Biography Essay

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Biography is a useful way to focus on the major educational theories that have shaped Western education and schooling across the last 2,500 years. Tying educational theorists’ and philosophers’ work to their lives connects the abstract to the practical, for life includes the internal realities of the mind as well as the daily practice of living. As Barbara Tuchman has pointed out, biography is similar to a prism because it keeps people’s attention on the larger subject through their interest in other people. The biographies and theories included in this entry are representative of those who have left a substantial written legacy of important ideas and theories that have helped to shape the educational landscape.

Greco-Roman Traditions

The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers had and continue to have a major impact on educational traditions in Europe and the Americas.


Plato (428–347 BCE) came from an aristocratic Athenian family and had one sister, Petone, and two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, whose names appear in The Republic. His nickname, Plato (meaning “broad shoulders”), soon replaced his given name of Aristocles. He received an aristocratic boy’s education of grammar, music, gymnastics, and poetry, which should have led him into the life of a leader and/or politician. Instead, history remembers him for his skill as a writer of numerous dialogues with Socrates as the protagonist.

Plato’s thinking was strongly influenced by Socrates and Pythagoras, whose work he encountered while traveling in Egypt. His travels took him to most parts of the Mediterranean world. He returned to Athens after ten years away, and settled on land that housed a gymnasium known as the Academy where members engaged in philosophical, religious, and political discussions and conversations during dinners, or banquets, that were known as symposia. He died at the age of about eighty-one and left his land and four of his five slaves to his brother, Adeimantus. He set free a female slave in his will.

Plato’s social, political, and educational ideas were developed in his dialogues, especially The Republic. He maintained his intellectual connections with Pythagorean tenets, believing in “ideas” as universal organizing principles that undergird all sensory perceptions in the physical world. This is the theme of his allegory of the cave where the physical world is no more “real” than the shadows on the wall of the cave. To understand these organizing principles or ideas was the key to education, but everyone was not going to be able intellectually to understand them, Plato thought. Hence, in his view, education must be able to separate those who will be the leaders or philosopher-kings from those who will be the artisans, military officers, merchants, and other members of society.

This is the essence of his “myth of the metals,” in which Socrates describes how God has made individuals different from one another. Education must sift out the various metals that correspond to different social occupations, leaving only the gold destined to be philosopher-kings. In the early twentieth century when testing was becoming important, some psychologists and educators thought that the IQ test was the realization of the Platonic ideal.


One of Plato’s students, Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was the son of a Macedonian king and the tutor of Alexander the Great. He came to the Academy when he was seventeen and stayed for twenty years. Plato was said to have called him nous (mind) or the intellect of the school, while Aristotle regarded Plato as living by his own words in leading a life of contemplative happiness or “good”ness. (Aristotle was said to be the only Academy fellow who could comprehend Plato’s concept of the “good.”)

Aristotle became interested in his physical surroundings and studied them through scientific observation. For him education was the road to moral and rational virtues and moderation—the keys to happiness. These were inherent in human beings and not tied to a Platonic, transcendental ideal.

The Romans

Roman leaders were interested in the rational and philosophical to the degree that it made them good orators. Hence, the Greek study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (trivium) became the most important course of study. The other four subjects or quadrivium— music, arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry—that rounded out the seven liberal arts were not as important to the Romans.

Cicero (106–43 BCE) was lucky to have had a Greek tutor (pedagogue), and he also studied philosophy and rhetoric and oratory in Greece and Rhodes. Upon his return he entered politics and remained until he was falsely accused of being part of the plot to kill Julius Caesar—an accusation that resulted in his beheading in 43 BCE. Twelve years earlier, however, he wrote his famous treatise on education, De Oratore, which called for a well-rounded broad course of study with history at the center instead of the narrow trivium.

While it had little influence on Roman schooling, it became the Renaissance ideal of education. A century after Cicero’s death, a Spanish-born Roman named Quintilian (35–95 CE) patterned his Institutes of Oratory on Cicero’s work. Quintilian came to Rome as the first imperially financed teacher, and then became the tutor to the son of one of the Roman emperors. In his treatise, good literature replaced history as the vehicle for learning, with the goal of producing good people. He was one of the first on record to speak out against corporal punishment or “flogging” as it was called. Instead, he thought children should learn to love study, and that would only happen if they were treated well and rewarded for their accomplishments.

