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Cold War in the Classroom: Kilpatrick's Student Years at Mercer

by Donald D. Chipman & Carl B. McDonald - 1982

As a student at Mercer University (Georgia) from 1888-91, William Kilpatrick observed that teachers and pupils stood in opposition to each other and that cheating was a "natural process." The granting of honors was viewed by Kilpatrick as detrimental and as a way of pitting students against each other. Kilpatrick also advocated the abolition of the grading system. (Source: ERIC)

Not infrequently do we hear the remark that educational theorists or philosophers have never or too little experienced the sorts of classroom situations that they preach to us about. Certainly, there are those who contend that the progressive educators of the early twentieth-century United States blindly took much discipline and meaningful subject matter out of the schools. With regard to William Heard Kilpatricks beliefs about the relationship between teacher and pupil, such charges can be refuted through consideration of his own educational experiences as an undergraduate.

Among the documents comprising the William Heard Kilpatrick collection at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, is an autobiographical narrative penned in Kilpatricks minuscule handwriting and entitled Student Life at Mercer University 1888-91. In this sketch, Kilpatrick discusses much of the material that Tenenbaum included in his 1951 biography;1 however, there are some details of interest that have not heretofore been brought to light. Kilpatricks autobiographical sketch, together with two of his senior year compositions (the earliest documents in the Mercer Kilpatrick collection), provides valuable insight into the development of Kilpatricks interest in and devotion to methods of education. As early as 1890before his graduate work at Johns Hopkins University and before his experience as a schoolmaster in Blakely, GeorgiaKilpatrick the eighteen-year-old undergraduate was formulating some of the ideas that later marked his stance on progressive education, particularly with regard to the adversary roles of teacher and student. In both the autobiographical notes and the student essays we can feel the classroom climate during Kilpatricks student years at Mercer University, and we can recognize the early development of Kilpatricks thoughts on the relationship between teacher and student.

Kilpatrick writes that one of the aims of this autobiography is to show how the writer personally advanced in insight with a growing development of thoughts and commitments on education. 2 In a brief outline entitled How I Built My Educational Outlook he notes that my original outlook was that education was primarily acquiring the recognized content. The test of acquisition was the ability to give it back on appropriate demand. In the process there was no thought to add to the sum of knowledge.3 Indeed, Kilpatricks memories of his student days at Mercer could largely be summed up in his remarks on teaching with his brother Macon during the summer after his junior year: Teaching then meant arranging lessons and hearing recitation. The only required preparation was advanced enough study.4 Kilpatricks own undergraduate preparation was primarily mastery of textbooks and recitation. Perhaps it was in part because he realized the relative insignificance of mere rote learning that Kilpatrick in at least two instances aided his classmates in making a mockery, through deceit, of the recitation method. Of his own behavior in his junior year calculus class Kilpatrick writes:

How John Wade and I studied calculus during the second semester is something that I write now with a sense of shame which I did not then feel. Each calculus day John would come to my room. He would work each problem under my general oversight, for I was admittedly the head of the class in mathematics. If John had trouble I would help him, and then he would write out in full the working out of each problem and number it. After it was all over he would tear up the sheets so that each problem worked out in full was on its separate sheet of paper and so numbered. Then when Professor [Shelton P.] Sanford would assign the different problems to the different class members, John would give out to each one who wished it (almost all did so wish it) his problem completely worked out and ready to be so copied on the board, and as I recall nearly all took these otherwise-worked problems. There were those in the class who either for lack of ability or lack of study were practically ignorant of the subject. Then as the time came for these deficient ones to recite, some capable friend would go and sit just in front of the one so reciting and help him by telling him what to say in answer to the professors questions.5

A similar situation occurred in a senior year literature class. Referring to his account of Sanfords calculus class, Kilpatrick says,

In somewhat analagous way we acted in Dr. [John J.] Brantlys class in our senior year. We were studying Chaucer and at first we could not understand how Dr. Brantly could expect us to answer his questions. But soon I discovered in an edition of Chaucer which my brother Macon had studied all the answers to Dr. Brantlys questions. Eugene Fort also got a copy of this older edition of Chaucer. He and I had then the means of answering all of Dr. Brantlys questions and of communicating these answers to the others. The class was small, and we decided, arbitrarily to be sure, that a few of us would sit on the third seat behind all the rest [who] were sitting on the 2nd seat just in front of us. Then when Dr. Brantly pointed a question to any on the 2d seat, one of us on the 3d seat would give him the answer. As I look back on such behavior, I find it difficult to understand how we could reconcile such dishonesty with our recognized principles of honesty. It is, however, true that the current method of teaching easily led pupils to feel that teachers and pupils stood on opposite sides. The teacher assigned lessons to be learned, typically memorized as the teachers regular work in the recitation or examination was to see whether the pupil had mastered the assignment. In other words, teacher and pupil stood on opposite sides. It was this feeling of opposite sides which put pupils together so that to help each other was a natural process.6

