achieve fulfillment as a human being and to contribute from her or his unique individuality to the happiness and welfare of others.”  To me, this echoes my district’s mantra of ‘Every child, every day’.  As educators, our self-analysis is a tool ensuring reflection of instructional planning and delivery.  What is imperative to weave into that reflection is the differentiated needs of our learners, and the assurance that it is a ‘whole-student’ differentiation: based not only on readiness and learning style (needs?) but also interests and culture and purpose.  Yet, we cannot stop there.  As explained above, we also have to provide an environment where our students can utilize their individual strengths and attributes to contribute to the overall classroom environment.  I believe that’s the true difference between differentiated learning and individualized learning, with differentiation being built around a communal objective while meeting the individual’s needs.  I feel that in my own self-analysis, I am making strides when it comes to differentiation, but often assess as an end-goal the achievement of each individual student.  By examining Mill’s philosophy, I now want to take that further: now that my students have learned, how can the individual’s fulfillment of the objective serve to further enrich the community?  In analyzing that question, it might be truly possible to elevate the learning experience.

Gutek, G.L. (2011) Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Echoes of Aristotle in No Child Left Behind

Although some might argue that the ideas of philosophers such as Confucius, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are outdated or irrelevant in our modern society and global economy, there are remnants of each incorporated into everyday classroom environments. On a more general level, these influences reach into America’s overarching educational policies and effect contemporary education as a national system.

For example, the utopian ideal that was No Child Left Behind (NCLB), although failed in many aspects, recognized the necessity for all learners, as rational beings, to acquire a set base of knowledge. Successful completion of this aim would send students into society as well-rounded citizens ready to contribute to society and attain fulfilling lives. This echoed the ideals of Aristotle, who proposed that ‘education in schools could be planned deliberately as a process to guide students to the goal of human happiness’ (Gutek, 2011, pp. 62)

Despite the repeal of NCLB, legislation such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and school district mantras such as ‘Every Child, Every Day’ hold faithful to its tenets while setting more realistic and non-punitive expectations. As educators, we have an understanding that every child can learn, but often the knowledge is mastered at a different pace or through different methods of instruction. Through differentiation, we are adhering to a backwards-design philosophy that Aristotle would be likely to support (‘this is where the student needs to be’) while melding our instruction to benefit the individual (‘this is how I am going to take them there’). This individualized instruction also echoes the mantra of Confucius, who established goals for his students and devised an instructional plan catered to their individual strengths and weaknesses (Gutek, 2011, pp. 20).

Plato was an adherent to the equal educational opportunity that we see in today’s idea of compulsory education. There is legislation in place within our society to ensure that not only are all students given a public education, but also that they are not shortchanged based on their intellectual ability. Special Education Legislation ensures that students with learning disabilities are given equitable resources to those in a standard classroom. There are IEPs and 504s to ensure that classroom teachers implement supports to further the learning of all students. Despite this, we still see inequity within our system. Demographic variance causes many issues of inequality – urban schools and rural schools alike see a lack of funding based upon income-tax discrepancies and other resource disparities. The home life of a student greatly impacts their chance to succeed. On one hand, certain students have technology and other supports at home, while on the opposite side of the spectrum, other students are working full-time after class to care for their family and cannot even finish homework assignments because of the burden they carry. Perhaps this is why Plato called for children to live and study outside of their family unit (Gutek, 2011, pp. 37–41). Perhaps he understood the socioeconomic pressures that occur and the need to remove those obstacles from the equation in order to truly build an equitable society? And if so, how do we mimic that today?

Certainly one way that we can counter the different social contexts of our students it to build relevancy within our classroom discussions, and serve as a facilitator that helps our students question what they are learning and relate it to their particular situations. This idea of teacher as moderator, in contrast to a ‘sage on the stage’, is very similar to Plato’s ideas garnered from his mentor Socrates and his Dialogue. In addition to the more informal method of questioning and leading to problem-based discovery and peer group work in a classroom, formal systems that are similar to the Socratic Method are on the rise. In the English classroom, many educators are experimenting with the Harkness Method, which provides for a small group discussion of a particular work, with the larger group listening and critiquing. The chairs are then switched. This model allows students to both think and question, while also ensuring that all students are actively participating in the discussion. Socrates felt that the ‘teacher’s task is to draw ideas out of students’ minds by asking them probing and challenging questions that cause them to think critically, deeply, and reflectively about their beliefs’ (Gutek, 2011, p. 35). If educators are doing the majority of the ‘teaching’ with students only ‘absorbing’, then the student is a passive learner, and is not reaching the upper echelons of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which should be the end-goal of all learning.

