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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
I can’t say, even now—and with respect—that he helped education much. Getting rid of shackles is one thing, and probably worth doing in itself. But the fragmentation and downgrading of the idea of education that followed was scarcely a substitute for the shackles, merely a new kind of imprisonment. But I don’t want to carry on about this, for it’s all a matter of glands and taste, nothing else. No-one, least of all its onlie begetter, should ignore Ferry’s imperishable rule: No Important Statement about Education can be Proved.
Be that as it may, Eliot did address himself to urgent educational problems that had not previously been solved. He saw that education in America ought to be made more responsive to individual students’ desires and altogether hospitable to the scientific spirit of free inquiry. He led a long pull for reform along those lines; in the end it succeeded brilliantly. That is one reason why today’s needs are so different. Were Eliot alive at this moment, no doubt he would devote his powerfully organizing mind and-persuasiveness to very different educational goals than the ones he set himself more than a century ago. For example, he might conceivably war against the flabbiness of moral and philosophical teaching today. He might search out new methods of inculcating wholeheartedness and a spirit of service at university level. Reforms like those, perhaps, would be more than welcomed by a good many students. Education always requires pioneers.
Originally critics feared that Eliot would propel Harvard in the direction of scientific materialism. During the past hundred years, it is true, education in general has drifted that way. Yet Eliot should not, I submit, be convicted of implementing the early stages of such drift. He opposed materialism with all his heart.
At the centennial exercises at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1881, Massachusetts politico Ben Butler delivered an oration in praise of the machine. No sooner had the governor concluded his address than Eliot, who was on the same platform, sprang to his feet and demanded: “What drives the steam engine?” The question was rhetorical, of course. Eliot serenely proceeded to answer it himself, his purpose being to correct the mistaken impression that he feared Butler’s speech had created in the largely youthful audience. “Not the engineer,” he declared,
but the life-giving sun which elaborated centuries ago the coal that is put under the boilers. What is it that you must learn here which will always be above all literature and all science, powerful though science may become? You must learn the eternal worth of character; you must learn that the ultimate powers of the human race lie in its undying instincts and passions: you must learn that above all material things, is man—the thoughtful, passionate and emotional being, the intellectual, and religious man. Here lies the source of the power of educated men—they have refined and strengthened their minds and their souls. And, believe me, the supreme powers of this universe are not mechanical or material; they are hope and fear and love.