Renaissance Transformations

Many aspects of Greco-Roman education were Christianized in the remaining centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era through the works of St. Augustine; Charlemagne and his teacher, Alcuin; and St. Thomas Aquinas. By the early part of the second millennium, those traditions that had been lost in the Christian world were rediscovered during the period known as the Renaissance.

In Florence under the direction of the Medici family, Greek and Roman literature and art were valued for their own sake instead of religious purposes. Humanism or the “new learning” was born, and the classics were read as inspiration for the cultivation of personal virtues including civic duty. Vittorino de Feltre (1378–1446) was a humanist teacher who believed in the Renaissance ideal of preparing individuals to lead a virtuous life through the study of the Greek and Roman classics.

Desiderius Erasmus

For the most part, women were not part of this Italian rebirth of learning, but as it spread to northern Europe, they found an advocate in Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536). Known as “the Prince of Humanists.” Erasmus was born in Deventer in Holland, the illegitimate son of a priest and a physician’s daughter. He was educated for the priesthood by the Brothers of Common Life and the Augustinians, and continued his study at the Sorbonne in Paris. He regarded himself as a “citizen of the world” and became the friend and confidante of Sir Thomas More and other humanists in England.

His major work, In Praise of Folly (1911), is a satire on the ills of society, and in some of his other works he called for reform of the Christian/Catholic church. In fact, many have pointed to these latter works as the signal that began the Reformation. He made no distinction between being a Christian and being a humanist scholar and called for a well-ordered society through the study of a classical liberal arts education. In his educational scheme, he included the education of girls through a carefully developed curriculum.

John Amos Comenius

Like Erasmus, John Amos Comenius (1592–1670) was seen as a “citizen of the world” and a man of peace during a period of the religious wars of the Reformation. He was born Jan Kominsky in Moravia, Czechoslovakia, the youngest child and only son of five children born to Protestant parents of modest means. Orphaned by the age of sixteen, he attended a grammar school operated by the Unity of Brethren, a Protestant group following the beliefs of John Hus. The rector of the school supported Comenius’s education and sent him to the Calvinist gymnasium (secondary school) of Herborn in central Germany.

Comenius was a supporter of education for the masses, not just the more academic secondary form of education found in grammar schools and gymnasiums. By the middle of the nineteenth century his works had been translated into German, English, and French. He became known as the “pioneer of modern educational science” because he thought that children should study things, or objects, before learning to read, and that the curriculum should be carefully organized around experiences that reflected the “natural” sensory order of things. Hence, play and enjoyment would replace the dreary grind of schooling in his time.

Comenius was one of the first to use pictures in reading texts. He also agreed with most of the reformers of the day that children needed to be able to read the vernacular in addition to Latin. In other words, he was advocating universal literacy in the vernacular along with the teaching of arithmetic skills. He included girls in this education, although he thought their roles in the household called for less of a classical or secondary preparation.

Enlightenment Thinkers

Protestant reformers such as Comenius, Martin Luther, and John Calvin provided strong voices for educating the masses. However, the class structure was still forcefully maintained in Europe. This resulted in a two-track form of schooling: basic vernacular literacy for the masses in elementary, folk, common, or petty schools and the elite liberal arts education for the upper-class leaders of society to be found in secondary schools such as gymnasia, lycées, grammar schools, and academies. Euro-American struggles in the seventeenth century provided competition for this elitist socioeducational structure and influenced the thought of Enlightenment philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), but it did little to transform the thinking on the education of girls and women.

Kant’s sapere aude (“dare to know”) gave the signal to individuals to use their intelligence to take charge of their lives, without the guidance of a controlling socioeconomic class. And John Locke developed a theory of constitutional law and democratic form of government along with a theory of education.

John Locke

Born to a country physician, Locke was educated at Oxford, where he also tutored and lectured in medicine and experimental science. He became the personal physician to the Earl of Shaftsbury and lived a comfortable life in England, and in Holland when his opposition to the king made it difficult to stay in London. It was during his period in Holland, when a friend asked his advice on educating his son, that he wrote Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1692).

Here Locke criticized the current schools for relying on corporal punishment and advocated tutorial arrangements with a curriculum that did not stress the rote memory of Latin and Greek, but focused on more practical subjects such as, geography, history, geometry, and astronomy, along with civil law and language. The focus of his educational theory was the theory of the mind as a blank tablet, or tabula rasa, at birth, which is filled through the child’s sensory experiences.