Finally, all of these philosophers would likely support a cross-curricular approach within a liberal arts education in order to ensure students become well-rounded, ethical citizens. This cross-disciplinary approach is becoming more prevalent in today’s schools, for our global economy is requiring that learners be well-versed in multiple arenas to compete internationally. Social skills that come into play with business and marketing are just as important as reading and writing skills, mathematical skills, or technical knowledge. When teachers help to build connections for their students, and consider real-world application of concepts from Aristotle, Confucius and Plato together, these educators are creating stronger, more prepared students that will enter greater society.

Gutek, G. L., (2013) Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction(5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ, NJ: Pearson Education.

Aristotelian Teaching Style

In considering the philosophies of Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle, I can see influences of each on my own personal learning style. However, I most significantly relate to Aristotle and his views of a liberal arts education. Aristotle focused on ‘reason’ – as an English teacher, I am always stressing to my students the importance of providing justification for their answers and conclusions, of elaborating on their arguments, and on sequentially attempting to solve problems and challenges. As a teacher, I scaffold my instruction and facilitate student progression through each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, in much the same way I believe Aristotle outlined a path to knowledge through the exploration of reason. Aristotle also believed in a well-rounded education. I believe the best way to teach vocabulary and reading skills is through a cross-disciplinary approach, and I am consistently trying to incorporate non-fiction, history, and create real-world relevancy to the things that we explore and discuss within the classroom. Finally, Aristotle focused on guiding students to form correct habits (Gutek, 2011). Not only does this address conduct and ethics – respect for others in a conducive learning environment, being good citizens within the school and community – but it can relate to the habits students obtain as they read and think about a text, which further allows them to reason through complex interactions and interesting viewpoints.

In regards to Plato, the major takeaway is the focus on critical thinking that stems from his mentor’s Socratic Method. In my high school courses, it is sometimes a struggle for students to dig deeper into a text and question figurative meaning, make inferences, and relate situations to their modern lives. Plato and Socrates believed that ‘the teacher’s task is to draw ideas out of students’ minds by asking them probing and challenging questions that cause them to think critically, deeply, and reflectively about their beliefs.’ (Gutek, 2011, pp. 35) Within the classroom, we should be tapping into our students’ ‘prior knowledge’ and using that social and cultural context to help them formulate ideas that extend beyond the obvious to engage in a deeper level of meaning and instructional acquisition.

Confucius believed that a good teacher was knowledgeable in their subject, and personally invested in the learning of each student. This idea is echoed in the philosophy of my school district: “Every child, every day”. As a teacher, we should follow this example and bring a passion for learning to the classroom, a positive attitude, and the willingness to help our students persevere until they succeed. Confucius’ beliefs also call for the need to differentiate our instruction based upon individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. It can sometimes be a challenge to elicit maximum engagement from every student, but Confucius would argue that a teacher’s tireless efforts are in the best interest of the individuals. Confucius also ‘set goals for his students’; as modern educators, mutual goal-setting helps create student buy-in and clear expectations for the classroom and pacing of curriculum (Gutek, 2011, pp. 20) .

There are powerful connections and takeaways between each philosopher’s teaching style.  Together, they form the foundation of a thoughtful approach to education:  ethics and respect, critical thinking and inquiry-based approaches to learning, and collaboration between all members of the learning team.  These aspects all work together to create an atmosphere of support and respect for both students and teachers.


Gutek, G. L. (2011). Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Relevance of Classical Ideas to Contemporary Issues

