Eminent Educators

In celebration of Kierstin’s recent acceptance into UCSB’s esteemed teacher education program, where she’ll spend next year obtaining her multiple subject teaching credential and masters of education (She received her official notice last week!), this week’s trivia segment will focus on famous educators or famous people who were once educators.

It’s almost impossible to discuss famous teachers without mentioning the influential teachings of Ancient Greece’s great philosophers. The ultimate trio in Greek philosophy consists of the three great truth-seekers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all of whom placed an immense value on thought and developed many ideas still taught today. The three philosophers form a lineage of celebrated thinkers, starting with Socrates teaching Plato who then taught Aristotle.

Socrates did not write his own philosophical texts, so most of what is known about Socrates and his teachings is from writings by his students. Plato is often considered the most reliable source on Socrates, since Plato would record dialogues with Socrates. Some historians debate whether Plato may have dramatized some attributes of his mentor, but corroborating works from some of Socrates’ other students indicate that Plato’s accounts paint a fairly accurate picture. One important legacy of Socrates is the method of teaching with his namesake (the Socratic Method). This pedagogical approach involves a rapid-fire series of questions intended to encourage a fundamental understanding of the topic at hand.

Plato is well-known for his philosophical texts, most especially his magnum opus the Republic.  Diogenes Laertius, a famed biographer of the Greek philosophers, claims that “Plato” was actually a nickname, with his birth name being Aristocles. His nickname, meaning “broad”, referred to the philosopher’s physique and was reputedly given to him by his wrestling coaches. As great a teacher and philosopher Plato was, his nickname was not a testament of his mental capacity but rather his physical talents.

Aristotles’ claim to fame was his dominating mastery of all areas of knowledge he explored. His teachings composed the first comprehensive curriculum of Western Philosophy; he covered many areas in science, math, art, and politics. He was hired as the teacher of Alexander the Great and reportedly paid quite a large sum for the time, which enabled him to open the Lyceum (a school for great thinkers). His works have been highly influential, with many major scientific discoveries originating from his teachings.

Fast-forward nearly two millennia to the time of John Amos Comenius, a scholar who is considered the father of modern education. Comenius published the first pictorial textbook, demonstrating his desire for a universal education system. His fundamental beliefs are still central themes in education today, like his attempt to make learning exciting rather than a chore and his want to teach by showing rather than just telling. Comenius’ attempts for reformation, which included providing access to education for women and impoverished children, have since been recognized and honored. The internationally prestigious Comenius Medal is awarded annually for outstanding achievements in the field of education.

A century later, Noah Webster was developing his legacy as the father of modern American education. The name Webster might be recognized by anyone who has uninterestingly started a speech with “Webster’s dictionary defines (speech topic) as…” Webster sought reform for the dilapidated state of American education in the 18th century. Classrooms were often one-room schoolhouses, packed until sideboards bowed outward with as many as 70 students of all ages. The staff was overworked and underpaid. To top it all off, textbooks were outdated and unsatisfactory manuscripts sent over from England. Webster’s ardent patriotism ignited a desire to teach American students from American textbooks, and he set out to create his famous Blue Backed Speller. Webster is credited with “Americanizing” English spelling, the success of which can be seen when comparing the American vs. English “defense” vs. “defence”, “center” vs. “centre”, and “color” vs. “colour”. Some of his modifications were flops, like his attempt to change “tongue” to “tung”, but his impact on education was clearly prominent.

Finally, it’s interesting to briefly consider a few educators famous for endeavors not relating to their teaching experiences. Before he played Professor Logan at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning (better known as his role of Wolverine in the X-Men movies), Hugh Jackman was a PE teacher in England. Jackman recently received press when he teased a reporter by asking why the reporter had not recognized his old PE teacher. Jackman apparently had the reporter as a student 26 years before, and the reporter was caught off guard when Jackman remembered. The lead singer of The Police, Sting, worked as an English teacher before his rise to fame. This might be a bit unnerving to anyone who has listened closely to the lyrics for “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (although, reassuring or not, Sting has stated before the lyrics are not autobiographical). Finally, Gene Simmons of Kiss fame also had a brief stint as a teacher before making it big. He supposedly was reprimanded for attempting to replace classic literature with Spiderman in an attempt to entice his 6th English students in Harlem. He eventually quit when he realized the comparatively dim limelight teaching provides was not enough for him.

Want to share your own stories about famous educators? Comment below!

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One thought on “Eminent Educators

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Research: Atoms | Material World

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