Locke’s stress on the practical along with the rejection of inborn intellectual talent found support in American colonial society, as well as in the twentieth century with American Progressives—as did the ideas of Rousseau, who was born in France shortly after Locke’s death.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s mother died giving birth to him, and he spent his young years in the care of his father’s unmarried sister and a nursemaid. His father had wanderlust and was rarely home with his two sons. When he was home, he would read romance type novels to his younger son that left the boy, from age seven on, with a confused sense of adult passion. As a boy Rousseau loved the countryside, and one night when he was sixteen, he chose not to return to the city of Geneva before the gates closed.

In his Confessions, Rousseau cites this incident as the beginning of his vagabond life, wandering between various Swiss towns and Paris. He ultimately made his living copying music in Paris. He met and befriended a rather pathetic and ignorant seamstress named Theresa, who became the mother of his five children—all of whom were given away to be raised in foundling homes. Rousseau is unclear about his motivation for doing this, other than to say that he was not cut out to be a father, and ignorant Therese seemed ill equipped to raise children.

In Paris he became friends with the French philosopher Denis Diderot and entered an essay contest at his suggestion. Rousseau argued that human nature is basically good and that it is society that corrupts. To his amazement he won the contest and began attending fashionable dinner parties where he continued to dress in his peasant fur hat and robe to remain true to his beliefs. Under the patronage of elitist society members, he wrote The Social Contract (1762), and Émile (1762), a novel about the proper education of a boy. Émile ultimately came under censorship from the French government and Rousseau fled to England, where he became friendly with David Hume. In 1767, he decided to return to Paris under a pseudonym. He finished his Confessions and began some other writing, working until 1778, when he suffered a brain hemorrhage and died.

In Émile, Rousseau calls for the boy to be raised in nature with a tutor and not parents who might be too controlling. In nature, Émile could explore his surroundings safely and move freely without any of the swaddling clothes that were still being used at that time. Once the child developed muscle control, moral education began, and it was taught by example. There was no punishment involved, and a boy’s intellectual education came after his moral training. Knowledge was to come from studying natural science and reading books such as Robinson Crusoe. Subjects dealing with society were avoided until his later teen years when his character was strong enough to handle social corruption. Many of Rousseau’s ideas were the basis for future Progressive reformers’ theories, but the tension in his work between individual freedom and social responsibility was problematic for many of his followers.

The education of women was the last chapter in Émile and was the only part that did not cause a stir at the time. It described an education that taught subservience to men and epitomized the attitudes that women such as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) found so abhorrent. Her best known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), called for an end to this subservient education and proposed a more egalitarian curriculum that included females and males.

Progressive Educational Ideas

Rousseau’s ideas set the ball in motion for followers such as Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827), with his pedagogical study of objects, and Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852), founder of the kindergarten movement. Johann Herbart (1776–1841) developed many of these ideas into formal steps with his theory of apperception, which posits that any new idea is understood in terms of material and sensory experiences already known to the individual.

Nineteenth-century America was ripe for these ideas as the new United States began to think about the type of schooling that would be available to all citizens. Common school advocates—such as Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann (1796–1859); educational reformer Henry Barnard (1811–1900), who held political positions in Connecticut and Rhode Island; and Quincy, Massachusetts’ superintendent, Colonel Francis W. Parker (1837–1902)—studied these continental theorists as they planned for state and local school systems. Colonel Francis W. Parker’s “theory of concentration,” outlined in his Talks on Pedagogics, was an outgrowth of his study of Herbart, Pestalozzi, and Froebel; and Clark University President G. Stanley Hall implemented Rousseauian natural growth concepts in his child study movement.

John Dewey: Early Years

The person to bring these ideas into a unified, coherent system of thought was John Dewey (1859–1952). Born in Burlington, Vermont, to fourth generation New Englanders, Dewey grew up during the Civil War and learned at an early age the negative outcomes of prejudice and suffering. The family followed his father as he fought in the cavalry, and his mother’s strong abolitionist and liberal religious views made an impression on the young boy. After the war the family returned to Burlington, where they owned a grocery store. Dewey finished his early schooling and matriculated at the University of Vermont.