One question that stood out to me regarding modern application of classic philosophies was that of selective grouping.  Gutek (2011) asks: ‘Should students be grouped into tracks on the basis of their academic ability, as Plato suggested in The Republic?’  I believe that a trip to two different high schools in Virginia would yield differing viewpoints here.  At my previous high school, students were tracked – not only as ‘AP/Pre-AP’, Advanced, Standard, or Inclusion, but also within each of those groupings based on a variety of factors stemming from an analysis of longitudinal data, Tiering, etc.  So although I taught four groups of ‘Standard’ students, the ability levels from a data-standpoint in my first class varied drastically with that of my sixth period group.  In some ways, one could argue that this would provide for easier differentiation in terms of meeting students unique ability levels, but teachers often question if this segregation is not a disservice to learners, who might benefit from the differing viewpoints or positive environment that is being cultivated among other groups.  It also provides an overwhelmingly awkward situation for students who, because of scheduling, end up as the odd duck among their particular period (ex: a student better ‘suited’ for period 1, but ostracized culturally and academically in group six).  My current high school has foregone tracking, and teachers regularly attest to the ability for struggling learners to improve or be ‘pulled up’ through peer interactions.
Another aspect of tracking relates to ‘college bound’ versus ‘vocational ed’.  I wholeheartedly understand that not all students are going to choose the college track and have much to gain from vocational opportunities in public school.  Yet, problems arise when a student who is tracked vocationally changes their mind their junior or senior year – when garnering ‘missed’ courses proves an impossible task.  In addition, although my previous school had an extensive vocational offering, only a small percentage of students within that track can actually graduate as ‘licensed’ – the others require additional classes post-graduation, and some of them are not qualified to enter those programs because of math/English-related deficiencies stemming from taking the minimal ‘core’ requirements during their 9-12 career.  A hierarchy of intellect, goals, talents, etc is not a bad thing, as long as we have supports in place for those students that are equitable to what their peers on a different track are receiving.  For example, Special Education legislation requires that a student’s access to education be equitable to that of students in a standard classroom; perhaps we need legislation to ensure that vocational students receive equitable opportunities to those participating in Governor’s Schools or Enrichment programs.
The last thing I’ll mention in terms of ‘selective process’ is the voucher system that we’ve seen emerging over the past decade.  If students are leaving particular schools and districts to join a ‘better’ institution, and taking with them the money that is allocated for their education, it undoubtedly further lessens the original institution’s chances of success.  When those taking advantage of the voucher system come from privileged backgrounds (which is often the case, because they don’t encounter transportation issues, etc), it leaves the disenfranchised and disadvantaged to exist within an environment that will undoubtedly meet punitive measures in regards to testing and so on.  We see this to some extent in rural areas that do not have voucher issues, but are seeing population decline and as such a decline in funding and other resources.  If our philosophers argue that society has an ethical obligation regarding learning, it would seem that it is our duty to aid our underperforming schools instead of withholding funding based upon subjective quantitative measurements of success.

Gutek, G. L. (2011). Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Confucius’s Ideas on Relationships

Confucius outlines five specific relationships – parent and child, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife, friend and friend, and ruler and subject – and it is easy to compare and contrast those individual relationships within their subsequent modern context.  From an academic educational standpoint (versus social context), I enjoyed William Theodore de Bary’s humanist perspective that ‘Confucian literature, with its emphasis on ethical relationships, connects the family and the local community with the larger national and global communities.  Rather than centering exclusively on the differences that separate groups, Confucianism can provide a multiculturalism that ‘integrates human commonality as well as cultural diversity”  (Gutek, 2011, pp. 26-27).

I believe we see this in schools today.  On the one hand, educators have placed greater import on equity in the classroom, closing achievement gaps, and creating an inclusive learning environment.  At the same time, we strive to diversify our texts, celebrate the individual, create relevant learning experiences based upon our students interests, needs, and backgrounds, and instill a sense of cultural competency throughout the school’s climate and curriculum.
From a teaching perspective, I think it’s somewhat easy to view the teacher-student Confucian relationship as a ‘sage on the stage’ type mentorship, vs the Western ideal of teacher as facilitator and emphasis on small group and peer-led investigation.  However, the fact that an environment such as that – where students are ranked and evaluated, and open to constructive criticism – leads to rewards such as positive motivation and self-esteem, facets that are not present in many American school situations.  I believe all educators praise their students and reward hard work, but oftentimes we hear of learned helplessness, a lack of resiliency, and disrespect that stems from this.  This is where the social context comes into play — if we exist in a society or culture where hierarchical relationships or norms are not revered, it is hard to establish a positive environment that is conducive to struggles without meeting resistance and lack of support.  The parent-student relationship is important at that point, because a family home which celebrates effort and lessons learned (What fabulous struggle did you encounter today?) creates a student whose views on education are much more willing and open than that of a pupil who is either striving for perfection without effort, or worse places no value on academic improvement/achievement.  As parents, we must recognize the education system as a positive attribute of our society (versus an institution that is in opposition to our views); as educators, we must connect our lessons to the global context.

