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Eliot Of Harvard
A stern but brilliant Yankee revolutionized American higher education while president of our oldest university
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
The classics were featured, primarily as grammatical disciplines; one was not expected to enjoy such things. As for philosophy, a remark that a Harvard alumnus of the bad old days once made to William James tells the whole story. “I can’t understand your philosophy,” James was informed. “When I studied philosophy, I could understand it. We used to commit it to memory.” Memorized philosophies are little better than superstitions, of course. They form the invisible bars of the ubiquitous birdcages of cults and sects of all descriptions. And, as Eliot put it, a university “cannot be built upon a sect, unless, indeed, it be a sect which includes the whole educated portion of the nation.”
One course only was offered in English literature—an introduction to Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer (whom Eliot, incidentally, found lamentably indecent). The poet Longfellow, as professor of belles-lettres, had to translate whatever French, Italian, Spanish, or German passages he wished his hearers to grasp. It was he, by the way, who introduced the genial practice of addressing students by name as “Mr. So-and-so.”
Abysmally parochial though it was, Harvard instruction in those days had a certain consistency. The students attended all the same courses, by and large, in a body; and they partly made up for the dullness of their academic fare by developing a certain social esprit de corps, rather as in preparatory school. Hence influential alumni firmly believed, to quote Charles Francis Adams once again,
that a classical education was the important distinction between a man who had been to college and a man who had not been to college, and that anything that diminished the importance of this distinction was essentially revolutionary and tended to anarchy; that the advent to power of men who preferred science to the classics, and the investigation of natural history to preaching from the themes of the Old and New Testaments, was going to produce an entirely new type of educated men, as the result of the instruction afforded by the college; that it would be breaking in upon all their cherished associations, recollections and sympathies, and that it was to be deferred, so far as possible, to the future, if it could not be postponed altogether.
It was precisely against such a view that Eliot set his face. He favored an elective system of higher education, as first proposed by Thomas Jefferson. He wanted more emphasis on science as well. Harvard’s science departments boasted some brilliant men, but they did very little regular teaching.
Following his graduation from Harvard, Eliot had stayed on to serve five years as an instructor in mathematics and chemistry. For some time he performed the duties of the Rumford Professor of Chemistry, and he hoped to receive a permanent appointment. That was denied him, however. Wolcott Gibbs, from New York, got the post, and Eliot felt he had no choice but to resign in protest.
Subsequently he travelled to Europe and learned at firsthand how thoroughly Harvard was outclassed abroad. Back home again in 1869 and teaching analytical chemistry at the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he published two articles in The Atlantic Monthly that presented his conclusions on how American education ought to develop. He called for a system “based chiefly upon the pure and applied sciences, the living European languages, and mathematics, instead of upon Greek, Latin, and mathematics as in the established college system.” Equally important, in his view, was that every student be allowed to organize his own course of study in cooperation with the teachers. Eliot thought that no care and attention was too great to pay to an individual student’s curriculum and that, on the other hand, efforts to impose a uniform curriculum were wasted time—the reason being, as he put it, “there is no uniform boy.”
“The natural bent and peculiar quality of every boy’s mind should be sacredly regarded in his education,” Eliot explained. “The division of mental labor, which is essential in civilized communities, in order that knowledge may grow and society improve, demands this regard to the peculiar constitution of each mind as much as does the happiness of the individual most nearly concerned.” I do not think, myself, that the present state of education would give Eliot cause to retract any of that. At the time, however, it made him a radical in the eyes of Boston society.
When, in 1869, the Harvard Corporation had to select a new president, Eliot seemed an unlikely candidate. He was untried, opinionated, barely thirty-five. Yet Eliot came to be chosen. Why? In the corporation were several powerful personalities, among them the historian Francis Parkman. On one of those seemingly trivial occasions that prove momentous in retrospect, Parkman encountered Eliot on the street and bluntly informed him that he was supporting a rival aspirant. Eliot’s first wife lay dying of tuberculosis at that moment. His own mood was very low, a rare occurrence in his case. He told Parkman in all honesty that he himself had no desire to be president of Harvard. And such is the perversity of human nature that Parkman immediately swung around to Eliot’s side. Somehow he found Eliot’s momentary moody indifference a fine recommendation for the post.