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The 13 Most Radical Education Thinkers of All Time

by Staff Writers

Considering education is about as old as the first person to teach another person how to do something, many of the ideas and opportunities available today wind up getting taken for granted. They might not appear "radical" by contemporary standards, but each of these individuals contributed something to the way the schooling process works. Whether that means ensuring equal resources and attention for traditionally marginalized demographics or devising exciting new strategies, all of them paved the way for bigger, brighter, and better things. Public and private schools alike still have a ways to go, of course, but they’ve already come a long way thanks to the following contributors.

  1. Epicurus

    Philosophy buffs know Epicurus from his influence on Greek thought. Today’s gourmands think of him as that guy who lent his name to tasty, decadent delights. And, to education experts, he stands apart from his Hellenistic contemporaries because his school embraced demographics considered unembraceable — specifically, slaves and women. To many modern audiences, this seems a rather obvious decision, but at the time Epicurus quite scandalized everyone by setting up more equitable classrooms and encouraging the potential of all Greece’s peoples.

  2. Valentin Hauy and Louis Braille

    Special needs education started with Valentin Hauy and his Paris-based Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, which opened its doors to visually impaired and blind students frequently marginalized (if not outright ignored) by mainstream schools. One such graduate, Louis Braille, devised the ubiquitous system used to allow the blind to read printed materials and landed a position with his alma mater. Between the two of them, they made it possible for promising people who just happened to be disabled to receive the educational opportunities they deserved.

  3. Booker T. Washington

    Following America’s jettisoning of the ghastly slavery institution, this game-changing activist proved instrumental in providing emancipated black Americans with equal educational opportunities. Most notably, Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers founders Lewis Adams and George W. Campbell turned to civil rights leader Booker T. Washington when seeking out a devoted leader. Now known as Tuskegee University, the college grew thanks to his generous financial and real estate acquisitions, leaving behind an endowment of more than $1 million after his passing.

  4. W.E.B. Du Bois

    All of W.E.B. Du Bois’ accomplishments pushing for the education of African-Americans could fill up this entire article. Seeing as how he co-founded a little organization known as the NAACP, it’s safe to assume that students today feel his influence. The NAACP, among numerous other civil rights initiatives, always has and always will stand as one of the most important figures in black education. Its Youth & College Division hopes to smash stereotypes and the last remaining vestiges of institutionalized racism in the classroom and beyond.

  5. Maria Mitchell

    The first woman ever admitted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences challenged the nation’s perceptions of what females can do in the research sector. Maria Mitchell’s very career could be considered radical in and of itself because of all the opportunities she unlocked for aspirant lady scientists. In addition, she deserves mention for demanding equal pay from Vassar University — where she served not only as the Observatory’s director, but the very first faculty member — and actually got it. Definitely a bold move benefiting female education pros!

  6. Helen Keller

    Most audiences these days know little of Helen Keller’s stunning life beyond The Miracle Worker — a shame, as her myriad staggering accomplishments still hold relevance today. The very first Bachelor of Arts recipient who happened to be both blind and deaf didn’t stop advocacy efforts after graduation. While supporting the equality of women and minorities, worker’s rights, anti-war efforts, and other near-and-dear causes, she also worked tirelessly to promote equal education for the disabled in the classroom and beyond. Many individuals and organizations, regardless of whether or not she interacted with them, found her activism positively inspirational.

  7. Maria Montessori

    Although the Montessori method of teaching is often more associated with specialized schools, even teachers in mainstream public institutions often turn to its founder for inspiration. One of the most influential education experts of all time, even after her death, Maria Montessori receives considerable praise for her revolutionary strategies. They intentionally line up with a child’s natural cognitive development, allowing for "discovery" over forced memorization and rigid, inflexible syllabi.

  8. Jean Piaget

    Even individuals who’ve never heard Jean Piaget’s name have more than likely ended up subjected to some of his theories. A psychologist, natural scientist, and philosopher rather than a straight-up teacher, he researched the cognitive differences between children and adults, discovering their unique development structure. Prior to this, many simply believed them to be grown-ups in miniature and treated them as such in the classroom. As a result, education pros ran with his findings in order to draw up more effective lesson plans and strategies.

  9. Fredric Wertham

    These days, pretty much everything related to Frederic Wertham online deals with his crusades against comic books and media violence — to the point it overshadows his significant educational accomplishment. Without this controversial psychiatrist and Johns Hopkins professor, American schools might very well have desegregated much later, if at all. His research revealed that educational institutions split along racial lines actually inhibit academic progress in whites and blacks alike.

  10. Toru Kumon

    Similar to the Montessori method, Toru Kumon’s educational strategies emphasize learning at a child’s own unique pace with the earnest belief that every student holds a right fair amount of potential. It’s just a matter of offering them the right materials and training to meet their needs. Merging educational theory with capitalistic opportunities, the Kumon Learning Centers franchise focuses building on math and language through patience and repetition, serving as a sort of hybrid of traditional and Montessori approaches. At least 19 million kids have benefited from Kumon’s schools worldwide since its 1956 founding, and each one tweaks itself to meet specific cultural and linguistic needs.

  11. Paul Wehman

    Remedial and Special Education Journal named Paul Wehman one of the millennium’s 100 most important names in the special education sector. His influence spreads well beyond the classroom, however, as his research proved essential in establishing policies providing employment accommodations to mentally and physically disabled individuals. What piqued the periodical’s praise was how he applied these findings to offering young students opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. And, of course, he developed valuable strategies for helping them transition from school into the working world with little to no complications.

  12. Virginia Uribe

    Virginia Uribe spent more than four decades as a counselor and teacher in Los Angeles-area public schools. This placed her front and center with shifting perspectives of and toward LGBT youth. Founded in 1984, her Project 10 initiative involves students, faculty, staff, parents, and the surrounding community with the goal of creating safe spaces for this oft-marginalized demographic. With LGBT equality at the forefront of today’s civil rights movement, Project 10 is working on more than a quarter century of experience making sure schools properly address bullying, marginalization, and other inequities along sexual and gender orientation and identity lines.

  13. Sir Kenneth Robinson

    When England and Northern Ireland attempted to forge an uneasy peace, this champion for creative thought proved indispensable in outlining educational programs meant to stimulate peoples and the economy alike. Sir Kenneth Robinson, former Director of the Arts in Schools Project, has racked up a litany of prestigious honors and awards for his unwavering dedication to promoting innovative thought; and considering he believes contemporary schools squash such potential, that means he still has quite a bit of fighting left ahead of him.