Gutek, G. L. (2011). Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Our Prior Experiences Shape Our Views

It is an accepted proposition that key events during one’s childhood and youth provide the lenses through which one sees later events. I am a proponent of this belief, for I agree with Vygotsky’s ideas of cultural and social context influencing individual learning – both academic knowledge and the various social mores and values that we internalize. For Vygotsky, the environment in which children grow up will influence both ‘how they think’ and ‘what they think about’, ultimately impacting cognitive development in a number of ways (McLeod, 2014). This impacts not only one’s own learning, but also how one is likely to approach learning as an educator.

As a child, I possessed an intrinsic motivation and natural curiosity to both learn and teach. My father passed away when I was a toddler, and my family lived in a very rural area with a low population density. I spent much time entertaining myself while my mother was away providing for the family and I was in the care of my grandmother. I developed a quiet capacity to read and discover as an individual, and I often prefer this learning style as an adult. In high school, I preferred individual projects to group work, even in instances of complicated or multi-step requirements. I felt comfortable and able to focus more readily on my objectives. In college, I preferred independent analysis to group discussion. As a teacher, although I incorporate group discussion and partner-work quite frequently in my curriculum, I hold a strong belief that students must also have individual tasks to complete to prepare them for individual modes of assessment.

Growing up below the poverty line, I viewed education as a luxury that shaped not only my knowledge and skill acquisition, but also my self-worth. School was a safe haven for me, a place where I felt accepted and able to excel in a bubble that differentiated not on one’s financial value or status but on one’s readiness to contribute to the success of the institution. At the same time, I viewed my neighborhood, one comprised of Section 8 housing and seedy interpersonal relationships, and understood that my opinions on education were quite different from those of my peers. My younger sister struggled academically, and was not interested in learning for the sake of a future of which she did not feel a part. I came to understand that without relevancy, education could easily be taken for granted, or even seen as yet another daily obstacle to overcome. As a teacher, I relate to students in my high-needs district that come from a similar background. I try to incorporate culturally diverse works, as well as topics that relate to my students and their personal interests and aspirations. For the majority, these goals are far from the college-readiness track that might be expected of higher socio-economic demographics. In assuring these students that their goals are important, I strive to build trust and spark a motivation that is not naturally present. I suppose my true assumption is that learning can always be extrinsically motivated; it’s simply a matter of discovering what the impetus might be.

Additionally, I was raised in the Virginia education system at a time when the Standards of Learning were being implemented, so these tests are second nature to me and a part of who I am. I often believe that my ability to accept the mastery of certain skills as a requirement, and the measure of these skills as a positive aspect of learning, stems from attending school in a district that consistently achieved quite well on the test despite being a Title I school with a high proportion of struggling learners. I entered teaching without having experienced a world prior to the existence of the tests, so analytically I view them as a means to ensure a quality education across the board. Therefore, since I exist as a product of the system, I naturally search for ways to meld my teaching style within the confines of the system and its expectations.

McLeod, S. (2014). Vygotsky | Simply Psychology. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from

Finding Our Educational Roots

I appreciated the process of creating and examining one’s personal teaching philosophy, as described by Beatty (2009).  It inspired me to look back at my own teaching philosophy from before I entered the classroom, and really examine each of my statements and reflect on what place they had in my current classroom thinking.  The article discussed not only prioritizing certain philosophies in the initial card-sort, but then categorizing those qualities and labeling them.  I think that is incredibly insightful, for it allows a cohesiveness to be identified in both thought and practice.
I also appreciated the anecdote of the participant who questioned a difference in philosophy based on the skill-level of the class, leading to the clarification of philosophy as an ‘overarching value system’ (Beatty, 2009, p. 126).  It’s inspiring to be reminded that although our approach might need to change based on student needs and personalities, it doesn’t effect our inherent beliefs that guide us.  I had a particular group of learners last year that were very different from my other blocks, and we had a very different classroom environment.  I think that on some days, it might be human nature to plan lessons with the thought ‘Oh wait, I can’t do this with them’ when really such thinking should be changed to ‘this gives me the opportunity to approach this lesson from a different perspective’.

Beatty, J.E., Leigh, J.S.A., & Dean, K.L. (2009). Finding our Roots: An Exercise for creating a personal teaching Philosophy Statement. Journal of Management Education, 33(1), 115.

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