Eliot, Charles William (1834-1926)

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Charles William Eliot (1834-1926)

President of harvard university


Early Interest in Science. A graduate of the Boston Latin School, Eliot entered Harvard University at age fifteen. Unique experiences in Josiah Cookes laboratory interested Eliot in laboratory techniques in teaching chemistry. He tutored in mathematics at Harvard in 1854 and four years later became the first assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry. Eliot distinguished himself as a teacher by using the laboratory method in his classroom and giving Harvards first written examinations instead of the traditional oral tests. Denied tenure at Harvard, he taught chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied education in Europe, and published two widely read articles on The New Education in The Atlantic Monthly in 1869. Partially because of the public regard he earned from these writings, he was selected that year as the twenty-second president of Harvard University, a position he would hold until 1909.

Tenure at Harvard. During his forty-year tenure at Harvard, he raised entrance requirements, organized Harvards specialty schools under the collegiate system, and turned the institution into a major university. His reforms strengthened the schools of law and medicine, and the theological program was broadened from training for the Unitarian ministry to one that served many denominations. Eliot opposed coeducation but agreed in the late 1870s to a Harvard Annex, a system of professors who offered instruction to selected women who were not allowed to earn degrees. In 1894 Harvard chartered Radcliffe College as a degree-granting institution. This model of the coordinate womens college offering an equivalent degree was widely adopted: Barnard College of Columbia University and Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University are two notable affiliate schools.

The Elective System. Eliots primary influence on education was his establishment of the elective system at Harvard, a reform followed throughout American higher education. Defining what liberal arts education should be became a problematic issue for educators in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century. Eliots curricular reforms were radical: in the year 1884-1885 the freshmen of Harvard College took seven out of sixteen classes as required courses, but for the remainder of their college career, with the exception of a few exercises in English composition, they took elective courses. Under Eliots leadership Harvard provided a groundbreaking curricular model for twentieth-century education by allowing students to choose from a widening range of subjects that became part of a greatly enlarged liberal arts study.

Other Influences. Eliots forty annual reports as Harvard president were landmark documents in the history of American higher education. The fifty-volume five-foot bookshelf of Harvard Classics and Junior Classics that he edited gave much of the American public an opportunity for self-education. As the chairman of the National Education Associations Committee of Ten, he wrote the committee report in 1892 that set the curricular pattern for the American high school. As a result of that report, the study of foreign languages and mathematics was introduced in the seventh grade, a curricular change that led to the subsequent development of the junior high school. Eliot was awarded the first gold medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1915 and the Roosevelt Medal for distinguished service in 1924.


Edward Howe Cotton, The Life of Charles W. Eliot (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1926).

Charles William Eliot

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Charles William Eliot

The American educator Charles William Eliot (1834-1926) was president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909 and transformed the college into a modern university.

Born in Boston on March 20, 1834, of a distinguished New England family, Charles W. Eliot graduated from Harvard in 1853. He taught mathematics and chemistry there (1854-1863). He toured Europe (1863-1865), studying chemistry and advanced methods of instruction, and returned to become a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1869, having attracted favorable attention by several articles on educational reform, he was chosen president of Harvard.

Eliot's 40-year tenure permitted him to press slowly but consistently for change. The effect of his innovations was revolutionary and thoroughly altered Harvard. He drew ideas from his European experience, and he later paid tribute to the stimulating effect of the innovations undertaken at Johns Hopkins University under Daniel Coit Gilman.

Eliot developed an organized 3-year program in the law school, using the case system of instruction based on studying actual court decisions rather than abstract principles. In the medical school he introduced laboratory work and written examinations in all subjects, and he gradually made available clinical instruction in Boston hospitals. In 1872 the university began to grant doctoral degrees, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was formally organized in 1890, taught by the same faculty that served the undergraduate college.

Eliot's best-known reform was the elective system. Undergraduates could choose from a wide variety of courses in each field rather than follow a prescribed curriculum. By offering many advanced courses to undergraduates, Eliot was able to employ in the college outstanding scholars who divided their time between undergraduate and graduate schools. Harvard became a leading center for graduate study and research and by the 1890s had earned an international reputation for academic excellence.

Always interested in secondary education, Eliot was active in the National Education Association (NEA), becoming president in 1903. He strongly influenced the 1892 report of the NEA "Committee of Ten" that led to the standardization of college preparation and admissions, and he helped found the College Entrance Examination Board in 1906. In 1910 he edited The Harvard Classics, a "five-foot shelf" of outstanding books through which those unable to attend college might acquire a liberal education. He retired in 1909 and died at Northeast Harbor, Maine, on Aug. 22, 1926.

Further Reading

Henry James, Charles W. Eliot: President of Harvard University, 1869-1909 (2 vols., 1930), is the best and most complete biography. Samuel Eliot Morison's two books, The Development of Harvard University since the Inauguration of President Eliot, 1869-1929 (1930) and Three Centuries of Harvard: 1636-1936 (1936), are invaluable on Eliot's work at Harvard. Eliot's view of his profession may be found in his Educational Reform: Essays and Addresses (1898) and University Administration (1908). Charles W. Eliot: The Man and His Beliefs, edited by William Allan Nielsen (2 vols., 1926), is a collection of Eliot's best essays and addresses on a variety of topics. □

Eliot, Charles William

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Eliot, Charles William (1834–1926) US educator, president of Harvard University (1869–1909). Under Eliot's administration, Harvard was transformed into a leading modern university through the introduction of new schools and courses. After his resignation, he became a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Eliot's works include The Conflict between Individualism and Collectivism in a Democracy (1910).

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Charles William Eliot