In the early 1960s, when Jonas Soltis was earning his doctorate in the philosophy of education at Harvard, he served as a course assistant to the educational historian and future Teachers College president Lawrence Cremin, who was teaching in Cambridge during the summer. At one point, Cremin offered his young assistant the chance to lecture to the class.

“And I, realizing not only his brilliance, but that I was on sabbatical from history while studying philosophy said, ‘Sorry, I don’t think I can do it anywhere near as well as you,’” Soltis recalled, ruefully, years later in a memoir titled “The Journey of a Teacher: On the Frontiers.”

Jonas F. Soltis, who died this past August at age 88, subsequently joined TC’s faculty and rose to become the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Philosophy & Education and an internationally recognized leader in the effort to transform his field from a sometimes arcane conversation among a handful of scholars to an applied discipline that helped guide teachers in classrooms.

Jonas Soltis

LEARNER-CENTERED Soltis was a leader in applying educational philosophy to actual classroom practice. (Photo courtesy the Soltis family)

“Jonas took an area that, because it had an inferiority complex in relation to other branches of philosophy, had become almost too rarefied, and he brought it down to earth,” says Carole Saltz, former Director of Teachers College Press, the College’s academic publishing company.

“It’s very fitting that Jonas was the Kilpatrick Professor,” says David Hansen, TC’s John L & Sue Ann Weinberg Professor in Historical & Philosophical Foundations of Education. “Kilpatrick was known as the ‘million dollar professor’ because the College used to invite the public to his lectures and charge admission. Jonas was known as the ‘million book professor.’ His writings touched tens of thousands of teachers, and he reached many more through former students who carried forward his ideas. His impact on education – not just theory, but practice – was enormous.”

Jonas was known as the ‘million book professor.’ His writings touched tens of thousands of teachers, and he reached many more through former students who carried forward his ideas. His impact on education – not just theory, but practice – was enormous.

—David Hansen

Soltis also became a close friend and associate of Cremin’s – but not before his demurral in Cambridge briefly came back to haunt him. In an early conversation, the great man reminded him that, as the world’s leading graduate school of education, TC sought to be “at the frontiers of our fields” by developing the courses and books of tomorrow. And then he asked, “But can you teach?”


Changing a Field

For Soltis, the answer, from boyhood on, was unequivocal.

“My father lived teaching,” recalls Susan Soltis (M.A.’90), one of Soltis’s two daughters, herself a school teacher.

Though neither of his parents had attended college, Soltis, who grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, constantly “played school” with his neighborhood friends, at one point leading them in military exercises that included jumping off a chicken coop onto an old car and tumbling forward to a standing position. “Out of seven boys, only one sprained an ankle and one broke a finger,” he recalled. “I then realized that teachers don’t always succeed.”

It was perhaps that insight that belatedly inspired Soltis to become an educational philosopher. The field had not been held in high esteem by other branches of philosophy, he would later recall – but he entered it at a moment when Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryles and a rising generation of younger scholars that included Israel Scheffler, Soltis’s advisor at Harvard, were turning away from “asking and answering the big questions of existence, purpose, being, truth, and the good” toward a more granular analysis of “the language and concepts we use to make sense of the world.”

Soltis’s first book, Seeing, Knowing and Believing: A Study of Visual Perception (1966), sought to show how a priori knowledge and beliefs “enter” or “enhance” how we (literally) see what’s around us. The topic was one he thought about in everyday life.

“We went to Block Island in the summers when I was growing up, and we spent a lot of time with my father outdoors,” says Soltis’s other daughter, Robin Davis. “He taught us to watch and identify birds, and in general to be very observant.”

Building on this learner-centered line of inquiry, Soltis, soon after joining TC’s faculty in 1964, won approval to teach a course on John Dewey that was jointly sponsored by his own department (then The Foundations of Education, and later the Department of Philosophy and the Social Sciences) and the graduate philosophy department at Columbia.

“I couldn’t believe that at Columbia, where Dewey spent most of his academic career, there was no course on Dewey’s philosophy,” Soltis recalled. He would later write an entry on Dewey for The Encyclopedia of Education and, in 1990, become president of the John Dewey Society.

Soltis’s second book was also inspired by Dewey – specifically, by Dewey’s observation that “there is all the difference in the world between thinking and thought.” Titled An Introduction to the Analysis of Educational Concepts, it was targeted directly at aspiring teachers.

I decided that my book should invite students to engage in the adventure of thinking and developing the skills of conceptual analysis so they could begin and continue to think about their craft in philosophically appropriate ways.

—Jonas Soltis

“I knew that too often students are asked to fill their baskets with the thoughts of others to be stored and used (if at all) in the future,” he wrote. “They seldom engaged in the rigor and excitement of the thinking process itself. I decided that my book should invite students to engage in the adventure of thinking and developing the skills of conceptual analysis so they could begin and continue to think about their craft in philosophically appropriate ways.”


Applied Focus

The book was subsequently translated into German and Chinese – but it was Soltis’s next endeavor that established him as a recognized figure among teachers, whose ideas were applied in the United States and other countries.

In 1978, Soltis served on the search committee that hired Thomas Rotell, the new director for Teachers College Press, the College’s academic publishing company. Rotell subsequently asked Soltis why there was no basic textbook on educational philosophy. After pondering the question, Soltis – whose wife, the former Nancy Schaal, was a teacher – undertook the project himself, in the form of a series of books with an applied focus.

