William Heard Kilpatrick: Teacher and Democratic Statesman
by John L. Childs - 1952
An introduction to the classic print issue of TCR that celebrates William Kilpatrick's eightieth birthday.
On Saturday evening, November 17, more than a thousand educational and civic leaders gathered at a dinner in the grand ballroom of the Hotel Commodore in New York to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Dr. William H. Kilpatrick. Representatives of many different fields of public activity joined in this tribute to one of the great teachers of our period—a man who, during his twenty-five years of service at Teachers College, had communicated a dynamic conception of democratic education to the more than thirty-five thousand teachers enrolled in his classes. A celebration of the life and work of Dr. Kilpatrick necessarily becomes more than a purely personal affair, for his name is indissolubly associated with a movement in education variously known as the "project method," the "activity curriculum," the "new education," and "progressive education." As John Dewey has recently stated, "... in the best sense of the words, progressive education and the work of Dr. Kilpatrick are virtually synonymous."
This number of The Record contains all of the talks given at the birthday celebration, including the response by Dr. Kilpatrick. It is significant that official representatives of the major professional educational organizations—The World Organization of the Teaching Profession, The National Education Association, The American Association of School Administrators, The American Federation of Teachers, and the American Education Fellowship—shared in the program. All of these leaders stressed the importance of the contribution he has made to the causes which they are seeking to advance. It is now clear that the democratic interpretation of education which Dr. Kilpatrick has developed is so fundamental in character that no single educational organization can pretend to be the unique embodiment of it.
The philosophy which is characteristic of Dr. Kilpatrick has a functional theory of mind. It believes that thought properly completes itself in action. It is "experimental" in that it believes the first commandment in intellectual affairs is to learn "to think in terms of action and in terms of those acts whose consequences will expand, revise, test, your ideas and theories."
Dr. Kilpatrick has lived the philosophy which he has taught. As the papers read at the eightieth birthday celebration make manifest, his work has many dimensions and has been attended by solid results in the schools of the United States and of many other countries. He early perceived that a child is a person, and that in the ethic of democracy a person is a being who is to be treated as an end and never merely as a means. Accepting this basic moral principle, he has worked to create a school which would have no good other than the growth of actual children, and which would view all else as means for the promotion of this growth. He recognized that fundamental to all of the various kinds of human growth is growth of mind, and by growth of mind he has meant growth in capacity for reflective thought. This concern for a school which would develop resourceful human beings possessed of the capacity for reflective conduct, led him to the project method and to the functional curriculum in which children would have opportunity to engage in "wholehearted purposeful activities."
But as Dr. Dewey recently wrote, "... progressive education in the sense in which it properly applies to the work of Dr. Kilpatrick implies direction; and direction implies foresight and planning." It does not primarily denote "methods on the part of the teacher which are marked chiefly by following the immediate and spontaneous activities of children in the schoolroom." On the contrary, "progressive education involves foresight and planning, which in turn require some principles of organization. This does not mean that a fixed goal must be set up, but that there must be a point of view from which to select materials and arrange them in some kind of order."
One thing the eightieth birthday celebration makes abundantly clear is that the educational ideas of Dr. Kilpatrick have had a profound influence in changing the purposes and the program of the school. As so many of the speakers emphasized, children in our country, and in many other lands, are today having a happier, a more purposeful, and a more productive experience in school because of his emphasis on education in and through experience in meaningful life situations. Undoubtedly many problems remain to be solved—particularly in the programs of the secondary schools—but the value of the experience curriculum as a principle of orientation has been demonstrated in actual school practice. For this we owe much to the work of Dr. Kilpatrick and the many teachers and parents who have cooperated with him in the magnificent effort to make the process of schooling a process of rich and satisfying growth through actual living.
Today, the "new" education is subject to much criticism. We live in a time of trouble and insecurity, and there is a tendency on the part of some to be critical of all that marks a departure from traditional ideas and practices. We should not be indifferent to these criticisms, for some of them undoubtedly reflect values which have not as yet been adequately provided for in the functional programs of our schools. On the other hand, we should not exaggerate the extent of these criticisms or ignore the ulterior purposes which lead certain predatory groups to exploit these educational attacks. All of those in direct touch with the planning of the Kilpatrick birthday dinner were deeply impressed by the quiet but solid support his educational purposes enjoy among both teachers and parents at the present time.
