Early Childhood Education

Hunt, Joseph McVicker (1906-1991)


Joseph McVicker Hunt, a developmental psychologist best known for his work with infants and young children, was born in Nebraska in 1906. He received his BA (1929) and MA (1930) degrees from the University of Nebraska and a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1933. He went on to pursue post-doctoral work at the New York Psychiatric Institute and Worcester State Hospital in Massachusetts. He was on the faculty of Brown University from 1936 to 1946. His final faculty appointment was at the University of Illinois (1951-1974) where he taught psychology and education courses. He received numerous awards for his work through psychological and mental health foundations, including two awards for excellence in research from the American Personnel and Guidance Association, the G. Stanley Hall award from Division 7 (APA), and the Gold Medal for lifetime achievement from the American Psychological Foundation.

Throughout his career, Hunt pursued his two most enduring interests— psychopathology, and the study of the long-term effects of early experience on later development. His interest in psychopathology began during his undergraduate and graduate work as he researched the effects of abnormal psychology on intellectual development. Hunt was intrigued by Freud’s contention that early experience had a deep impact on development. Building upon these ideas, Hunt proceeded to design a series of feeding-frustration experiments using rat pups. He put the young pups on a feeding deprivation schedule for a few days followed by normal feeding into adulthood. He found that when he placed the adult rats on a feeding depravation schedule, they began to hoard food pellets, a behavior that was uncharacteristic in normal rats. He postulated that this was the effect of the early experiences of depravation. This finding lead Hunt to expand his thinking into the effects of such negative environments on the development of young children.

At about this same time, Hunt was asked to teach a course on infant development, which prompted his interest in the work of Jean Piaget. Through his rat studies, Hunt had recognized the impact of early experiences on personality development. He expanded his thinking into the development of intellect and began to doubt the prevailing view of the static and predetermined nature of the intellect. When Hunt moved to the University of Illinois in 1951, he began investigating factors that might influence the development of the intellect, such as child-rearing practices, poverty, and the accessibility of educational stimulation. Intelligence and Experience, published in 1961, was the result of this work. In this book, Hunt suggested that intelligence was an information-processing system effected by environmental influences during development. The ideas presented laid the foundation for such educational movements as Project Head Start and the later Follow Through Project for school-aged children. Based on his research, Hunt was selected to chair the Presidential Task Force on Child Development that produced “A Bill of Rights for Children” in 1967.

Hunt strongly believed in the relevance of research in supporting theoretical assumptions, so he set forth on a number of projects to further his understanding of early development. He evaluated the development of infants placed in orphanages in both Greece and Iran who were being raised with only minimal attention to psychological needs. During these examinations, Hunt began to doubt the relevance of norm-referenced tests to the information he desired. In order to better understand the influence of different environmental stimuli, Hunt felt that new methods of evaluating development were needed. Working with one of his students, Ina C. Uzgiris, he developed the Ordinal Scales of Psychological Development (1975) based on the particular abilities that develop during the sensori-moor stage as defined by Piaget.

Hunt retired from his position at the University of Illinois in 1974, but remained an active professor emeritus until his death in 1991. At the time of his death he was still at work on a book that was to be called Behavior Science and Child Rearing, a summary of what his research could offer as advice to parents and teachers. He also had started another work to be titled Motivation and Experience, describing his work in the area of intrinsic motivation and its effect on development. Both of these works detailed his belief that psychological science should be used to influence public policy and individual practices for the education of young children.

Further Readings: Haywood, H. C. (1992). Joseph McVicker Hunt (1906-1991). American Psychologist, 47(8), 1050-1051; Hunt, J. McV. (1961). Intelligence and Experience. New York: Ronald Press; Hunt, J. McV. (1979). Early Psychological Development and Experience. Worcester, MA: Clark University; Uzgiris, I. C., and J. McV. Hunt (1975). Assessment in Infancy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Martha Latorre