Kilpatricks contention that cheating became a natural process is important, for it tells us that he believed such a dishonest practice to be a veritably inherent by-product of an educational system that guaranteed an adversary relationship between teacher and pupil. It is noteworthy here, also, that in his Education for a Changing Civilization Kilpatrick writes of a natural opposition between teacher and pupil (emphasis ours).7

Kilpatricks growing awareness that American education of the 1890s usually pitted pupil against teacher is coupled with his distaste for setting the pupil against his classmatesand ultimately against himselfin an unpublished senior composition (October 22, 1890) that, according to Kilpatricks autobiographical notes, was ironically instrumental in assuring him of the English Composition Medal. The essays lengthy title, Class Honors Not Beneficial. Or, in other words, the giving of honors in college classes not beneficial to the students in the classes, reveals the papers thesis: that not only the honors usually called first honor and second honor, but also positions on honor rolls, speakers places, and medals should be abolished (it is again ironic to note here that Kilpatrick was graduated second in his class and that he delivered the salutatory). Many of Kilpatricks arguments in this essay later became a part of his philosophy of education, and these germinating ideas undoubtedly had an influence on his later decision to abolish grades at his Blakely school. In fact, it is not difficult to see in Kilpatricks arguments against honors valid arguments against the traditional grading system. The essay is quoted in full below:

It may seem inappropriate, at first thought, for one of my age and development to take this position; but, on the other hand, considering the fact that a student is in such position as to know the effect of the system from personal experience, it would seem that one in this position is, on this very account, a most suitable and proper person to discuss the question.

By college honors is meant not only the honors usually called first honor and second honor, but also positions on honor rolls, speakers places, and medals. These we would abolish, retaining, of course, the attainment of a certain grade necessary for a degree, and this to be determined by written examinations.

We first object to the system on the ground that it gives the student the wrong idea of what he is to strive for at college, on the grounds that he mistakes the means through which the end is to be accomplished for the end itself, thinking, forsooth, if he can only get his honor, that he shall attain fully that for which he entered college, forgetting almost entirely the vastly more important matter of true education. And working with the wrong idea, he thinks that whatever would aid him in the accomplishment of his design is worthy of his attention; and right here there is a possibility that he will be tempted to use unfair meansas using keys, using books during recitation, or encouraging others to tell him.

That it fails to stimulate the whole class is unquestionable, because only a few recitations are necessary to show who will lead the class, to show who can hope for honors and who cannot. Experience will show that this objection is valid, for those who are left in the beginning of the race, soon see it, and then the tendency is that they will become discouraged rather than stimulated to increased study. Another less frequent but nonetheless probable result is that the first honor man shall so outstrip his competitors at the beginning that there shall be no especial need for him to exert himself, in order to keep in the lead; so that the whole class is hurt; the leader in that he thinks he has accomplished all that could be desired, the class in that they are left without a hope or a probability of excelling. This has been said on the supposition that the honors were few. If there are many chances to attain to the distinction of an honor, then there is a correspondingly less necessity for exertion, so that this fails to stimulate, since it is according to human nature not to exert oneself, unless there is necessity for it.

Another objection, and one that is considered of great weight by many college boys, is the difficulty of marking fairly. Of course, the professors should not be too much censured for this, as they are but human and liable to make mistakes with the rest of us. Some, perhaps, are not altogether impartial, and then there is the practical difficulty of deciding how much of a students recitation is original and how much comes from his neighbor.

And another great objection is the different standards which the different professors have, some giving many perfects, others none, thus the student good in language is preferred to the mathematician and vice versa. No one will or can deny that there exist hard feelings, the result of this marking system.

The students sometimes have hard feelings toward professors, who have, as they imagine, wronged them by marking others higher: and especially in the awarding of medals and speakers places is there dissatisfaction. From this come other evils. The students, imagining that they have been injured, conceive a dislike for the whole institution, and so do not give it that praise and support that is to be expected.

Very often the students blame their victorious mates for supposed injuries, and so strife is stirred up, lasting through the college course and so all through life.

