Author Eliot Charles William

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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 promoted to Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Chemistry in 1858. 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 cir


cumstances—the failure of his father 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: 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: 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. Early in 1869, Eliot 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."


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