Many now understand that the new education is not simply a novel pedagogical device, but that it does involve a new educational outlook which, in turn, is grounded in a democratic life philosophy. Unquestionably this democratic life philosophy is in conflict with authoritarian imposition of doctrines through processes of emotional conditioning, whether this be undertaken by secular or by ecclesiastical authorities. But it was encouraging to note the many religious leaders who were eager to associate themselves with this celebration of Dr. Kilpatrick's birthday and the pattern of education to which he has devoted his life. Many of these religious leaders share the conviction that religion, as well as education, must undergo change if it is to be brought into harmony with the values of the scientific mode of thought and the democratic way of life. They would endorse the view of the late Dr. George A. Coe that "selection through discriminating judgment; forethought and planning; fitting means to ends; carrying a planned activity through; judging the product and one's self by means of it, and thus making ready for further self-guided action" are the essence of the project method. And "purposing, in this full sense and range, is nothing less than the process—and it alone contains the generative force-whereby one comes to one's self as a person. Used collectively, it is the democratic process."
Although the heart of Dr. Kilpatrick's life interest has been education, he has all along perceived that education is not carried on in a social vacuum, and that human growth must be defined in terms of the life of the community in which the child is to live. It is this social conception that has undergirded his emphasis on education in and for democracy, for democracy, as he conceives it, is an attempt to organize a community in which respect for each human personality will be the governing principle and moral end. His concern with the welfare and development of the young has therefore caused him to take an active interest in those aspects of the life of the community which have direct bearing on the life of the young. In other words, his commitment to democratic values in education progressively involved Dr. Kilpatrick in various organized public movements to secure a more democratic community.
The fact that he was an educator concerned with the welfare of all of our children gave increased authority to what he had to say about the harmful effects of certain of our established social, economic, racial, and religious practices. He saw the disastrous physical and spiritual effects of unemployment in the families of school children, and he was moved to advocate a planning, full-employment economy. Observing the harmful consequences in the lives of the young of our historic patterns of segregation and discrimination, he became an active worker with minority racial and religious groups which were seeking to make equality of opportunity and treatment an operating American practice not a mere phrase in the Declaration of Independence. One of the most moving speeches given at the eightieth birthday celebration was that of Lester Granger, executive director of the National Urban League. He spoke of the wise and courageous cooperation that various groups interested in the welfare of the colored people had had from Dr. Kilpatrick.
Recognizing that a free education involves freedom to inquire, to criticize, and to publish, Dr. Kilpatrick has throughout his life been opposed to economic, patriotic, and religious pressure groups which have sought to make our schools "safe" by abridging these elemental procedures of a free society. For many years he was a member of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the American Civil Liberties Union. Although often in cooperation with private, progressive schools, Dr. Kilpatrick has been a steadfast supporter of the free, tax-supported common school. He considers it one of the major institutions of American democracy, and he has been in the thick of the struggle to get adequate financial support for public education, and to provide public school teachers with the security required to carry on their intellectual functions.
Dr. Kilpatrick has long believed in the principle of the separation of church and state. He was one of the founders of the Institute for Church and State. He has consistently opposed all efforts of religious organizations to use the schools and the coercive powers of government to advance sectarian interests. He shares the faith of many liberal thinkers that spiritual religion will prosper only in a community which supports untrammeled inquiry, and he has confidence that man's religious sentiments are so deeply grounded that they can adjust to whatever knowledge science develops. He has given much thought and time to those religious movements which are seeking to integrate ideal objects of allegiance with the disinterested pursuit of truth.
One of the interesting features of the birthday dinner was the large number of officers and members of the organized labor movement in attendance. They count Dr. Kilpatrick a mature friend of the workers' movement, they have benefitted from his advice in their programs of workers' education, and they realize that the quality of the education provided in our public schools is a matter of crucial importance for them. David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and a member of the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor, spoke of the high regard the labor movement has for the work of Dr. Kilpatrick and "all that his teaching had done to bridge the gap between men of learning and men of labor."
Speaking as an immigrant and for the immigrants "who are Americans by choice and not by birth," he declared that Dr. Kilpatrick had done "much to extend free public education—to make it available and meaningful for working people and immigrants—and that "these working people and immigrants" were happy to be able to join with others in honoring him for what he had done. I am confident that no greeting could have meant more to Dr. Kilpatrick than this sincere tribute from one of America's most progressive labor leaders.