From personal experience I believe that if all this outside matter was abolished, the student would be forced to see why he is at college, and be aroused to study, then would we have that atmosphere of study, now so conspicuous for its absence, and at all times so necessary to earnest study.8

It is interesting to note that Kilpatricks first objection to the awarding of honors has to do with the possibility of the students using unfair means to achieve his goals. This objection, together with the essays later reference to the difficulty of grading students whose work may not be entirely their own, is undoubtedly related to the unfair practices Kilpatrick observed or actually took part in.

In another unpublished senior composition, on liberal education, Kilpatrick considers the meaning of education. This essay is quite general and somewhat vague. It is easy to read into Kilpatricks youthful phrases notions about some of his later theories or practices, but the young Kilpatrick probably had no such particulars in mind. Nevertheless, one can readily recognize dissatisfaction with the mere obtaining of knowledgeagain, the kind of educational program that promotes cramming and often cheating. In addition, Kilpatrick appears to be advocating the acquisition of learning skills that will enable one to cope with any life situation, not simply with some narrow course of study. He says that we must keep in mind the fact that there is a vast difference between education and instruction or the obtaining of knowledge, also that knowledge is hardly to be obtained without having first been educated to some extent, and that the more thoroughly we are educated the more easily do we obtain knowledge. He goes on to say,

By a liberal education the mind is expanded and strengthened, and the more varied the course of study, the greater the expansion. This increase of strength is increase of power to obtain knowledge. By this strengthened mind we are enabled to make more delicate distinctions, to judge between the true and the false. So in every department, one who has full control of increased powers certainly is capable of better thinking than one who has not the advantages of developed mental powers.

That a special course of instruction is beneficial, I do not doubt, and for some kinds of business it is necessary, but by no means should we forget to develop our faculties to their fullest extent. Where special instruction is necessary, there is also a necessity for developed mental powers in order to be able to obtain this instruction; the greater, on the other hand, the necessity for this instruction, the greater on the student is the necessity for mental culture.

It is the same as one who aspires to excellence in boxing; he must develop his muscles as much as possible and not be content to become skillful with what he already has.9

The kind of liberal education that Kilpatrick wrote of as an undergraduate at Mercer undoubtedly contains the seeds, no matter how minute or immature, of his later beliefs in purposeful activity, simultaneous learnings, andultimatelythe principles underlying the Project Method. We should note, too, that in order to promote and ensure the success of such a brand of liberal education, the teacher, Kilpatrick would say, must turn away from the traditional recitation method to become an encouraging partner to the student in the process of education. In a passage from his Foundation of Method Kilpatrick speaks to us as a mature, world-renowned educator whose words echo the thoughts that were already germinating in the young, inexperienced undergraduate:

We have seen the evil tendency toward cramming. In its extreme form this may be found as cheating. Perhaps most of all is it true that education, to be morally educative, requires that children live as a social group in the school with the teacher as the comrade and social arbiter. But if assignment and penalty be stressed, an opposition between teacher and pupil is all but inevitable. This means that the child spends from eight to twelve years of his life thinking of those in closest authority over him as his opponents. A good part of his efforts will be spent in beating the game. If there can be a worse training for citizenship it would be hard to find it.10

Although upon graduation from Mercer University in 1891 Kilpatrick had no clear idea of what occupation to pursue, he was unquestionably concerned with thoughts about education in general and the teaching profession in particular. It is clear that his experiences at Johns Hopkins University and especially in Blakely were the impetus that decided Kilpatricks future; however, it should be equally clear that his student days at Mercer shaped to a great extent the mans dedication to the development of an educational philosophy and methodology suitable for modern America. In particular, it is clear that the young Kilpatrick was already dissatisfied with a system of education that stressed mere rote learning while ensuring that teacher and pupil would forever be adversaries.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 3, 1982, p. 459-465
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 724, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:12:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Donald Chipman
    Air University, Alabama
    Donald D. Chipman is the commandant's advisor on education, Squadron Officer School, Maxwell Airforce Base, Alabama. He has served a professor of education and history at the Georgia Southwestern College, and is co-author of Philosophical Reflections on Education and Society.
  • Carl McDonald
    Middle George College, Georgia
    Carl B. McDonald is chairman of the Developmental Studies Division at Middle Georgia College and chairman elect of the University System of Georgia's Academic Advisor Council on Developmental Studies. He is co-author of Treating the Non-Learner: Penicillin or Placebo?.
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