Thus, Dewey’s educational influence was catastrophic. In addition to setting the goal of Progressive education as socializing the child, saturating him with the spirit of service, and priming him for community life, Dewey lent credibility to a host of virulent opponents of academic training, one of whom was William Heard Kilpatrick (1871–1965).
Kilpatrick regarded himself as Dewey’s leading disciple. From his position as senior chair of philosophy of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College (from 1918 to 1940), he trained an estimated 35,000 students—coming from every state in the nation—“at a time when Teachers College was training a substantial percentage of the articulate leaders of American education.” As E. D. Hirsch, author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, argues, “Although the progressive movement in American education is often associated with John Dewey … the most influential introducer of progressive ideas into American schools of education was William Heard Kilpatrick.”
Kilpatrick was the prime mover behind “the project method” of learning. An avid opponent of academic education, Kilpatrick chaired the Committee on the Problem of Mathematics of the CRSE, where he argued, among other things, that math instruction should be severely curtailed and students should be grouped into segments, so that only future scientists, engineers, and the like would engage in any substantial mathematics. He held that the rest—the overwhelming majority of American students—should be taught little more than basic arithmetic in high school.
As with aspects of Dewey’s ideas, Kilpatrick’s project method incorporated a number of truths about how children learn—some quite similar to the principles of Maria Montessori. For instance, he held that very young children can advance rapidly when allowed to choose and pursue their own hands-on projects. The kinds of projects he advocated were “a girl making a dress; a boy producing a school newspaper; a class presenting a play; a group of boys organizing a baseball team.” Kilpatrick held that this project method made education like “life itself,” not merely training for adult life. Much of that is reasonable.
But, like his mentor Dewey, Kilpatrick had anything but reasonable aims. His project method was not about activities that train the individual’s mind, advance his knowledge, and promote independent thinking. That is the essence of the Montessori Method, which we’ll consider below—along with Kilpatrick’s criticism of it. Kilpatrick was interested not in encouraging independence but in engineering social conformity.
Ravitch—quoting Kilpatrick—provides an indication of his aim: “In contrast to the ‘customary set-task sit-alone-at-your-own-desk procedure’ which promotes ‘selfish individualism,’ the project method [involves] the pressure of social approval [which] would encourage conformity to ‘the ideals necessary for approved social life.’”56
Not surprising, Kilpatrick admired the Soviet Union, and when he visited it in 1929, he was delighted to see his project method in action. For instance, he witnessed groups of students “disposing of disintegrating carcasses of animals left frozen by the roadside.” And he reported, “no school system in history has been more thoroughly and consistently made to work into the social and political program of the state.”