Charles W. Eliot, and the nobility of ideas
There are certain books, I would argue, that everyone who has an interest in higher education should read at some point. One of these without doubt is a collection of essays by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University for an amazing 40 years until 1909 and a cousin of the celebrated poet T.S. Eliot, published in 1898 under the title Educational Reform. It was Eliot who turned Harvard into the world leading university it is today, and along the way he contributed to some really interesting public debate about the nature and purpose of higher education.
The book is full of fascinating reflections on a variety of subjects connected with education, but it is best for the reader to start with the first essay, which is in fact Eliot’s inaugural address, delivered at the beginning of his presidency when he was only 35 years old. This essay not only sets out Eliot’s views on education, but also illustrates, by describing the system he had taken on, how much he managed to change it during his presidency. But it also contains insights that are still important today, including this:
‘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 and public schools, from primary to professional. The worthy fruit of academic culture is an open mind, trained to careful thinking, instructed in the methods of philosophic investigation, acquainted in a general way with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility.’
In the same essay Eliot suggested that the task of the university is to make people (well, he said ‘men’, but they were different times) ‘be loyal to noble ideas as in other times they had been to kings’. Today one would say that different universities can and should have different missions, but the integrity of intellectual thought – ‘noble ideas’ – needs to be common to all institutions still. Eliot’s ideas are worth reading.