“The writing in philosophy of education was often more abstract and removed from the world of practice than most preservice teachers could handle,” recalled Soltis, who would develop and complete the project with Carole Saltz, who came aboard as the Press’s next director in 1984. “Too often professors of philosophy of education heard from our students that our theory and their practice didn’t connect. So I thought if nothing else, a basic text in philosophy of education needed to be written in a style suitable for the neophyte…Moreover, I felt that the text ought to aim directly and engagingly at getting students to think about their everyday work as teachers from various philosophical perspectives rather than aim at them learning various theories and then applying them to practice in the future.”

The result was the famed “Thinking About Education” series, first published by Teachers College Press from 1984 through 1986, which has sold a million of copies in the United States and hundreds of thousands more in translation, appeared in five editions and multiple reprintings and, not incidentally, helped change the blueprint for education textbooks. The series consists of five books: Approaches to Teaching, which Soltis wrote with Gary Fenstermacher; Perspectives on Learning, written with Denis Phillips; Curriculum and Aims, written with Decker Walker; School and Society, written with Walter Feinberg; and The Ethics of Teaching, written with Kenneth Strike.

One common thread of the series was an effort to make sense of and categorize the explosion of methods being tried across the education landscape. The book on teaching identified three distinct approaches that teachers use: the executive (a managerial approach concerned with “the production” and assessment of learning); the therapist/facilitator (concerned with the individual student’s development) and the liberationist (focused on “freeing the mind of ignorance and false beliefs via the study of the liberal arts and sciences”). The book on school and society identified and explored three ways in which schools function as “socializing agents: the functionalist approach, which socializes students to fit in and function as productive members of society; the conflict theorist approach, which sees society as a conflict of classes, with students being taught their place via “the hidden curriculum;” and the interpretivist approach, which sees schooling as a process of initiating students into “a culture of shared meanings and shared norms.”

And, taking a page from the world of business school scholarship, all of the books used a case-study approach, as Soltis and his coauthors “committed ourselves to engage our readers in philosophical thinking about actual situations in each of these various dimensions of education.”


Ethical Focus

The “Thinking About Education” series had had two lasting impacts on the rest of Soltis’s career.

The first was that he became an integral part of Teachers College Press itself, serving as Series Editor for the Press’s “Advances in Contemporary Educational Thought” series, as an Editorial Advisory Board Member in the 80s and 90s,  and in retirement, through the 90s and early 2000s as Consulting Editorial Advisor.

His contributions to the Press cannot be overstated. We simply could never afford to lose him as someone to bump ideas up against because he was so helpful, smart and thoughtful, and he knew the field so well – not just education philosophy, but teaching writ large.

—Carole Saltz

“His contributions to the Press cannot be overstated,” says Saltz, who credits Soltis with mentoring her throughout much of her 35-year tenure as director. “We simply could never afford to lose him as someone to bump ideas up against because he was so helpful, smart and thoughtful, and he knew the field so well – not just education philosophy, but teaching writ large.”

Soltis and Maxine Greene [the great TC art and education philosopher who died in 2013] were the Press’s “great friends and educational lights,” Saltz adds. “They were totally different from one another, though they respected each other greatly – but both framed education in the context of living in the modern world, and both passed that view onto their students.”

The “Thinking About Education series” also prompted Soltis’s ongoing focus on the issue of ethics in education. He wrote two more books on the topic, both published by Teachers College Press: The Ethics of School Administration, coauthored with Kenneth Strike and Emil J. Haller, and Creating the Ethical School: A Book of Case Studies, written with Bongsoon Zubay, then the headmistress of The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn, whom Soltis had met when she attended a seminar he taught for TC’s Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership. Zubay subsequently initiated a program to engage her entire school in a program aimed at raising ethical awareness and moral reflection, and asked Soltis to serve as a consultant.

“We knew, early on, that we not only had to convince the staff that ethics should have a place in the school, but more important, we had to convince parents that we were not teaching ‘religion’ or taking their place in instilling ethical values in their children,” Soltis wrote later. On one occasion, he recalled, “I stood at the blackboard…asking parents to help me compile a list of ethical values and moral characteristics that they as parents hoped their children would acquire as they grew up to become educated adults. The list grew by leaps and bounds. We filled two blackboards with such things as honest, kind, generous, respectful of others, just, fair, et al.”

It was another example of a vocation that, from the first seemed to choose Jonas Soltis rather than the other way around. But then, as Soltis describes at the conclusion of his memoir, an important authority had confirmed that some years before:

“In 1979, when I was giving my inaugural lecture at Teachers College, Lawrence Cremin introduced me. When I finished to a nice round of applause, Cremin came over to me and whispered, ‘Boy, you sure can teach!’” – Joe Levine


The Jonas F. Soltis Fellowship: Another legacy of a mentor who keeps on giving

Jonas Soltis served as dissertation advisor to hundreds of students in his own program and sat on the dissertation committees of countless more throughout Teachers College. He also encouraged junior faculty and students alike to submit book proposals to Teachers College Press and articles to the Teachers College Record, which he edited for many years.

“I can emphatically say that Jonas was one of the most generous senior colleagues to young faculty and graduate students in terms of being interested in their work and giving them suggestions and opportunities to publish,” says David Hansen. “I know many of his former students, including current senior leaders in the field, who attest to his tremendous support as a mentor. That included being critical in the right way and at the right time.”

Soltis has ensured that his generosity will continue to bear fruit. The Jonas F. Soltis Fellowship, established through his will, is intended to annually support a student in TC’s Program in Philosophy & Education. The Fellowship will be supported in part by future royalties from Soltis’s books.

“It’s such a lovely gift,” says Hansen, who has contributed to the Fellowship. “As a teacher, Jonas always tried to pass on all that he could to his students. Now he’s done it again.”

If you would like to make a gift to the Jonas F. Soltis Endowed Fellowship Fund in honor Professor Soltis, please click here.