William H. Kilpatrick

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William H. Kilpatrick

American educator, college president, and philosopher of education William H. Kilpatrick (1871-1965) was one of the great teachers of his time and a leading figure in the American progressive education movement.

William Heard Kilpatrick, son of James Hines Kilpatrick, a Baptist pastor, and Edna Perrin (Heard) Kilpatrick, was born in White Plains, Georgia, on November 20, 1871. Having completed his early education in the local school system he enrolled at the age of 17 as a sophomore at Mercer University in Georgia, a Baptist institution that listed Kilpatrick's grandfather among its founders and original trustees. Kilpatrick graduated second in his class in 1891. Kilpatrick then completed a year of graduate study in mathematics and physics at Johns Hopkins University. At the end of that year he returned to Mercer, where he was awarded an M.A. degree in 1892 for his work at Hopkins.

For his first job in education Kilpatrick accepted a position as a teacher of mathematics at a combination elementary-secondary school in Blakely, Georgia; he was appointed principal after his first year at the school. While teaching in Blakely, Kilpatrick took summer school courses in education at Rock College and began to develop a serious interest in the teaching-learning process.

After three years in Blakely, Kilpatrick returned to Johns Hopkins for another year of graduate work and then moved on to Savannah, Georgia, where he taught for a year and also assumed the duties of school principal at the Anderson Elementary School. Toward the end of that school year, Kilpatrick accepted an appointment as professor of mathematics and astronomy at Mercer University. He taught at Mercer from 1897 to 1906, serving during the last two of those years as acting president. Meanwhile, he married Marie Beman Guyton of Marianna, Florida, on December 27, 1898. They had three children, two of whom died in infancy.

Owing to doctrinal differences with the authorities at Mercer, Kilpatrick resigned in 1906 and accepted a position in a Columbus, Georgia high school, once again working in a dual capacity as teacher (of mathematics) and school principal. The following year he accepted a scholarship to study education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he remained as student and faculty member until he retired in 1938. In May 1907, a few months before Kilpatrick started his graduate work at Columbia, his wife died of tuberculosis. He was married for the second time to Margaret Manigault Pinckney in 1908.

Kilpatrick was awarded a part-time appointment at Teachers College in 1909. He took his doctorate in 1912, was appointed associate professor in 1915, and was promoted to full professor in 1918. In addition to his positions at Columbia, Kilpatrick held appointments during his long career as visiting lecturer or professor at the University of Georgia, the University of Kentucky, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina, Northwestern University, the University of the South, and Stanford University. He also visited schools abroad and lectured in Austria, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), China, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Egypt, Holland, India, Japan, Korea, and Turkey.

Kilpatrick was extremely active in both educational and civic organizations, serving at various times, for example, as chairman of the American Youth for World Youth, president of the board of trustees of Bennington College, president of the John Dewey Society, chairman of the board of the League for Industrial Democracy, and president of the Urban League of Greater New York.

During the 1920s and 1930s Kilpatrick became one of the most influential progressive educators of the period. With the exception of John Dewey himself, Kilpatrick was perhaps the figure most frequently associated with progressivism by educators and the lay public alike. He was also viewed by scholars as a disciple of Dewey and a popularizer of the latter's educational philosophy. Kilpatrick did not particularly object to this appraisal of his work, although it probably constituted an injustice to his own contributions to educational theory. At Columbia, Kilpatrick once found fault with himself in his diary for being able to "find so little to object to in John Dewey's position." By the same token, Dewey is said to have called Kilpatrick "the best [student] I ever had."

Kilpatrick shared with Dewey the desire to have the school curriculum reflect to some extent students' interests and purposes and to place problem-solving at the core of the educational process. He moved somewhat beyond Dewey, however, in the extent of his opposition to the traditional curriculum, organized in advance and presented to children in the form of fixed subject-matter. Kilpatrick's theory of learning emphasized what he called "purposeful activity" engaged in by pupils as they worked on a variety of projects. His methodological views were set forth in "The Project Method," an essay that appeared in the Teachers College Record in 1918 and was later expanded into a book entitled Foundations of Method (1925). Over the years some 60,000 reprints of the essay were sold in pamphlet form, and Kilpatrick was firmly established as the nation's leading spokesman for progressive education.

