|Charles William Eliot|
|21st President of Harvard University|
|Term||1869 – 1909|
|Successor||A. Lawrence Lowell|
|Born||March 20, 1834
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
|Died||August 22, 1926
Northeast Harbor, Maine, USA
|Alma mater||Harvard College|
Charles William Eliot (March 20, 1834 – August 22, 1926) was an American academic who was selected as Harvard's president in 1869. He transformed the provincial college into the preeminent American research university. Eliot served the longest term as president in the university's history.
The scion of a wealthy Boston family, Eliot graduated from Harvard in 1853. In spite of his high ambitions and his obvious scientific talents, the first fifteen years of Eliot's career were less than auspicious. He was appointed Tutor in Mathematics at Harvard in the fall of 1854 and studied chemistry with Josiah P. Cooke. In 1858, he was promoted to Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Chemistry. He taught competently, wrote some technical pieces on chemical impurities in industrial metals, and busied himself with schemes for the reform of Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School. But his real goal, appointment to the Rumford Professorship of Chemistry, eluded him. This was a particularly bitter blow because of a change in his family's economic circumstances—the failure of his father, Samuel Atkins Eliot, in the Panic of 1857. Eliot had to face the fact that "he had nothing to look to but his teacher's salary and a legacy left to him by his grandfather Lyman." After a bitter struggle over the Rumford chair, Eliot left Harvard in 1863. His friends assumed that he would "be obliged to cut chemistry and go into business in order to earn a livelihood for his family." But he did not. Instead, he used his grandfather's legacy and a small borrowed sum to spend the next two years traveling in Europe, studying the educational systems of the Old World.
Eliot's approach to investigating European education was unusual. He did not confine his attention to educational institutions, but explored the role of education in every aspect of national life. In France, for example, he questioned "doctors, landladies, servants, and tradespeople over matters that might have appeared to be far removed from his educational inquiries." When Eliot visited schools, he took an interest in every aspect of institutional operation, from curriculum and methods of instruction through physical arrangements and custodial services. But his particular concern was with the relation between education and economic growth:
I have given special attention to the schools here provided for the education of young men for those arts and trades which require some knowledge of scientific principles and their applications, the schools which turn out master workmen, superintendents, and designers for the numerous French industries which demand taste, skill, and special technical instruction. Such schools we need at home. I can't but think that a thorough knowledge of what France has found useful for the development of her resources, may someday enable me to be of use to my country. At this moment, it is humiliating to read the figures which exhibit the increasing importations of all sorts of manufactured goods into America. Especially will it be the interest of Massachusetts to foster by every mean in her power the manufactures which are her main strength.
Eliot understood the interdependence of education and enterprise. In a letter to his cousin Arthur T. Lyman, he discussed the value to the German chemical industry of discoveries made in university laboratories. He also recognized that, while European universities depended on government for support, American institutions would have to draw on the resources of the wealthy. He wrote to his cousin:
Every one of the famous universities of Europe was founded by Princes or privileged classes - every Polytechnic School, which I have visited in France or Germany, has been supported in the main by Government. Now this is not our way of managing these matters of education, and we have not yet found any equivalent, but republican, method of producing the like results. In our generation I hardly expect to see the institutions founded which have produced such results in Europe, and after they are established they do not begin to tell upon the national industries for ten or twenty years. The Puritans thought they must have trained ministers for the Church and they supported Harvard College - when the American people are convinced that they require more competent chemists, engineers, artists, architects, than they now have, they will somehow establish the institutions to train them. In the meantime, freedom and the American spirit of enterprise will do much for us, as in the past ....
While Eliot was in Europe, he was again presented with the opportunity to enter the world of active business. The Merrimack Company, one of the largest textile mills in the United States, tendered him an invitation to become its superintendent. In spite of the urgings of his friends and the attractiveness of what for the time was the enormous salary of $5000 (plus a good house, rent free), Eliot, after giving considerable thought to the offer, turned it down. One of his biographers speculated that he surely realized by this time that he had a strong taste for organizing and administering. This post would have given it scope. He must have felt, even if dimly, that if science interested him, it was not because he was first and last a lover of her laws and generalizations, nor only because the clarity and precision of science was congenial, but because science answered the questions of practical men and conferred knowledge and power upon those who would the labors of their generation. During nearly two years in Europe he had found himself as much fascinated by what he could learn concerning the methods by which science could be made to help industry as by what he discovered about the organization of institutions of learning. He was thinking much about what his own young country needed, and his hopes for the United States took account of industry and commerce as well as the field of academic endeavor. To be the chief executive officer of a particular business only a limited range of influence; but to stand at the intersection of the realm of production and the realm of knowledge offered considerably more.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, American higher education was in crisis. The colleges, controlled by clergymen, continued to embrace classical curricula that had little relevance to an industrializing nation. Few offered courses in the sciences, modern languages, history, or political economy - and only a handful had graduate or professional schools.