Upon graduation he moved to Oil City, Pennsylvania, to teach at the high school where his cousin was principal. He taught algebra, Latin, and the natural sciences and published his first article, “The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism,” in William Torrey Harris’s Journal of Speculative Philosophy. Encouraged by this foray into philosophy, Dewey returned to Burlington and began a tutorial study of philosophy while he taught at the local academy. He applied to the Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. program, and because he was not awarded a fellowship, an aunt supported him financially. Influenced by the logic of Charles Sanders Pierce, the psychology of G. Stanley Hall, and the idealism of George Sylvester Morris, he graduated in 1884, having written his dissertation on Kantian epistemology and psychology.

Dewey was hired to teach philosophy at the University of Michigan, where he met and married Alice Chipman. He moved to the University of Minnesota in 1888, and taught there for one year before being hired back to the University of Michigan as the Chair of the Philosophy Department. He became friends with George Herbert Mead, who helped him secure the Chair of Philosophy, Psychology and Pedagogy at the University of Chicago.

Dewey On Education

In 1904, under Dewey’s direction, the University of Chicago published a decennial series titled Contributions to Education. The publication caused Harvard psychologist William James to claim that under Dewey’s leadership the University of Chicago had developed a new school of thought. James (1842–1910) had redefined the old Platonic idea in terms of its “workability” or utility. He had argued against absolutes and described a world that was in a state of change. This theory fit with Pierce’s logic that defined concepts in terms of their human consequences, and defined knowledge as that which is validated by human experiences.

To these concepts Dewey added his theory of instrumentalism, which views ideas as instruments to be used to solve problems—psychological, social, educational, or physical/environmental. This new school of thought came to be known as pragmatism, and with the help of Ella Flagg Young, a doctoral student and future superintendent of the Chicago public schools, he implemented these progressive practices in his Laboratory School at the University of Chicago.

Dewey left the University of Chicago in 1904 and joined the philosophy and education faculty at Columbia University and its Teachers College. In 1915 his Democracy and Education was published, followed by many other articles and books, including the revised edition of How We Think (1933) and Experience and Education (1938). Together with his wife, Alice, he advocated equality for women and African Americans. In 1927 Alice died, and in 1930 he retired from teaching. He continued to travel, and lectured in the Soviet Union and throughout the world, becoming the first internationally renowned American philosopher. In 1946, Dewey married a much younger woman, Roberta Lowitz Grant, a widow whose family he had been friendly with during his Oil City years. He died on June 1, 1952 after a brief illness.

One of Dewey’s students at the University of Chicago was John B. Watson (1878–1958), who developed a new experimental branch of psychology published as a book entitled Behaviorism in 1924. At Columbia, Dewey’s colleague Edward L. Thorndyke (1874–1949) was working on a more experimental form of behavioristic psychology known as connectionism, which focused on observable and measurable animal responses to various stimuli.

Existential Themes In Postmodern Times

As various forms of behaviorism controlled mid-twentieth-century American schools, some educators instead embraced existentialist ideas of human freedom and turned to the 1962 book Summerhill by A. S. Neill (1883–1973). Published in 1960 it called for freedom from these controls and described a school in

England that Neill had been running since the 1920s under the premise that children should be free “to be themselves.” Nel Noddings, while concerned with issues similar to Neill’s, specifically calls for schools to become caring environments, in which teachers and students are mutually dependent.

A. S. Neill

Born to strict Calvinist parents, in rural Scotland, Neill attended the local school and worked as a teaching apprentice and then an assistant teacher, although he never felt that he was a good student. At the age of twenty-five, he managed to pass exams that allowed him to enter the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated with a major in English literature.

He took a temporary position as a schoolmaster while waiting to enter the military and began keeping a log of his teaching activities. He broke with the traditions of flogging and rote memory learning in favor of allowing students to use their imaginations in the learning process. After the army, Neill came in contact with an American named Homer Lane who was running a penal colony for young delinquents. Lane ran the institution using Freudian psychoanalytic principles, along with the belief that one must always find a way of understanding and supporting the child. To practice these principles Lane had weekly meetings where every teen and adult member of the community had a vote.

After a brief period teaching at a progressive school in Germany, Neill opened his own school there based on the above principles along with the practice of weekly meetings. He ultimately relocated the school—Summerhill—near London and ran it with his wife until she died in 1940. Then he ran it with his second wife until he died. His students tended to be those who had had trouble in schools, and many of them were Americans. Students had the freedom to play and do what they pleased within safe boundaries, but once they tired of that form of freedom and opted to attend classes, they had to make the commitment to continue those classes. In Neill’s estimation, it was the best education for reaching the universal aim in life of happiness. Even though the school continues today, the international attention that it received during Neill’s later years has waned.