Kilpatrick's concern for the child's interests and purposes did not result in an excessive educational individualism. Like his mentor John Dewey, Kilpatrick managed to bridge the gap between the child-centered and the society-centered factions of the progressive education movement. With regard to the latter, for example, he edited The Educational Frontier (1933), a yearbook that stressed the need for formal education to focus on contemporary social issues and problems and to prepare children to participate intelligently in the formulation of ideas for social change. The Educational Frontier, which historian Lawrence A. Cremin has labeled "the characteristic progressivist statement of its decade," developed indirectly out of an informal discussion group that Kilpatrick had chaired for several years at Teachers College. In 1934 several members of the group, including Kilpatrick, George Counts, and Harold Rugg, had a hand in launching The Social Frontier (called Frontiers of Democracy after 1939), a reformist educational journal of remarkable vitality during its nine years of existence. Kilpatrick co-edited the journal from 1939 to 1943.

Although writing did not come easily to Kilpatrick, he was the author of 14 books and hundreds of articles. In addition to those mentioned previously, his most important publications include: The Montesorri System Examined (1914), A Source Book in the Philosophy of Education (1923), Education for a Changing Civilization (1926), Education and the Social Crisis (1932), Remaking the Curriculum (1936), Selfhood and Civilization (1941), and Philosophy of Education (1951).

Apart from his writings, Kilpatrick's profound influence on American education was attributable, in large part, to his extraordinary skills as a teacher and lecturer. His ability to galvanize classes consisting of hundreds of students was legendary, and it has been estimated that he taught close to 35,000 students at Teachers College, many of whom eventually assumed positions of educational leadership across the country.

After he retired in 1938 Kilpatrick remained active in civic affairs and continued to lecture at a number of universities. His second wife died in the fall of 1938, and Kilpatrick married Marion Ostrander, a former student of his, on May 8, 1940. Kilpatrick died in New York City on February 13, 1965.

Further Reading

Samuel Tennenbaum, William H. Kilpatrick: Trail Blazer in Education (1951), is a full-fledged biography. John L. Childs, American Pragmatism and Education (1956) includes a chapter on Kilpatrick's life and work; and a biographical entry appears in the Dictionary of American Biography: Supplement Seven (1961-1965). Thoughtful discussion of Kilpatrick's philosophy is provided by Charles Frankel in Teachers College Record (January 1965), and Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School (1961), is an excellent background source. Nine articles in the March 1957 issue ofProgressive Education deal with various aspects of Kilpatrick's thought; a bibliography of his writings is available in the November 1961 issue of Studies in Philosophy and Education; and the January 1966 copy of Educational Theory is a Kilpatrick memorial issue. □

Kilpatrick, William H. (1871–1965)

views updated May 08 2018


Progressive educational philosopher and interpreter of John Dewey's work, William Heard Kilpatrick was born in White Plains, Georgia, the son of a Baptist minister. Educated in village schools, he graduated from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, moving on to do graduate work in mathematics at Johns Hopkins University. Kilpatrick served as a public school principal in Georgia before returning to his alma mater to teach and briefly serve as Mercer's acting president. In 1906 he became embroiled in a series of controversies with the institution's president that resulted in the board of trustees holding a "heresy" trial, after which Kilpatrick resigned. In 1908 he moved to New York City to begin his doctoral studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, where John Dewey, one of his major professors, called him the best student he ever had. His dissertation, which he defended in 1911, was a history of colonial Dutch schools in New York. Beginning his work at Teachers College as a part-time administrator in the Appointment Office and a history of education instructor, Kilpatrick eventually attained a full-time teaching appointment in the philosophy of education, which he held from 1912 to 1937.

