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William H. Kilpatrick (1871–1965)

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 post—World 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).


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.


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