Teaching Students About John D. Rockefeller
John Davison Rockefeller was an American business mogul, philanthropist, and a prominent figure in the late 19th and early 20th century. Born in 1839 in Richford, New York, Rockefeller went on to become the richest man in the United States of his time and a paragon of entrepreneurship. He is most famous for co-founding Standard Oil Company in 1870, which ultimately made him America’s first billionaire.
Teaching students about John D. Rockefeller provides insightful lessons on ambition, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy. The following guide will help educators create an engaging lesson plan that highlights the significant aspects of Rockefeller’s life.
A Brief History of John D. Rockefeller
1. Early Life
Rockefeller was born into a modest family with six siblings. He inherited business acumen from his father, who was a peddler and salesman traveling extensively for work. At age 16, Rockefeller began his career as a bookkeeper in Cleveland, Ohio.
2. Entrepreneurial Drive
In 1859, the oil boom began piquing the interest of aspiring businessmen like Rockefeller. Alongside Maurice B. Clark, he launched their own oil refinery business in 1863 (Clark & Rockefeller). In 1870, with increases in production capacity and profits from kerosene sales, he founded Standard Oil Company.
3. The Growth of Standard Oil Company
Standard Oil Company seized opportunities to integrate itself across the oil supply chain; from extraction to transport to refining and distribution. At its peak, Standard Oil controlled nearly 90% of America’s oil industry.
4. Controversy & Legacies
Critics accused Standard Oil Company of engaging in monopolistic and anti-competitive practices using predatory pricing tactics to wipe out smaller competition. To resolve antitrust concerns, the United States Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil Company into 34 smaller entities in 1911.
5. The Philanthropist
Rockefeller had a lifelong passion for philanthropy. Throughout his life, he gave away over half a billion dollars. Prominent projects include founding the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller University, and the Rockefeller Foundation.
1. Discuss the context: Start the lesson by providing students with a brief outline of the “Gilded Age” and the industrialization in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
2. Group Discussion: Divide students into groups and provide each group with information on different aspects of Rockefeller’s life (entrepreneurial pursuits, monopoly controversies, philanthropy). Instruct each group to present their findings to the class and ignite meaningful discussions.
3. Debate: Organize a debate that discusses whether John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly was beneficial or harmful to America’s economy and society.
4. Visionary & Innovator: Explore how Rockefeller was ahead of his time in terms of business practices implementation (e.g., consolidation, cost-cutting measures) that have become common in today’s business world.
5. Philanthropic Impact: Have students research and present reports on other prominent philanthropists and compare their contributions to those made by Rockefeller.