Professor Jonas F. Soltis
Jonas was the William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Born in 1931 in Norwalk, Connecticut, Jonas earned his B.A. degree with Distinction in Philosophy at the University of Connecticut in 1956, this after a four-year stint in the United States Air Force. He proceeded to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching as Wesleyan University (Connecticut) in 1958, and then accepted a two-year teaching assignment in philosophy and history at that same institution. His passion for both educating and philosophizing led him to enroll at Harvard University in 1960, where he studied with Israel Scheffler and other well-known scholars while earning his Ph.D. in philosophy of education. At the encouragement of the then President of Teachers College - the historian of education, Lawrence Cremin - Jonas joined the faculty of the College in 1964 for what would be a thirty-year-long career as a leading light in the field of philosophy of education.
Jonas was extraordinarily active in his service to the profession. He served as Editor from 1984-1990 of Teachers College Record, one of the world’s leading educational research outlets. He also served as editor for the “Thinking About Education” series of books published by Teachers College Press (see below), and for the series “Advances in Educational Thought,” also with Teachers College Press, which published numerous important books by colleagues near and far in philosophy of education. Throughout this time, Jonas delivered noteworthy lectures, including during his stints as President of the Philosophy of Education Society (1976) and as President of the John Dewey Society (1990). His own books helped shape the field, and include Seeing, Knowing, and Believing: A Study in the Language of Visual Perception (1966), An Introduction to the Analysis of Educational Concepts (1968, translated into both Chinese and German), and “Philosophy and Education” (1981), a comprehensive, path-breaking essay on the field published by the National Society for the Study of Education.
Jonas’ influence on the field mirrors his continued influence on educational practice. Early on in his faculty career, he made a commitment to compose philosophical writing on education that would be both accessible and appealing to practitioners. He took seriously John Dewey’s remark that philosophers should address the problems of humanity rather than solely those of other philosophers. One upshot was the “Thinking About Education” series of books published with Teachers College Press. These works include School and Society (1985), co-authored with Walter Feinberg; Perspectives on Learning (1985), co-authored with Denis Philips; Approaches to Teaching (1986), co-authored with Gary Fenstermacher; Curriculum and Aims, co-authored with Decker Walker; and The Ethics of Teaching (1988), co-authored with Kenneth Strike. These books remain in print and have been translated into Chinese, German, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, and Spanish.
Jonas’ prolific output led him to be affectionately known around Teachers College as the “million book” professor, an echo of the Chair he held named for William Heard Kilpatrick, who, as a faculty member of Teachers College in the 1920s and 1930s, was dubbed the “million dollar” professor because of the untold thousands of New York city residents and visitors who willingly paid a registration fee to attend his stirring lectures. Jonas’ books with Teachers College Press also include Creating the Ethical School (2005, with Bongsoon Zubay) and The Ethics of Educational Administration (2005, with Kenneth Strike and Emil Haller). Together, his books have sold more than a million copies in English, and more than half a million copies in translation.
In addition to his wide-ranging publications and lectures, Jonas was a deeply appreciated teacher and mentor in the College. He offered diverse courses on conceptions of education, on philosophy of science and inquiry, on John Dewey, and other topics. He chaired many dissertation committees and served on many, many others. He touches on his love of teaching in the autobiographical chapter he composed for Leaders in Philosophy of Education (2008, edited by Len Waks), entitled “The Journey of a Teacher: On the Frontiers.” One of his former students, Professor Karl Hostetler, University of Nebraska (and author of a number of influential books in philosophy of education), recently shared this reminiscence:
I was Jonas’ doctoral student 1983-1987. Some people talk about having a teacher who profoundly changed their lives. Jonas was that teacher for me. It’s not hyperbole to say that my life would have been wholly different if I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet him. I went from being a math teacher, naively thinking it might be fun to get a doctorate before returning to math teaching, to having a career in higher education. Jonas prepared me and encouraged me to take that latter path. After I passed my orals, my wife and I went out to dinner with Jonas and his wife Nancy. Somewhere along the line, Jonas admitted to us that his first impression on meeting me was something like, “This guy is in trouble.” I note that because, whatever his first impressions, from day one Jonas was an attentive, patient teacher. I was inspired by the breadth of his knowledge and by the depth of his thinking. From him I learned the importance of precision in language and of a well-crafted argument. He supported and encouraged me in a number of ways: giving me research assistant work, inviting me to do short book reviews for Teachers College Record while he was editor, and giving me the opportunity to contribute to his Thinking about Education series. He took an interest in my family. He gave us fresh fish he had caught during a weekend in Mystic, Connecticut. He smiled when I occasionally had to bring my young son to our meetings. Jonas continued to be a mentor and friend after I graduated. He always took time to read and respond to projects I was working on, even while he was battling cancer and recovering from a severely broken leg (both of which he recovered from). I remember Jonas as teacher, friend, and inspiration, as a warm-hearted, giving man. I will be forever grateful for all he did for me.
Another of Jonas’ former students, Professor Lorraine Kasprisin (Western Washington University and Editor of the Journal of Educational Controversy), offered these remarks:
I was saddened to hear that the last mentor from my doctoral days at Columbia’s Teachers College, Jonas Soltis, has passed on. I was so fortunate to have had Philip Phenix, Maxine Greene and Jonas Soltis as my professors and members of my doctoral dissertation committee during the 1970s. While Phil Phenix gave me a holistic view of what philosophy can provide, and Maxine an existential one, it was Jonas who honed my analytical skills during the heyday of analytical philosophy. Jonas’ evolution in his approach to philosophy in subsequent years had a profound effect on both my thinking and teaching as I tried to help new teachers see the relevance of philosophy to their work. His application of philosophy to actual classroom issues and contemporary problems left an indelible mark on multitudes of young teachers that I have taught during the years as well as on the launching of the Journal of Educational Controversy. His legacy will be a powerful one.
Indeed, Jonas’ legacy to the field and to generations of teachers is assured.
Jonas is survived by his daughters Robin, a science editor, and Susan, a high school English teacher, and their families. Donations in his honor and memory can be made to the Jonas F. Soltis Fellowship in Philosophy and Education at Teachers College. If you would like to contribute, please contact Mr. Louis Lo Ré (Lore@tc.edu).