William Heard Kilpatrick, 1870-1965
by Dr. John H. Lounsbury, February 2005
William Heard Kilpatrick, next to John Dewey, was the most renowned of the progressive education philosophers active in the first half of the last century. In many respects, Kilpatrick was more influential than Dewey, for he was a superior teacher who impacted directly thousands upon thousands of classroom teachers through his lectures at home and abroad. He has been called Dewey’s chief disciple, the Dean of American Education, America’s greatest teacher, the million dollar professor, and to critics, a radical, social activist.
The son of a Baptist minister, Kilpatrick grew up in the small town of White Plains, Georgia, and in 1888 at age 17, entered Mercer University in Macon. He was a popular student and a very good one, showing brilliance early, especially in mathematics. Following graduation he went to Johns Hopkins with the anticipation of returning to Mercer to assist an older professor. At Johns Hopkins he was much taken with the new intellectual life among students and professors there, and he decided that he wanted to teach mathematics or possibly science.
At the close of that year, he returned to Georgia where he found to his disappointment that the assistantship at the financially strapped Mercer had not materialized. He heard about a teaching position in the southwest Georgia town of Blakely and readily accepted it. There he would serve as co-principal and teacher in grades seven through ten, teaching math and Latin. At the end of the first year he attended summer school at a new normal school institution, Rock College in Athens. There he was exposed to the academic study of pedagogy, and he immersed himself in the literature reading Spencer, Froebel, Pestalozzi, and others. The next year he attended a lecture in Albany to hear Colonel Francis Parker, often called the Father of Progressive Education. Kilpatrick was much taken with this person and his ideas. He began experimenting with newer practices in Blakely, including the elimination of traditional report cards. Kilpatrick had a genuine interest in his students, and the people of this small town appreciated his personal charm and penetrating mind. As one educational historian would later say, “In the summer of 1892, Kilpatrick arrived in Blakely as a college mathematician, and three years later he departed as a progressive educator” (p. 21).
At the end of the three years he had saved enough money to repay his brother the $500 he had borrowed, and he returned to Johns Hopkins expecting to pursue a Ph D. in mathematics. This time his study at John Hopkins was disappointing. Returning to Georgia, he contacted the superintendent of schools in Savannah whom he had met and was offered the principalship of Anderson Elementary School, where in addition to supervising nine teachers and over 400 students, he taught seventh grade. Here, where the classes were often over 50 pupils, he introduced group work, and as before, eliminated report cards and corporal punishment. At the end of that year the President of Mercer visited Kilpatrick and offered him a position as Professor and Chair of Mathematics. With a sense of duty and in keeping with family tradition, Kilpatrick accepted the offer. He readily became a preferred teacher and advisor. His personality and openness to ideas made him especially attractive in Mercer’s rather staid and closed environment. Although only 29 he was elected Vice-President of Mercer.
During his years at Mercer, his views and educational philosophy crystallized. He rejected the then popular theory of formal discipline, which held that the study of math trained the mind much as the exercise of the body produces greater muscles. In 1898 he attended a summer school at the University of Chicago where one of his professors was John Dewey. Kilpatrick said, “I could not thank Dewey enough for what he had done by opening up the idea that the starting point in education is individual interest, that the best and richest kind of education starts with self-propelled interest” (p. 32). Kilpatrick now turned his back on further study of mathematics; for a new calling, education, beckoned him. Although he wanted to attend Columbia University’s Teachers College, he stayed at Mercer because of the serious illness of Mercer’s president, and Kilpatrick had to assume the institution’s presidential duties on a temporary basis at the age of 33. He was popular with students and had a magnetism that came alive when he dealt with people on a personal basis. He began holding discussion groups with students in which many social and religious views were discussed, much to the dismay of some trustees. Kilpatrick’s encouragement of critical thinking, which led him to question some of his traditional religious and social beliefs, became an issue. It was clear that he was far too unorthodox in his thinking to continue at Mercer. He ultimately resigned and took a position in Columbus, Georgia, as mathematics teacher and high school principal, where he instituted many progressive ideas, including the abolition of his twin dislikes, honors and prizes.
On September 25, 1907, he met with John Dewey, now at Teachers College, to plan his course of study. Dewey would later claim Kilpatrick as the best student he ever had. He completed his doctorate in January 1911 and was immediately appointed an assistant professor. Word of Kilpatrick’s excellence as a teacher spread, and he became a much sought-after teacher and lecturer, gaining a national platform from which to share his ideas about student-centered, democratic education. This charismatic southerner’s meteoric rise was due to his ability to communicate the often hard to grasp ideas of John Dewey and his ability to enthrall classes that often numbered in the hundreds. Kilpatrick, Dewey, Thorndike, and others at Teachers College were actively challenging the conventional practices of schooling in America as the progressive education movement got underway. Although he had always wanted and intended to return to Georgia, his successful work at Teachers College worked against pursuing other options. He did, however, visit Georgia regularly both in Athens and Milledgeville, where his friend, Guy Wells, was president of Georgia State College for Women.
In July of 1918, Kilpatrick published in the Teachers College Record an 18-page article “The Project Method: The Use of the Purposeful Act in the Educational Process,” which applied his educational philosophy to classroom teaching. Extremely well received, it brought Kilpatrick enduring fame. The key to the significance or worthiness of the project was purpose.
In the case where no purpose is present, there the weak and foolish teacher has often in times past cajoled, promised and sugar coated, and this we all despise. Purpose, then–its presence or its absence—exactly distinguishes the desirable interest from the mushy type of anything–to-keep-the-dear-things-interested or amused. It is purpose then that we want, worthy purposes urgently sought; get these, and the interest will take care of itself. (p. 102)
The Project method linked purpose and democracy. Kilpatrick believed that education should stress the development of character and personality, not just the acquisition of bookish information. He wanted children to interact with peers, parents, and society at large and saw the inculcation of self-reliance, initiative, cooperation, and even joy as important concomitants in the learning process. He argued for the “extended acquaintance” between teacher and student, supported the 6-3-3 proposal, and opposed the compartmentalized-by-subject curriculum which was set in advance, or, as he called it, “adult formulations of pre-digested knowledge.” While the Project Method was well received, it also was the basis for much of the criticism that would dog him and other progressive educators who viewed their work as anti-intellectual. A careful reading of Kilpatrick, however, would make it clear that he never opposed content or the acquisition of it. Kilpatrick’s broad view of education is apparent in this statement:
Education must aim at developing in the individual the best possible insight into life’s problems as they successfully present themselves before him; at helping him to make ever finer distinctions in what he does, to take more and more considerations ever better into account, and finally to bring the best social-moral attitudes to bear on each decisions as made and enacted. For the only proper aim of education is fullness of living through fully developed character. (p. 314)
The central educational concept associated with Kilpatrick was, “We learn what we live.” He often elaborated on this idea in such ways as: “We learn what we live and then live what we learned,” and “We learn what we live and learn it to the degree that we live it.”
University policy forced Kilpatrick to retire in 1937, but he remained very active until a few years before his death in 1965 at age 93. He is buried in White Plains.
The views of Kilpatrick and other progressives so parallel the middle school concept that some have seen the middle school movement as the rebirth of progressive education.
Citations are from: Beineke, J. (1998). And there were giants in the land: The life of William Heard Kilpatrick. New York: Peter Lang.
Return to SOE Intranet Home Page