As businessmen became increasingly reluctant to send their sons to schools whose curricula offered nothing useful - or to donate money for their support, some educational leaders began exploring ways of making higher education more attractive. Some backed the establishment of specialized schools of science and technology, like Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School, Yale's Sheffield Scientific School, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Other proposed abandoning the classical curriculum, in favor of more vocational offerings.
Harvard was at the center of this crisis. After three undistinguished short-term clerical presidencies in a ten year period, the college was languishing. Boston's business leaders, many of them Harvard alumni, were pressing for change - though with no clear idea of the kinds of changes they wanted.
On his return to the United States in 1865, Eliot accepted an appointment as Professor of Analytical Chemistry at the newly-founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In that year an important revolution occurred in the government of Harvard university. The board of overseers had hitherto consisted of the governor, lieutenant-governor, president of the state senate, speaker of the house, secretary of the board of education, and president and treasurer of the university, together with thirty other persons, and these other persons were elected by joint ballot of the two houses of the state legislature. An opinion had long been gaining ground that it would be better for the community and the interests of learning, as well as for the university, if the power to elect the overseers were transferred from the legislature to the graduates of the college. This change was made in 1865, and at the same time the governor and other state officers ceased to form part of the board. The effect of this change was greatly to strengthen the interest of the alumni in the management of the university, and thus to prepare the way for extensive and thorough reforms. Shortly afterward Dr. Thomas Hill resigned the presidency, and after a considerable interregnum Mr. Eliot succeeded to that office in 1869.
Early in 1869, Eliot had presented his ideas about reforming American higher education in a compelling two-part article, "The New Education," in The Atlantic Monthly, the nation's leading journal of opinion. "We are fighting a wilderness, physical and moral," Eliot declared in setting forth his vision of the American university, "for this fight we must be trained and armed." The articles resonated powerfully with the businessmen who controlled the Harvard Corporation. Shortly after their appearance, merely 35 years old, he was elected as the youngest president in the history of the nation's oldest university.
Eliot’s educational vision incorporated important elements of Unitarian and Emersonian ideas about character development, framed by a pragmatic understanding of the role of higher education in economic and political leadership. His concern in "The New Education" was not merely curriculum, but the ultimate utility of education. A college education could enable a student to make intelligent choices, but should not attempt to provide specialized vocational or technical training. Although technical training should be more explicitly vocational, it should also include instruction in history, languages, political economy, as well as providing a broad knowledge of science and mathematics. Only by differentiating the two levels of the educational process and making each as comprehensive as possible, could higher education hope to prepare students to cope with the rapid pace of technological, economic, and political change. A truly useful education, in Eliot's view, included a commitment to public service, specialized training, and a capacity to change and adapt.
Although his methods were pragmatic, Eliot's ultimate goal, like those of the secularized Puritanism of the Boston elite, was a spiritual one. The spiritual desideratum was not otherworldly. It was embedded in the material world and consisted of measurable progress of the human spirit towards mastery of human intelligence over nature - the "moral and spiritual wilderness." While this mastery depended on each individual fully realizing his capacities, it was ultimately a collective achievement and the product of institutions which established the conditions both for individual and collective achievement. Like the Union victory in the Civil War, triumph over the moral and physical wilderness and the establishment of mastery required a joining of industrial and cultural forces.
While he proposed the reform of professional schools, the development of research faculties, and, in general, a huge broadening of the curriculum, his blueprint for undergraduate education in crucial ways preserved - and even enhanced - its traditional spiritual and character education functions. Echoing Emerson, believed that every individual mind had "its own peculiar constitution". The problem, both in terms of fully developing an individual's capacities and in maximizing his social utility, was to present him with a course of study sufficiently representative so as "to reveal to him, or at least to his teachers and parents, his capacities and tastes." An informed choice once made, the individual might pursue whatever specialized branch of knowledge he found congenial.
But Eliot’s goal went well beyond Emersonian self-actualization for its own sake. Framed by the higher purposes of a research university in the service of the nation, specialized expertise could be harnessed to public purposes. "When the revelation of his own peculiar taste and capacity comes to a young man, let him reverently give it welcome, thank God, and take courage," Eliot declared in his inaugural address:
"Thereafter he knows his way to happy, enthusiastic work, and, God willing, to usefulness and success. The civilization of a people may be inferred from the variety of its tools. There are thousands of years between the stone hatchet and the machine-shop. As tools multiply, each is more ingeniously adapted to its own exclusive purpose. So with the men that make the State. For the individual, concentration, and the highest development of his own peculiar faculty, is the only prudence. But for the State, it is variety, not uniformity, of intellectual product, which is needful."