Kilpatrick's meteoric rise in educational circles began with the publication in 1918 of his article "The Project Method" in the Teachers College Record. In that article Kilpatrick provided a practical approach to implementing John Dewey's educational philosophy. Drawing on Dewey's earlier work, Interest and Effort, he attempted to demonstrate how students could engage in purposeful activity at the intellectual, physical, and affective levels. The inclusion of projects matched the child-centered approach advocated by Progressive educators at this time. The emphases that projects placed on individual learning, on reflective activity, and on the development of the whole child struck a resonant chord with teachers of the period. "The Project Method" was an immediate bestseller among educators and launched Kilpatrick's national public career.

Other reasons for Kilpatrick's rising influence in American education were his effective teaching and charismatic public-speaking ability. Often teaching classes in excess of 600 students, he was able to use group work, discussion, and summary lectures to enrich the educational experience for his students. Kilpatrick was known for his cultured Georgian accent, his thick mane of white hair, and his perceptive blue eyes, all contained within a small, energetic frame. His popularity was such that the New York City press gave him the moniker "Columbia's Million Dollar Professor." Although his salary never approached that figure, the tuition his classes generated for the coffers of Columbia University did exceed that amount during his quarter century of service to Teachers College.

Kilpatrick's career at Teachers College came to a close amid controversy. Dean William Russell decided to enforce the institution's mandatory retirement age, and his action set off a national firestorm among educators when Kilpatrick was the ruling's first casualty. It became a cause célèbre at several national conferences during 1936, with John Dewey wading into the controversy to support Kilpatrick's continued appointment. Kilpatrick's final class in 1937 consisted of 622 students, bringing to 35,000 the number of students he had taught at Teachers College. Living almost another three decades, Kilpatrick was active in his retirement, leading the New York Urban League, the Progressive Education Association, and the John Dewey Society as its first president. He continued writing and speaking in addition to teaching summer school classes at such universities as Stanford, Northwestern, and Minnesota. His involvement in organizations often brought him into conflict with the major conservatives of the day, including Robert Hutchins, Father Charles Coughlin, and William Randolph Hearst. Kilpatrick's activities also placed him within the ranks of influential liberals in postWorld War II America, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Ralph Bunche, and Bayard Rustin.

Kilpatrick's consistent Progressive message was that schools needed to be more child-centered, democratic, and socially oriented. After World War II, critics attacked many of the ideas and practices of Progressive education. They saw a curriculum that lacked rigor and students who were academically unprepared to compete with in a global economy. Specific criticism aimed at Kilpatrick emerged in the school reform literature of the 1980s and 1990s. Supporters of a traditional curriculum, such as E.D. Hirsch and Diane Ravitch, viewed the Progressive philosophy that Kilpatrick had espoused as the principal cause for what, in their opinion, was a decline in the academic standards of American schools. Over the same period, though, numerous Progressive-oriented pedagogies were implemented in the nation's classrooms. These innovations included cooperative learning, team teaching, individualization of instruction, and the experiential elements of the middle school movement. These student-centered practices, along with Kilpatrick's unswerving commitment to democratic principals in the schools, form the bedrock of his legacy. In one of his final statements, John Dewey said that Kilpatrick's works "form a notable and virtually unique contribution to the development of a school society that is an organic component of a living, growing democracy" (Tenenbaum, p. x).

See also: Curriculum, School; Dewey, John; Instructional Strategies; Philosophy of Education; Progressive Education.


Beineke, John A. 1998. And There Were Giants in the Land: The Life of William Heard Kilpatrick. New York: Lang.

Kilpatrick, William Heard. 1923. Source Book in the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Kilpatrick, William Heard. 1925. Foundations of Method. New York: Macmillan.

Kilpatrick, William Heard. 1941. Selfhood and Civilization: A Study of the Self-Other Process. New York: Macmillan.

Kilpatrick, William Heard. 1951. Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Tenenbaum, Samuel. 1951. William Heard Kilpatrick: Trail Blazer in Education. New York: Harper.

Van Til, William. 1996. "William Heard Kilpatrick: Respecter of Individuals and Ideas." In Teachers and Mentors: Profiles of Distinguished Twentieth-Century Professors of Education, ed. Craig Kridel, Robert V. Bullough, and Paul Shaker. New York: Garland.

John Beineke

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