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  • Writer's pictureMichael DeNobile

Dead Pedagogues Society: A Look at Educational Philosophers through the Centuries

Reflections on different Educational Philosophers.

1. Augustine and Student-Centered, Transformative Education

Ecclesiastes 1:9 declares, What has been will be again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Nothing seems truer when comparing Augustine's pedagogical theory with modernity: he truly was ahead of his time.

First, being a proponent of Christian liberal arts, he established an understanding of the need for studying the sacred and the secular in order to understand humanity as both being children of God (via the Bible) and children of men (via non-Christian authors such as Virgil and Cicero; Smith, 2020). Liberal arts education remains the mainstay of most college undergraduate programs over 2000 years after Augustine lived. Moreover, his approach of studying the liberal arts in community is reminiscent of modern-day professional learning communities (PLCs).

Second, he understood that teachers needed to show their humanity and could not be ivory-tower dwellers who exist separate from their pupils but collaboratively and intimately participate in the learning process--that is, the pedagogue is not a stoic lecturer who simply imparts knowledge but a human being who walks with students on their journey of life. Because he saw "the search for truth, unity, and happiness as synonymous with the search for God" with "self-reflective inquiry" (Smith, 2020, p. 15), the teacher is also a learner in the classroom, and thus students collaboratively participate in the teaching process as well. Similarly, his approach to student-centered instruction, based on student interest and motivation, as well as developing a learning environment that is warm and welcoming (Smith, 2020), is another hot topic is modern education. Being mindful of the needs of the students rather than the agenda of the teacher is what separates Augustine from many other education philosophers. This all sounds like most of the "highly effective" entries on the Danielson Rubric.

The humanity of the teacher extends to the teacher-student relationship: "Relationship and reciprocity were extremely important to Augustine . . . . Students often became his friends, involved intimately with his family circle" (Smith, 2020, p. 16). It is the student-teacher relationship that leverages a teacher's ability to motivate and engage, and therefore teach. Otherwise, if a student does not feel loved, why would they bother considering what an educator has to teach them? Sparks (2019) reported that strong teacher-student relationships are associated with direct school improvements (both short- and long-term) in "higher student academic engagement, attendance, grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates" ( The importance of the student-teacher relationship within Catholic education can be threaded from Algerian 4th century Augustine to French 14th century Francis de Sales to Italian 19th century founder of the Salesian order John Bosco. Within Augustinian pedagogy, Bosco proposed the education method of the Preventative System (an alternative approach to the controls and punishments model of discipline with one of preventing malbehavior through role-modeling, coaching, and relationship steeped in loving-kindness, reason and reasonableness, and pastoral spirituality) and the Oratory Model (a Home that welcomes, a School that educations good Christians and honest citizens, a Playground that socializes, and a Church that evangelizes). Augustinian student-teacher relationship building remains a standard bearer in today's schools, whether parochial or public.

Other factors of his pedagogy seem to be ripped out of modern education textbooks and discussions surrounding the Danielson Rubric: understanding and leveraging students' readiness to learn, creating an environment conducive to learning, setting and communicating clear expectations for student tasks and outcomes, developing curricula around student interests and motivation, providing overviews before a lesson (i.e. learning targets) and summaries after to focus and engage students on the learning process, and being mindful of the "appropriate style of presentation" so that "learners can be receptive to content" (Smith, 2020, p. 16), which also has to be differentiated based on student needs. There is nothing new under the sun, and Augustine proved that good pedagogy stands the tests of time.

2. Rebecca Protten and Social Responsibility

Rebecca Protten's life and work serves as a model of social responsibility for educators because she demonstrated how she did "not draw attention to herself but to the impact she made in education and evangelism" (Smith, 2020, p. 56). Born into slavery in Antigua in 1718 and kidnapped by the age of six, she was sold to Christian planters in St. Thomas. Converting to Christianity and learning how to read, she was granted her freedom as an adolescent and was hired by her former owners as a paid house servant. Partnering with St. Thomas's Moravian Church, she set out on a lifelong mission to educate and evangelize slaves, "connecting movements of religion, rebellion, and race from the Caribbean, to Europe, and finally to Africa," establishing "the origins of the Black church" and "an international evangelistic movement" (Smith, 2020, p. 55 & 56). Her efforts and body of work are widespread in the Caribbean and Europe alone. With such a legacy, it would have been understandable to live out the rest of her life in quiet solitude upon the death of her daughter Anna Maria; instead, her and her husband chose to persevere, guided by their faith, and spend "their final days as educators and missionaries in Fort Christiansborg" of modern day Ghana (Smith, 2020, p. 56).

Protten serves as a model of the social responsibility of the educator in a twofold manner: 1) your biographical circumstances should never act as an excuse as to why you cannot serve others and 2) that regardless of those circumstances, one can always find new and meaningful ways to serve. Throughout her life, Protten demonstrated what Viktor Frankl calls "the defiant power of the human spirit"--an individual's capacity to transcend the pain and suffering in their life in order to be and do greatness. Protten's life also demonstrates the power of faith and how one's spiritual background can serve as an uplifting drive for that greatness. The educator therefore can learn from Protten never to have excuses and how to do more whenever possible in order to transform the world through small acts of kindness (i.e. teaching literacy).

