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William Heard Kilpatrick (November 20, 1871–February 14, 1965), known as Teachers College’s “million dollar professor” due to the tuition revenues generated by his extremely popular classes, was one of the most prominent educators of the first half of the 20th century. He served as a highly effective proponent of progressive education, advocating project-based learning, curriculum learning, and whole child education. Kilpatrick was born in White Plains, Georgia, the eldest child of James Hines Kilpatrick, a prominent Georgia Baptist minister, and his second wife, Edna Perrin Heard. By all accounts, the young Kilpatrick was a well-rounded youth who enjoyed the many diversions offered by rural 19th century Georgia. His father instilled in him a commitment to detailed record keeping that stayed with him throughout his life. He also learned from his father to speak out against inequities, and to express unequivocally unpopular ideas about which he felt strongly. His mother, however, had the strongest influence in his life. In his dedication of Foundations of Method (1925) shortly after her death, he termed her “the earliest and best of my teachers.” He corresponded with her weekly from 1888 when he entered Mercer University, a Baptist institution to which the Kilpatrick family had strong ties, until her death 37 years later. From his mother, he learned the value of being unselfish and that all people should be given their just due. These attributes were evident in his later teaching.

Kilpatrick completed his bachelor’s degree at Mercer University in 1891. Lacking any compelling career goals, he undertook graduate study in mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, an event which changed his thinking and his life. The environment there, which prompted open-ended intellectual inquiry and his discovery of the domain of modern, evolutionary science, led him to embrace the ideas and outlook of modern science and to pursue secular truth.

After completing one year of graduate work at John Hopkins, Kilpatrick served as a high school teacher and principal in Blakely, Georgia. During these years, he began his systematic study of education and began applying progressive techniques to public schools—habits he would continue throughout his public school career. At a summer institute to develop his pedagogy, he saw the need to get students involved in meaningful experiences, and became committed to devising activities that would build on their interests. Though dedicated to teaching and his students, Kilpatrick returned to Johns Hopkins to continue his study of mathematics. He left after a year, disillusioned by what he considered low-quality teaching and an insufficiently robust academic program.

Kilpatrick then became an elementary principal and seventh-grade teacher in Savannah, Georgia. Because he felt that the relationship between student and teacher was eroded by grading students and sending home report cards, he convinced the superintendent to allow him to abandon that practice. He expected the best from his students, treated them as people, celebrated their accomplishments, and respected their interests while trying to grow their experiences.

In 1897, Mercer University offered Kilpatrick a faculty position in mathematics and astronomy. He served as acting president of the school from 1903–1905, returning to the faculty full time during his final year. His growing religious doubts culminated in a heresy trial that resulted in his resignation from Mercer at the conclusion of the 1905–1906 academic year. Kilpatrick then served as a principal and mathematics teacher in Columbus, Georgia.
During a summer school session while at Mercer University, Kilpatrick took a course offered by John Dewey. Though his initial reaction to Dewey was not positive, Kilpatrick’s later interaction with him changed his philosophy of life and education.

While teaching during a summer session at the University of Tennessee, Kilpatrick audited two courses by faculty at Teachers College, including Edward L. Thorndike who advised him to apply for a scholarship at the school. His attendance at Teachers College furthered his zeal for education and provided a stimulating and diverse environment that shaped his interests and formed his life’s work. While at Teachers College, he ran into Dewey again. Instead of getting discouraged, he took on the challenge of explaining Dewey to others, and became a protégé of the progressive education movement. Kilpatrick eventually became known as Dewey’s chief interpreter for his popularization of Dewey’s somewhat dense educational philosophy.

Kilpatrick hoped to return to the South upon the completion of his studies but was unable to secure an appropriate appointment under suitable terms. He accepted a regular appointment in philosophy of education at Teachers College in 1912—a position he held until his retirement in 1937. Kilpatrick was a gifted orator, yet rarely lectured in his classes. Kilpatrick is considered one of the most popular professors ever at Teachers College having taught more than 35,000 students during his tenure. His practices of respect, trust, and democracy endeared him to many.

Kilpatrick’s immensely popular article “The Project Method” (1918) made him well known among educators throughout the United States. This approach focuses on the interests of children, which advocates that by using their interests as units of study, learning becomes more relevant and meaningful. His most prominent book Foundations of Method (1925) became a widely used textbook in education courses nationwide.

In addition to teaching and writing, Kilpatrick engaged in a variety of other endeavors related to the promotion of progressive education principles. A cofounder of Bennington (VT) College, he served as president of its board of trustees from 1931–1938. He also formed the Kilpatrick Discussion Group with several other Teachers College faculty members, which met from its inception through World War II. Kilpatrick was a founding member of the John Dewey Society in 1935 and served as the organization’s leader until 1957. He edited the Society’s first yearbook The Teacher and Society (1937) and coedited its ninth yearbook Intercultural Attitudes in the Making (1947).

Retirement did not end Kilpatrick’s productive career as a teacher, scholar, and advocate of progressive education. He taught part time during his first years of retirement, and remained an author and editor. Likewise, his involvement in civil rights causes—a rarity for a Southerner of his generation—did not lessen. Kilpatrick’s advocacy of progressive education. William Heard Kilpatrick’s death following a lengthy illness brought to an end the work of one of America’s most influential and visible educators.

Contributed by: Alan W. Garrett, Eastern New Mexico University

Beineke, J. A. 1998. And there were giants in the land: The life of William Heard Kilpatrick. New York: Peter Lang.

Tenenbaum, S. 1951. William Heard Kilpatrick: Trailblazer in education. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Van Til, W. 1996. William Heard Kilpatrick: Respecter of individuals and ideas. In Teachers and mentors: Profiles of distinguished 20th century professors of education, ed. C. Kridel, R. V. Bullough, Jr., and P. Shaker, 217–24. New York: Garland.

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