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William Van Til (January 8, 1911– May 24, 2006) was an exemplary educator committed to progressive and democratic educational ideals with a perennial zeal for the notion of “the student as an individual.” Van Til committed most of his life’s work to the belief that individual differences must be recognized and accounted for by educators in to foster the creation of healthy, functioning individuals. He stated, “An education which takes into account the individual, his society, and his values—an education which builds upon the soundest possible scholarship derivative from psychological, social, and philosophical foundations—is imperative in developing a curriculum appropriate for twentieth-century man.”

Born in Corona, New York, Van Til received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia College and his doctorate degree from Ohio State University. Van Til began his teaching career at the New York State Training School for Boys. He then served as an instructor in the College of Education at Ohio State University, becoming an assistant professor in 1936. In 1943, he served as writer for the Consumer Education Study in Washington, DC, leaving in 1944 to become Director of Learning Materials at the Bureau for Intercultural Education, an independent agency that worked to better ethnic, racial, and religious relations. During Van Til’s three-year tenure as director, he also was a professor of social studies education at the University of Illinois. For ten years, he was chairman of the Division of Curriculum and Teaching at the George Peabody College for Teachers. He then was professor and chair of the Department of Secondary Education, New York University, from 1957 through 1967. From 1967 until his retirement, Van Til taught social foundations and curriculum at Indiana State University where he was the Lotus D. Coffman Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education. In addition to his contributions to American education, Van Til served on educational panels in Puerto Rico, Iran, and the Virgin Islands.

Van Til’s first book, The Danube Flows through Fascism: 900 Miles in a Foldboat (1938) was inspired by an actual foldboat cruise he took down the Danube before the outbreak of World War II. He wrote, “The odds against acceptance of an unsolicited manuscript of a book by a twenty-seven-year-old unknown in the depression decade were astronomical. But . . . it made no difference. I had to write; the necessity devoured me.”

Out of this ‘necessity’ came hundreds of publications, including journal articles, book chapters, and books. While working for the Bureau for Intercultural Education, Van Til became an active member of the John Dewey Society, whose primary activity during that period was the publication of written scholarship. Many of the 16 yearbooks published between 1937 and 1962 included works by Van Til. He collaboratively edited the Society’s ninth volume, Intercultural Attitudes in the Making (1947).

Van Til believed that a teacher’s greatest responsibility was to educate each consecutive generation of American citizens about democratic processes and many of his books dealt with this topic. Among his most notable books are Democratic Education (1940), Economic Roads for Democracy (1947), Curriculum: A Quest for Relevance (1971), Issues in Secondary Education (1976), Van Til on Education (1977), and Widening Cultural Horizons: Recommended Approach to Intercultural Education (1987). He also wrote My Way of Looking At It: An Autobiography (1983), a moving personal social commentary and history of educational experiences.

While serving as vice president, acting president, and president of the John Dewey Society, Van Til actively sought ways to strengthen and build the representative democracy within the group, as well as increase writing and discussion of controversial social issues for distribution to the lay public. In 1950, the John Dewey Society began a symposium series with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. This alliance resulted in a kaleidoscope of talented educators coming together for discussion and debate.

Van Til’s most lasting contribution to the John Dewey Society was that the group became a more active and vocal group concerned with pertinent social issues. The Society’s stance against McCarthyism, and writings on desegregation and the poor conditions of American schools attest to his efforts.

In a 1976 publication The Crucial Issues in Secondary Education Today, Van Til identified the ability of educators to formulate a curriculum that pulls from multiple resources to help temper the changing climate of national and world affairs as a critical concern. He emphasized the value of cross-disciplinary studies among educators, as well as in student learning. He stated, “The interrelatedness and wholeness in curriculum development have long been neglected.”

In many ways, Van Til can be seen as a progressive futurist. In several of his articles, Van Til pointed to the significance of recognizing “alternative futures” among students. Van Til also held that educators must grasp the reality of growing technological power in American education. He recognized that technological advance was imminent and could be beneficial, but he also warned of certain dangers that may result if educators did not use scientific inquiry with respect to democratic values as technology progressed. He suggested the exchange of posts between educators and those in technological development, as well as the development of a “laboratory school” to study software and technological learning systems. He also suggested implementing yardsticks to prevent large corporations from turning schools into profit-making enterprises.

Van Til received awards from the New Jersey Collegiate Press Association and the New Jersey Association of Teachers of English in 1961 for his biography, The Making of a Modern Educator, and was granted the Centennial Achievement Award from Ohio State University in 1970. Van Til planned and coordinated the first national institutes on writing for professional publications sponsored by Phi Delta Kappa. He served as president of the National Society of College Teachers of Education, and was a member of the advisory board for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the Associated Organizations of College Teachers of Education. Van Til was named a Kappa Delta Pi Laureate Chapter in 1980 and has addressed its national convention and various key conferences. In 1989, he was elected to the Ohio State University Education Hall of Fame.

Contributed by Melinda A. Lemke, The University of Texas at Austin

Gale Group. 2002. Contemporary Authors Online.

Van Til, W. 1983. My way of looking at it: An autobiography. Terre Haute, IN: Lake Lure Press.

Van Til, W. 2000. The John Dewey Society: A memoir of the middle years, 1947–1973. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.

Van Til, W. 1976. Issues in secondary education in the United States, 75th yearbook, Part II (The National Society for the Study of Education). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Van Til, W. 1971. Curriculum: Quest for relevance. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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