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Published: June 29, 2011

G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924)

American psychologist, educator, philosopher, college president, pioneer in the field of child psychology and founder-leader of the child study movement that revolutionized and modernized American primary and secondary education. A towering figure in the history of American education, Hall was born in Massachusetts and graduated with a B.A. and M.A. from Williams College. He did not earn his Ph.D. until 1878, after an abortive period of study for the clergy and a stint as a reporter of the Franco-Prussian War for American newspapers and periodicals. Returning to the United States, he taught literature and philosophy at Antioch College and then at Harvard, where he also earned his Ph.D. and developed a deep interest in psychology. After a year’s study in Germany, he returned to Massachusetts as a lecturer in the new field of educational psychology at Harvard for the 1880–81 academic year. His work earned him a professorship in psychology at the recently founded Johns Hopkins University, along with a special lectureship in pedagogics and a $1,000 grant to establish one of the first psychology laboratories in the United States. He remained there seven years, applying the ideas of Charles Darwin and emerging European theorists in psychology to develop entirely new theories of child development, child psychology and educational psychology.
By 1888, his work had gained international attention, attracting such students as James Cattell and JOHN DEWEY to his laboratory. In that year, millionaire hardware king Jonas Clark decided to found a world-renowned graduate research university in the developing science of psychology, and he named Hall founding president of Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Hall also served as professor of psychology and created a new science of child development that gave rise to a new science of education. Basing his work on massive, never-before-attempted empirical studies of children’s behavior, Hall electrified the world of education and forever changed the way Americans raised and educated their children. The transformation he effected in the world of education eventually transformed American society. Enlisting women’s clubs across the United States, Hall organized a national crusade of mothers who eagerly noted and reported to Hall’s researchers every aspect of their children’s physical, moral, intellectual and emotional behavior and development. Hall and his researchers transformed the raw data into reports that explained the origins of every aspect of child behavior at every given age: lying, loyalty, sexual activity, imagination, fear, anger, and rises and falls of interest in various school subjects from literature and history to geography and arithmetic.
Hall’s inescapable conclusions startled educators, parents, clergymen and the entire thinking of adults regarding children. Contrary to universal beliefs of the day, children were not little adults, Hall said. Rather, they were fundamentally different beings, with different fears, angers, ideas of truth and falsehood and abilities to distinguish between reality and imagination. Like Darwin’s earliest humans, children had to evolve and develop naturally into adulthood, virtually recapitulating the evolutionary experience of the human race in the course of their infancy, childhood and adolescence. As Hall summarized it, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” The traditional efforts of teachers, parents and clergy to “meddle, constrain, prohibit and punish” was, in effect, to defy the laws of nature and threaten the emotional, intellectual and physical health of children.
A pound of health, growth and heredity is worth a ton of instruction. The guardians of the young should strive first of all to keep out of nature’s way, and to prevent harm, and should merit the proud title defenders of the happiness and rights of children. They should feel profoundly that childhood, as it comes fresh from the hands of God, is not corrupt, but illustrates the survival of the most consummate thing in the world; they should be convinced that there is nothing else so worthy of love, reverence, and service as the body and soul of the growing child.
The tens of thousands of mothers who had contributed to his research formed an army of zealous converts who abandoned the traditional Puritan belief in the need to “beat the devil” out of children, whom clerics believed were born tainted with original sin. Instead, Hall called on parents to treat children as the young animals they were and give them enough free rein to develop and evolve into adults instead of prematurely imposing adult standards that children cannot possibly meet. Schools, in turn, were urged to extend the informalities of kindergarten into the elementary grades and to adjust pedagogical methods and curricula to children’s natural development, interests and needs. His earlier works, The Contents of Children’s Minds (1883) and Hints Toward a Select and Descriptive Bibliography of Education (with John Mansfield, 1886) became essential texts for teacher training everywhere.
The result of Hall’s work was one of the most stunning transformations in the history of American education. After three centuries of schooling that forced the child to adapt to the demands of the institution, Hall’s findings ushered in a new era of pedocentric schooling in which schools adapted to the needs of children. The change was swift, as schools across the United States introduced art, music, gardening, manual training, domestic science and physical education into the school curriculum and added playgrounds and other recreational facilities that introduced a measure of recreation as a temporary respite to the tedium of a long day of academics.
Hall’s work made child study a national movement, with Clark University its headquarters where, years later, such leaders in the field as Sigmund Freud and John Dewey came to lecture. Hall founded the Child Study Association of America in 1888 to encourage further studies of child development and teaching methods, and he published the results of those studies in Pedagogical Seminary, the national journal he founded and edited. Thousands of the mothers who had been inspired to provide the research for Hall eventually formed the National Congress of Mothers (later, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, or PTA).
In 1904, Hall once again electrified parents and educators with a two-volume work: Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relation to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education. With hundreds of thousands of homeless adolescents wandering the streets of major cities, unable to find work and dependent for survival on crime and prostitution, Hall’s book, together with the equally stunning Youth—Its Education, Regimen, and Hygiene the following year, mobilized the growing national movement for educational, social and penal reforms. States raised the ages covered by compulsory education laws, extended the length of the school year and built huge networks of secondary schools to provide for the education of adolescents, only 10% of whom attended schools at the time of Hall’s books.
Voluntary groups established huge new social service organizations such as the Boys’ Clubs of America (1906), the Boy Scouts of America (1910), the Camp Fire Girls and Girl Scouts (both in 1912) to meet other out-ofschool needs of adolescents through recreation, camping and education in hygiene and thus get them off the streets. Hall’s work inspired social reformers to demand enactment of child labor laws and changes in the penal system that would lead to the establishment of juvenile courts.
A prolific writer with more than 500 works to his credit, Hall coined more than 300 new words now standard in the vocabulary of education and child psychology, He was a founder and first president of the American Psychological Association, and he was editor of the American Journal of Psychology (1887–1921), the American Journal of Religious Psychology and Education (1904–15) and the Journal of Applied Psychology (1917–24). During his tenure at Clark, from 1888 to 1920, he established the first institute of child psychology in the United States. His other important works include Educational Problems (2 vols., 1911) and his autobiography, Life and Confessions of a Psychologist (1923), which appeared the year before he died.