Charles W. Eliot (1834–1926) - American EducationAmerican educator who transformed tiny Harvard College into the foremost American university of its day and a model for every other U.S. institution of higher learning. Often called the “founder of Harvard University,” he was born to a wealthy Boston family with close ties to Harvard (his father served as treasurer from 1843 to 1853). Eliot earned his Harvard B.A. in 1853, his M.A. in 1856 and was an assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry there until 1863. After failing to win a promotion, he went to study in Europe for two years. In 1865, he was appointed professor of chemistry at the newly established MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY. In 1869, the Atlantic Monthly published two of his articles, both entitled “The New University,” in which he cajoled the academic world to cease imitating British and European educational models and develop its own uniquely American institutions.
“When the American university appears,” he wrote, “it will not be a copy of foreign institutions . . . but the slow and natural outgrowth of American social and political habits, and an expression of the average aims and ambitions of the better-educated classes. The American college is an institution without parallel; the American university will be equally original.” The articles shook the world of education and earned him the presidency of Harvard College.
When Eliot took over Harvard, it was a small, provincial college with a curriculum that had changed little over the previous century. Latin, Greek, mathematics, philosophy, history, physics, chemistry, French and German made up its core subjects. In addition to the college, Harvard had four graduate schools that were as archaic as the college. The law school granted an LL.B. to any student who completed its 18-month course of study; no examinations were required. The medical school granted an M.D. to all students who completed two terms of study, served an apprenticeship with a practicing physician and passed 10-minute oral exams in five of nine principal subjects. Harvard also had a scientific school that admitted and graduated all who applied and a Unitarian divinity school that granted no formal degree.
When Eliot was inaugurated in 1869, Harvard was torn by dissent and feuding between reform-minded faculty and traditionalists. In his inaugural address Eliot left no doubt where he stood. His work was swift and dramatic. He broadened the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum and merged the scientific school into the undergraduate college. In 1872, he established a Graduate Department (later the Graduate School of Arts), which granted master’s degrees and doctorates. The law, medical and divinity schools were reorganized as proper graduate schools, with sequential curricula requiring extensive written examinations. He opened the divinity school to students of all Protestant sects. He gave students the right to take elective courses, and in 1879 he approved limited faculty instruction of women and the eventual founding of the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women. Better known as the “Harvard Annex,” it became Radcliffe College in 1894. He also raised faculty salaries to levels competitive with private industry and recruited and lured the foremost national and international scholars to teach full-time.
After 25 years, Eliot had succeeded in creating the model of the modern American university and made Harvard the most widely acclaimed institution of higher learning in the United States and, in the opinion of many, the world. It taught all the world’s great languages, literature and history; it taught all the social sciences, along with the development and functioning of all major human institutions, and it taught the range of human knowledge about nature and science. Eliot hired the finest scholars in the world to impart that knowledge to carefully screened young men who would benefit most from the experience. Harvard became a center of research and developer of new knowledge as well as a repository of existing knowledge, and it exerted a broad influence on the nation by graduating more than its share of national leaders in virtually every sector of American life.
In addition to his impact on Harvard and higher education, Eliot had a far-reaching impact on American education generally. A Republican-turned-Democrat, he believed strongly that universal education was the primary vehicle for the talented to succeed and that education was essential to the preservation of democracy. He defined education as “progressive acquisition of an elementary knowledge” of five broad areas: the external world—that is, nature, geography, meteorology, botany and zoology; the story of humanity, including “the immense product of the imagination in art and literature”; manual and moral training—occupational skills, along with patience, good judgment and the recognition of the value of productive labor; character training; and training in democracy, by which he meant the “great truths which lie at the foundation of democratic social theory.” He defined the latter as the interdependence of individuals, national unity, as well as the need for the “rising tide” of immigrants to be Americanized (see Americanization), and service to others and respect for expertise in every area.
During his 40-year tenure at Harvard, he also served as president of the NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION and was chairman of the NEA’s Committee of Ten, whose 1893 report standardized secondary school curricula to prepare high school graduates for college-level studies. The report also resulted in the introduction of foreign languages, higher-level mathematics and science courses into the secondary school curriculum.
After his retirement in 1909, Eliot edited the famed “Five-Foot Shelf” of Harvard Classics and Junior Classics, consisting of some 50 volumes he selected as containing a body of knowledge equivalent to a good liberal education. It included works by Homer, Plato, Plutarch, Virgil, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and Louis Pasteur, as well as classics from literature, history, mathematics and other realms of knowledge. At a time when only 10% of American children enrolled in high school, the Five-Foot Shelf became a runaway best-seller, according to its publisher, Collier, which claimed to have sold 350,000 sets, or 17,500,000 volumes. A prolific writer of magazine articles and books, he was a counsel to virtually every other university president in the United States, a counsel to American presidents and a frequent counsel to congressional committees. Although he was the most important educational visionary of his era, Eliot’s vision was clouded by his conception of higher education and universities as reserved for the “better-educated classes,” which he defined as white men of Anglo-Saxon Protestant origins. Although his transformation of Harvard encouraged almost every major college to expand into Harvard-type universities, it also led to more than five decades of discrimination which saw virtually every major private university, including Harvard, all but refuse entry to women and blacks and tightly restrict entry to Jews and Catholics. (See also Great Books Program.)