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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
Others, however, disagreed. These were the men who had seen fit to deny Eliot the relatively lowly position of Rumford Professor of Chemistry not six years previously. To such influential figures as Louis Agassiz and Richard Henry Dana, Eliot seemed dangerously addicted to reform. The diary of Eliot’s cousin Theodore Lyman records that Eliot’s nomination by the corporation was at first rejected by the board of overseers, although the vote was close, ii to 10. The elder Charles Francis Adams, just home from England, was subsequently offered the presidency. When Adams declined to accept, Eliot was nominated a second time, and the board then concurred by formal ballot, 16 to 8.
When Eliot got wind of his appointment, he at once sat down and wrote a note to his friend Professor George Brush at Yale. “The main objection to my confirmation,” he recorded,
came from men who thought it safer to trust a literary man or a minister to be just to science than a scientific man to be just to literature, philosophy and art.… As you say, the first and best thing to be done is to show that letters and science are not mortal enemies but helpful friends. There are many comical aspects of this anomalous thing—e.g., in fifteen minutes I am to “receive” a visit from a joint committee to inform me of my election. Ralph Waldo Emerson is, I believe, the youngest and least imposing of the members of the said committee. Query—what are they going to say or do? Pat me on the head, doubtless, and say “good boy!”
Ellen Peabody Eliot had returned to consciousness just long enough to be told the momentous news of her husband’s selection but before the struggle with the overseers. “That’s a big hole for my boy’s boots to fill,” she responded. The next day, on the thirteenth of March, 1869, my greatgrandmother died. Eliot’s thirty-fifth birthday fell the following week. He now had two boys to bring up alone—that was the really awesome hole for him to fill, one imagines. Many years were to pass before Eliot married again, to Grace Meilen Hopkinson, whom he also outlived.
Ellen, the daughter of the Reverend Ephraim Peabody of King’s Chapel, had been a cheering and much-loved partner. Her loss cannot have been easy for Eliot to bear. Yet something of the saving warmth that she had imparted remained built into Eliot’s own character. A former classmate of Eliot’s, A. W. Hill, touched upon this in a letter congratulating him on his appointment. “You will make a better officer now—pardon me for frankness—than you would have done ten years since,” he wrote. “Not only because you are older, but because you have grown broader in your views and more genial—not, indeed, in temperament, perhaps—but in its expression. In a word, the Boston in you has been extracted. I ascribe the change partly to absence from Boston coupled with your own good sense, and partly to the sunshine that your wife and children brought into your home and heart.”
Eliot’s inaugural address was delivered at First Parish Church, opposite Harvard Yard, on October 19, 1869. He had secretly met with Professor Brush in Springfield, Massachusetts, to discuss its contents. But no one at the church, apparently, had the least notion what Eliot was about to say. He began by demanding steady expansion of Harvard’s teaching facilities. “It were a bitter mockery,” he remarked in that context, “to suggest that any subject whatever should be taught less than it now is at American colleges. The only conceivable aim of a college government in our day is to broaden, deepen and invigorate American teaching in all branches of learning. It will be generations before the best of American institutions of education will get growth enough to bear pruning. The descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers are still very thankful for the parched corn of learning.”
Would Eliot now judge that the time for “pruning” had at last arrived? He foresaw, apparently, that that might happen some day. But the main thrust of his inaugural address remains as valid for our own time as it was for Eliot’s:
A university must be indigenous; it must be rich; but, above all, it must be free. The winnowing breeze of freedom must blow through all its chambers. It takes a hurricane to blow wheat away. An atmosphere of intellectual freedom is the native air of literature and science.… The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities.… Two kinds of men make good teachers —young men and men who never grow old.
One of Eliot’s first concerns at Harvard was to reform the medical school. No college or premedical training was required for admission there, and full-fledged M.D.’S were being loosed upon unsuspecting patients after as little as twelve months’ study. The philosopher William James, who went through it, recalled in afteryears that Oliver Wendell Holmes had given him an oral examination at the end of the course. It consisted of one question, which James answered correctly. The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table pronounced himself well pleased: “If you can answer that you can answer anything! Now tell me about your family and how things are at home.”