Another educational philosopher who has drawn on existentialist ideas is Maxine Greene (1917– ). In her many books and articles she has articulated a freedom of choice in creating oneself, and the importance of choosing freedom that brings relations with others in order to avoid the dilemma of forlornness.

Nel Noddings

Human relationships are also the basis of Nel Noddings’s care theory. Noddings was born in Irvington, New Jersey, on the eve of the Great Depression, January 19, 1929. She graduated from Montclair State Teachers College with a B.A. in 1949, and upon graduation, married James Noddings. She taught at the junior high school in Woodbury, New Jersey, for four years, then spent several years raising her family (which ultimately grew to include ten children). From 1957 to 1969, she became a high school math teacher, department chair, and finally assistant principal. Noddings received her M.A. from Rutgers in 1964, and completed her work for a Ph.D. at Stanford University, graduating in 1973. She was a member of the faculty at Stanford University from 1977 to 1998, and was the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Child Education at Stanford from 1992 to 1998. She subsequently held appointments at Columbia University, Colgate University, and the University of Southern Maine, and she is Jacks Professor of Education, Emerita, at Stanford.

In 1984 she set forth her ethics of care in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. The theory is ontologically based in the relationship between the “one-caring” and the “cared for,” and the relationship is one of mutual dependence. The onecaring becomes completely absorbed or engrossed in the situation of the cared for as she receives into herself the thoughts, feelings, and circumstances of the cared for. Noddings differentiates this reality from empathy, in which a person projects herself or himself into the other’s situation to understand the other’s thoughts and feelings. She points out that caring on the part of the one-caring is “always characterized by a move away from self,” which means that the caring individual needs to move out of the realm of assigning blame, credit, or any other rational assessment of the particular situation, and this leads to the ethical dimension of caring.

Traditionally, ethics has involved reason and logic or logos, the masculine spirit. The ethics of caring, on the other hand involves a more natural affective domain and is connected to Eros, the feminine spirit. Noddings qualifies Neill’s aim of happiness in life by defining that aim as relational: caring and being cared for. In a caring relationship, when teachers engage students through questions and discussions, they are working to engage students, and not just looking for the correct answers or responses.

Finally, Noddings differentiates between “caring for” and “caring about,” with the latter being more inclusive and distant. One can care deeply about global hunger and contribute to alleviate the condition through the contribution of one’s time or money or both. However, this is a broader type of caring than the one caring–cared for relationship.

Caring is also a theme in the 1992 book Schoolhome by Jane Roland Martin (1930–). It is one of the “three Cs” that need to be present for children to learn: caring, concern, and connection. She draws upon the work of Maria Montessori (1870–1952), who used the concept of home (casa) for her learning environment, known as Casa dei Bambini. Roland Martin’s emphasis is on understanding how learning occurs, rather than on how teaching or instructional elements can be identified. Thus, she calls for an image transition from the American “schoolhouse” to the American “schoolhome.”


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  2. Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: MacMillan.
  3. Dykhuizen, G. (1973). The life and mind of John Dewey.
  4. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Locke, J. (1947). Some thoughts concerning education.
  5. New York: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1692)
  6. Martin, J. R. (1992). The schoolhome: Rethinking schools for changing families. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  7. Neill, A. S. (1962). Summerhill. New York: Hart.
  8. Neill, A. S. (1972). Neill, Neill, orange peel: An autobiography. New York: Hart.
  9. Noddings, N. (2003). Caring. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  10. Noddings, N. (2006). Critical lessons: What our schools should teach. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  11. Oates, S. B. (Ed.). (1986). Biography as high adventure. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  12. (1942). The republic (I. A. Richards, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.
  13. Quintilian, M. F. (1921). The instituto oratoria (H. E. Butler, Trans.). London: William Heinemann.
  14. Rousseau, J.-J. (1979). Émile. (A. Bloom, Trans.). New York: Basic Books. (Original work published 1762)
  15. Smith, L. G., & Smith, J. K. (1994). Lives in education: A narrative of people and ideas. New York: St. Martin’s.
  16. Woodward, W. H. (1964). Desiderius Erasmus concerning the aim and method of education. New York: Teachers College.

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