Eliot did not understate the urgency of the task of educational reform. "As a people," he proclaimed, "we do not apply to mental activities the principle of division of labor; and we have but a halting faith in special training for high professional employments. The vulgar conceit that a Yankee can turn his hand to anything we insensibly carry into high places, where it is preposterous and criminal. We are accustomed to seeing men leap from farm or shop to court-room or pulpit, and we half believe that common men can safely use the seven-league boots of genius. What amount of knowledge and experience do we habitually demand of our lawgivers? What special training do we ordinarily think necessary for our diplomatists? -- although in great emergencies the nation has known where to turn. Only after years of the bitterest experience did we come to believe the professional training of a soldier to be of value in war. This lack of faith in the prophecy of a natural bent, and in the value of a discipline concentrated upon a single object, amounts to a national danger."
Under Eliot's leadership, Harvard adopted an "elective system" which vastly expanded the range of courses offered and permitted undergraduates unrestricted choice in selecting their courses of study - with a view to enabling them to discover their "natural bents" and pursue them into specialized studies. A monumental expansion of Harvard's graduate and professional school and departments facilitated specialization, while at the same time making the university a center for advanced scientific and technological research. Accompanying this was a shift in pedagogy from recitations and lectures towards classes that put students' achievements to the test and, through a revised grading system, rigorously assessed individual performance.
Under Eliot, Harvard became a national institution, recruiting its students from around the country using standardized entrance examination and hiring distinguished scholars from home and abroad. Eliot was an administrative reformer, reorganizing the university's faculty into schools and departments and replacing recitations with lectures and seminars. During his forty year presidency, the university vastly expanded its facilities, with laboratories, libraries, classrooms, and athletic facilities replacing simple colonial structures. Eliot attracted the support of major donors from among the nation's growing plutocracy, making it the wealthiest private university in the world.
Eliot's leadership not only made Harvard the pace-setter for other American colleges and universities, but a major figure in the reform of secondary school education. Both the elite boarding schools, most of them founded during his presidency, and the public high schools shaped their curricula to meet Harvard's demanding standards. Eliot was a key figure in the creation of standardized admissions examinations, as a founding member of the College Entrance Examining Board.
As leader of the nation's wealthiest and best-known university, Eliot was necessarily a celebrated figure whose opinions were sought on a wide variety of matters, from tax policy (he offered the first coherent rationale for the charitable tax exemption) to the intellectual welfare of the general public. He edited the Harvard Classics, which together are colloquially known as his Five Foot Shelf and which were intended at the time to suggest a foundation for informed discourse.
Eliot was a fearless crusader not only for educational reform, but for many of the goals of the progressive movement -- whose most prominent figure head was Theodore Roosevelt (Class of 1880) and most eloquent spokesman was Herbert Croly (Class of 1889). He was also involved in philanthropy, serving as a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation from 1914 to 1917.
Eliot was an articulate opponent of American imperialism and an advocate of racial equality. (Many talented African Americans were educated at Harvard during Eliot's tenure, including such notables as W. E. B. Du Bois (Class of 1890). Booker T. Washington was awarded an honorary degree by Harvard in 1896. Unlike his successor, A. Lawrence Lowell, Eliot opposed efforts to limit the admission of Jews and Roman Catholics.
On 27 October 1858, Eliot married Ellen Derby Peabody (1836 - 1869) in Boston. They had four sons, one of whom, Charles Eliot (November 1, 1859-March 25, 1897) was an important landscape architect, responsible for the public park system in Boston. Another son, Samuel Atkins Eliot II (August 24, 1862- October 15, 1950) was a Unitarian minister who became the first and longest-serving president of the American Unitarian Association (1900-1927).
After Ellen Derby Peabody died at the age of 33 of tuberculosis, Eliot married a second wife in 1877, Grace Mellen Hopkinson (1846-1924). This second marriage did not produce any children. However, this was not an ordinary marriage: Grace was a close relative of Frances Stone Hopkinson, wife of Samuel Atkins Eliot II, his son.
During his tenure, Eliot opposed football and tried unsuccessfully to abolish the game at Harvard. In 1905, The New York Times reported that he called it "a fight whose strategy and ethics are those of war", that violation of rules cannot be prevented, that "the weaker man is considered the legitimate prey of the stronger" and that "no sport is wholesome in which ungenerous or mean acts which easily escape detection contribute to victory."
Eliot once said, "Well, this year I'm told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard."
|President of Harvard
A. Lawrence Lowell