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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Charles W. Eliot, Retiring President of Harvard University, Cambridge, U.S.A.
The Democratic Ideal in Education

by J. Shillaker
Volume 21, 1910, pgs. 869-872


Among the names of an enthusiastic band of devotees to the cause of democratic education—a band including such worthies as Horace Mann, William T. Harris, Murray Butler, and Paul Monroe—that of President Charles W. Eliot stands out boldly as one worthy of honour. By means of his organizing ability, Harvard has risen from the rank of a provincial college to that of a national and cosmopolitan University. Since his father was Treasurer to the College, the connection of Eliot with his place of education with the exception of a few short breaks has been lifelong. He served his Alma Mater as Tutor in Mathematics, 1854-8; as Assistant Professor in Mathematics, 1858-61; and as Assistant Professor in Chemistry in 1861-3. Subsequently a visit to Europe enabled him to make a study of the English, French, and German systems of education, from which he gathered several ideas which he afterwards developed and applied to his own country. From the Chair of Analytic Chemistry in the Massachusett's Institute, Boston, he advanced to the Presidentship of Harvard, to which his life's best has been ungrudgingly given during the forty years from May 19th, 1869, to May 19th 1909. The progress of Harvard during those four decades has been comtemporaneous with a great advance in democratic education in the States, and the voice and pen of President Eliot have done yeoman service in the cause of progress.

So great an influence has the President gained as the founder of a great university, as a strong force in social, national, and political life, that he is unjealously regarded as the first private citizen of the Republic, and recognized as a great moral power. In an unusual degree, this statesman of education and organizer of instruction has entered into the fruits of his labours. He retires to a life of active service to his fellows from a career of fructifying, inspiring labours, alert, genial and helpful, a veritable happy warrior completing the plan he formed in the heydey of hopeful manhood.

The task with which he found himself confronted at the threshold of his architectonic life work at the age of thirty-five, was no less than that of reforming an ancient and conservative institution, dominated by the mediaeval spirit, and of infusing it with a new spirit in accordance with the democratic ideal of a Republic. When he became President, the four years' prescribed course represented a minimum of studies which really tended to be the maximum; in addition, the professional schools followed a course of studies that had little or no co-ordination with the college curriculum; they were in no sense post-graduate schools, and in their government and administration were practically separate from the college. The standard of entrance as of attainment was low. Gifted students had no incentive to study profoundly any branch of knowledge for which they discovered a liking or possessed an aptitude.

The new President clearly saw the plan upon which to reconstruct Harvard. With admirable precision he formulated it in his inaugural address. The democratic ideal in education is contained therein. Notwithstanding the fact that the speeches and writings of Eliot have reference to University life the principles, as he shows in his addresses on certain aspects of primary and secondary practice, are capable of application throughout. Through four decades, with scrupulous fidelity to principles, he has developed and proved those germinal ideas, wisely modifying details in practice, in the light of ripe experience, and accumulated knowledge. The application of these principles to the primary, secondary, and university grades bids fair to lead to a reformation in teaching, to a great increase in efficiency, and to a renaissance of scholarship in the United States of America.

Recognizing no antagonism between science and literature, he welcomes the encyclopaedia of human knowledge though recognizing that power, rather than information, should result from study. To discover how, rather than what to teach, thus becomes one of the aims of the University, and to communicate the best means of teaching every branch of human knowledge becomes its duty. Seldom have the desirable results of education been better expressed than in the following extract: "The worthy fruit of academic culture is an open mind, trained to careful thinking, acquainted in a general way with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility. It is thus that the University in our day serves Christ and the Church." The keynote of President Eliot's educational system is the development of the individual through self-control and liberty as a unit of society. All the reforms he advocates, all the reforms he has carried into being result from the application of this principle. He has taught this doctrine again and again on platform and in pamphlet. It runs through the administrative details at Harvard. He advocates its application to primary and secondary schools. He condemns uniformity in subject and method as contrary to this spirit. Large classes make it impossible in practice. With the training of the individual comes that revelation to the boy or to the young man of his own powers, taste, aptitudes, and capacity, which leads to happy and enthusiastic work. It is upon this conception that the system of elective studies and of the greatest freedom of choice in the post-graduate course of professional or extra professional studies is based. It is this which has infused Harvard with a new enthusiasm in consequence of which her alumni are stepping out in the forefront in research, in scholarship, and in service to the world.

The mission with which the head of this reorganized democratic university has charged himself is an endeavour which is gaining a larger and larger measure of success as his books are becoming better known to influence a free people composed of heterogeneous units with a high ideal. The education of the individual in the home, and in the school is the means of realizing it. "The true greatness of States," he writes, "lies not in territory, revenue, population, commerce, crops, or manufactures, but in immaterial or spiritual things; fortitude, and uprightness of their people; in the poetry, literature, science, and art to which they give rise, in the moral wealth of their history and life. With nations as with individuals, none but moral supremacy is immutable and forever beneficent. Universities wisely directed store up the intellectual capital of the race, and become fountains of spiritual power—there may young feet shunning the sordid paths of low desire and worldly ambition, walk humbly in the paths of the illustrious dead—the poets, artists, philosophers, and Statesmen of the past; here may fresh minds explore fresh fields of knowledge; here may great men be trained up to be the leaders of the people; here may the irradiating light of genius sometimes flash out to rejoice mankind; above all, here may generations of manly youth learn righteousness."

The natural consequence of the fertile idea of individualistic culture arising out of the fact that every child is a unique personality is that the liberty of the individual received full recognition at the earliest possible age. It works well in the school, it works better in the college, it works best in the university where the young man having the option of studies gives rein to "his natural preference and inborn aptitude." The professor, unhampered by the unwilling, encourages and is encouraged by a smaller band of enthusiastic, eager, voluntary pupils who make great demands upon him and upon themselves. He has to take care that the more able disciples do not outstrip the master. Within the range of any subject, an elective system creates greater intensity and a wider range of application as it also, by development from within, outwards, causes a demand for a wider range of studies.

One resultant of the application of Professor Charles W. Eliot's system must be that the old anti-social motives of fear and compulsion will be replaced by an appeal to permanent motives developed by means of moral training from infancy upwards. The self-control thus cultivated enables the undergraduate to pass safely through any period of moral danger, and he enters upon his communal life prepared to face its difficulties in a spirit of self-reliance, capable too of serving his fellows not as one who has ceased to grow, but as a perfectible individual progressing until the end of life towards the perfect ideal.


Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July 2008