Kilpatrick was born in 1871 in White Plains, Georgia, to a Baptist preacher with enough charisma of his own to become one of the state’s most prominent religious leaders. Kilpatrick rejected his father’s faith as a teen, chose a career in math and science, and soon became a professor at his undergraduate alma mater. But academia would offer no respite from religion: In 1906, he was accused of heresy for refusing to affirm his belief in the Virgin Birth, and resigned from Mercer in disgrace.
A year after that, he enrolled as a grad student at Teachers College. The best way to describe how much influence the school had on American education at the time would be to compare education with a major religion, and Teachers College with that religion’s holy city. As Beineke put it, Teachers College, which was established, “had become, even before its 25th anniversary, a Mecca for the study of education.” It was the first academic institution to effectively turn teaching into a profession, and soon after its founding in 1887 attracted the most influential pedagogues of the day. Its faculty included John Dewey, the pioneer of the progressive-education movement, whose mantra espoused “child-led learning,” in which the student, not the teacher, decides what should be learned. In progressive schools, teachers were no longer implacable authority figures, but gentle guides and partners in education.
Kilpatrick soon became Dewey’s closest protege, and as he got deeper and deeper into the progressive philosophy, he set his sights on reforming math education, making it less about building the intellect and more about whether it was needed for everyday living. The best way to do this, he decided, was to also tap into the burgeoning social-efficiency movement endorsed by several colleagues at Teachers College, including Dewey and the psychologist Edward Thorndike. Social-efficiency proponents believed that universal education was a flawed approach in schools because different populations had different needs and intelligence levels.
By 1915, Kilpatrick wielded such influence in education circles that he was asked to head a National Education Association committee tasked by the U.S. Bureau of Education with devising ways to reform math instruction. Its 1920 report, “The Problem of Mathematics in Secondary Education,” became part of a larger treatise on public education that provided a roadmap for America’s schools for decades to come.
Like the MAA’s report, “Problem of Mathematics” encouraged basic algebraic concepts in junior high school and the importance of practical math. But that’s about all the two have in common. The former, which was far more lightweight, stated algebra, geometry, and any higher math was a waste of time for most students. Advanced math, it posited, wasn’t critical for understanding greater life lessons. Such an idea is conservative, it argued:
To the extremist of this school the “faculty of reasoning,” for example, could be trained on any material where reasoning was involved (the more evident the reasoning, the better the training), and any facility of reasoning gained in that particular activity, could, it was thought, be accordingly directed at will with little loss of effectiveness to any other situation where good reasoning was desired. In probably no study did this older doctrine of “mental discipline” find larger scope than in mathematics, in arithmetic to an appreciable extent, more in algebra, most of all in geometry.
The authors’ rejection of math as critical for overall problem-solving ability was based largely on research by Thorndike, the education psychologist, who earlier in the century had conducted a lot of experiments on cats to gauge how animals learn. He would lock cats in rigged boxes, then see if they could figure out how to step on the right lever to get out, and, if they could, if they could do it again and how quickly. Subsequent studies on soldiers during World War I showed that humans, like cats, don’t necessarily improve their ability to solve a problem just because they’ve previously solved lots of problems. The studies suggested that problems are only easier for the soldiers the subsequent time if they’re very similar to problems the soldiers previously solved.