3. Scottish Common Sense Realism in the Founding Era

Scottish Common Sense Realism was "an Aristotelian notion that, as people perceived themselves, their environment, and society, the conclusions most common among them can be trusted as self-evident" (Smith, 2020, p. 226). In other words, as noted by John Locke, because the notion that "knowledge is acquired primarily through sensory experience" (Smith, 2020, p. 79) and not "passed down from an authority . . . through rote memory, drill, catechisms, and recitations" (p. 80), the common experience of being human establishes a shared understanding and existence of being commonly human (what we all have in common with one another), and therefore, that knowledge is considered common sense. Instead of learners' environment changing them, "learners did the etching on the environment to create a transformed future for themselves" (p. 80).

In terms of American politics, Scottish Common Sense Realism affected the foundational philosophy of the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident [emphasis added]," Smith, 2020, p. 80) and in Thomas Pain's Common Sense. In addition to republicanism, Scottish Common Sense Realism became part the foundational principles of the Revolution.

In terms of religion, evidence of Scottish Common Sense Realism is seen in "revivalist camp meetings, voluntary associations, and college curriculum" (which was initially and primarily Christian in nature), with "most influential [impact] in Presbyterian and Congregational Churches" (Smith, 2020, p. 80).

In terms of education, Scottish Common Sense Realism is understood in the concept of praxis, which "rejects notions of indoctrination" (Smith, 2020, p. 80) through reflective practice--applying and reflecting on one's sensory experiences in order to better one's practice and theory). By "integrating republicanism, Scottish Common Sense Realism, Enlightenment thought, and Christianity," Benjamin Rush revolutionarily proposed education "for African Americans and females," and also for "free schools funded by the government" (p. 84). This rejection of aristocracy for meritocracy, as supported by Thomas Jefferson, was Scottish Common Sense Realism in action (Smith, 2020)--that is, because the ability to achieve academic success wasn't preordained due to wealth but that all individuals have a right to pursue education.

4. Søren Kierkegaard and Existentialism

Kierkegaard identifies three "stages on life's way" to explain "The importance of [choice]" within "the context of Kierkegaard's leap of faith": the aesthetic, the moral/intellectual, and the religious (Smith, 2020, p. 182). For the aesthetic, he identified Don Juan, "a womanizer who lives in the here and now with little concern for the consequences of his actions," in order to illustrate "the individual [who] is motivated by aesthetic pleasure of the senses and of the mind" (p. 182). For the moral/intellectual, he identified Socrates with his "orientation to the past, present, and the future" (p. 182), and for the religious, he identified Abraham, who lived "by faith and not by reason."

If I would to choose three Kierkegaardian figures to illustrate his three stages, they would be:

  • for the aesthetic, Hugh Hefner.

  • for the moral/intellectual, Dr. Viktor Frankl.

  • for the religious, Rev. Billy Graham.

Hugh Hefner (1926 - 2017) was the Don Juan of the twentieth century, and while history tends to dismiss him as nothing more than a womanizer and pornographic film producer of the Playboy empire and not for his role as an artist within the film industry and for his role in desegregation within the context of the civil rights movement (Lopez, 2017), he is still a Don Juan "motivated by aesthetic pleasure of the senses and of the mind" (Smith, 2020, p. 182). For whatever redeemable, aesthetic qualities (pun intended) that Hefner may have had, his primary motivations were aesthetic pleasure; his role in history also helped spark the societal acceptance of pornography, certain aspects of the acceptance of sexual deviance and taboo, the acceptance of sexual portrayal in non-pornographic film which was previous deemed as indecency.

Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905 - 1997) was a twentieth century Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor. A student of Freud and Adler, he founded his own (and third Viennese) school of psychology called Logotherapy or Existential Analysis, a form of meaning-centered psychology and life philosophy (Frankl, 2014). Frankl strove to rehumanize a psychology that acknowledged the human spirit of the individual and thus a psychology that upheld human ethics above all else. Ganeri (2015) considered Frankl one of the last of the mystical intellectuals of our day who had preserved “an almost inexplicable optimism” in humanity (p. 828).

Rev. William "Billy" Franklin Graham, Jr., (1918 - 2018) is synonymous with America's twentieth century "leap of faith" and undoubted leader of what is considered the Fourth Great Awakening in American history (Fogel, 2000). He is a twentieth century Abraham of sorts, who took a leap of faith and went into the American wilderness. Along with other twentieth century giants like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther

King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham tied religious conversion to everyday life, especially within

the context of civil rights and social justice (Sanchez, 2018). Graham's passion within the experience of the American tent revival was genuinely to lead people toward "a leap of faith to obey God's command" in order to become "an authentic person" (Smith, 2020, p. 182). Much like Abraham, Billy Graham (as well as King and John Paul II) was imperfectly human and made mistakes; however, in their own ways, they did not rely solely on intellectual or moral reasoning and climbed their own "Mount Moriah" in order to make their own sacrifices to their God (Smith, 2020, p. 182).


Frankl, V. E. (2014). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. Plume by the Penguin Group.

Fogel, R. W. (2000). The fourth great awakening and the future of egalitarianism. University of Chicago Press.

Ganeri, M. (2015). Intellectuals and the memory of Auschwitz: Améry, Levi and the unusual case of Viktor E. Frankl. Italica, 92(4), 824-835. (Links to an external site.)

Lopez, H. (Director). (2017). American playboy: The Hugh Hefner story [Film]. Amazon Studios.

Sanchez, L. (2018). Why Billy Graham was a champion of the civil rights movement. Crosswalk. (Links to an external site.)

Smith, S. J. (2020). Windows into the history and philosophy of education. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Sparks, S. D. (2019, December 4). Why teacher-student relationships matter: New findings shed light on best approaches. EdWeek.,fewer%20disruptive%20behaviors%20and%20suspensions%2C

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