Harris, William T. (1835–1909)

views updated Jun 11 2018

HARRIS, WILLIAM T. (18351909)

An important educational philosopher and statesman of the late nineteenth century, William Torrey Harris served as the chief administrator of the St. Louis Public Schools from 1868 to 1880 and as the United States Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906.

Beginning his career in 1857 as an elementary school teacher in the St. Louis public school system, Harris progressed through the ranks, becoming superintendent in 1868. During this same period, his life as a philosopher flourished. He founded the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in 1867, and became an important part of a small group of scholars and educators who studied the German philosopher Georg William Friedrich Hegel, a community that would become known as the St. Louis Philosophical movement.

Like Horace Mann, Harris was an advocate of the free common public school. He was an egalitarian who helped to extend the reach of the school, and provided a national model in St. Louis for the kindergarten in the school system. He believed in the separation of church and state in public schooling and reinvented the nature of school discipline by criticizing corporal punishment and favoring self-discipline that was based on internalized moral values. He made the library a normal feature of the school's infrastructure, expanded foreign language education in the curriculum, defended the importance of coeducation, was open minded about new pedagogical ideas (including Pestalozzi's object teaching), and emphasized the importance of perpetual self-education. He worked to universalize public education across class, gender, and racial lines, seeing the school as fundamentally a child-saving agency, and served under four different U.S. presidents during his seventeen-year tenure as United States Commissioner of Education. Many of his views on schooling can be discerned from the twelve annual reports he wrote for the St. Louis pubic schools during his time in the superintendent's office and from the various reports he authored as U.S. Commissioner of Education.

His philosophical life overlapped with his actions as a school leader. A dutiful follower of Hegel, Harris's philosophy of education elevated the importance of freedom and reasonand self-direction as it was guided by the institutions of civilization. Schooling was one of the processes that allowed youth to rise above their inborn savagery and to participate in a civilizing life. The school was supposed to bring students face-to-face with the accumulated wisdom of humanity and to teach them to find their place in the spiritual nature of all existence. The core philosophical tenets in Harris's life not only played a significant role in his handling of school matters, but also kept him quite busy with philosophical disquisitions, writing essays such as "Goethe's Theory of Colors," "The Phenomenology of Spirit," and "Aristotle's Teleology." These were certainly not typical writings for a professional school administrator. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, which Harris founded and edited, produced a very real contribution to philosophical discourse, highlighting the work of various important thinkers over its twenty-one year run, including John Dewey, William James, Charles Pierce, Josiah Royce, G. Stanley Hall, and George S. Morris. It also featured much of Harris's most gritty philosophical essays, an output of more than 35 articles over the life of the journal. In 1879, Harris became a faculty member at A. Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, where he taught primarily on the topic of Hegel. He stayed there until 1888, when the school closed because Alcott died.

Harris sided squarely with a subject-centered view of learning, believing that the wisdom of humanity resided in modern academic subjects and that, for democracy to flourish, public schools had to bring this civilizing insight to the experience of all American youth. This was a prejudice reflected in Harris's influence over the Committee of Ten and the Committee of Fifteen reports, which both helped to crystallize the subject curriculum in the school. Harris, in fact, established the foundational principle of bringing the common academic curriculum to the common school, not for preparation for college but for life in a self-governing democracy.

To Harris, the nature of course study in the public school was largely reducible to what he saw as the five great divisions in the life of civilization, which he labeled "the five windows of the soul." Two of the windows (or areas of inquiry), mathematics and geography, were committed to humanity's conquest and comprehension of nature. The other three, literature, grammar, and history, were more connected to human life: literature speaking to literary works of art; grammar, to the study and the use of language; and history, to a multifaceted understanding of the nation's institutions. Harris reflected these ideas in his various circles of influence. He was, for instance, the main author of the Committee of Fifteen 1895 report, which was designed to offer a course study blueprint for the American elementary school. Harris maneuvered against the American Herbartians, who sought to unify the course work in the elementary school around German philosopher Johann Herbart's idea of curriculum concentrations, where one subject, usually literature, is made the central core of the learning experience, and other subjects are organized around on the basis of their interrelations to the core's main features. Harris did not accept this idea of concentration, believing that the five windows of the soul would be weakened when made subordinate to one core area. Instead, he called for a kind of coordination, where each subject is given a definite place and equal attention. The Committee of Fifteen report bears the unmistakable stamp of Harris's five windows of the soul and is an early example of the kind of subject-centeredness that would mark Harris's ideas on the curriculum.

Harris's dedication to the common cultural canon eventually earned him the tag of conservative among some historians, a label that some modern-day scholars have found to be unnuanced and not nearly appreciative enough of the many progressive ideas that Harris also supported. Yet, Harris was undoubtedly among the most effective critics of educational progressivism in his day. He was especially critical of ideas that failed to capture what he believed to be the intellectual and civilizing qualities of the subject curriculum. Harris held in low regard the Progressive ideas embodied in the American child study movement, American Herbartianism, and the expansion of the curriculum into manual or vocational arts instruction. For him they were essentially anti-intellectual endeavors largely wasted on youth. In this sense, Harris became the subject-centered foil to the prevailing child-centered views favored by Progressives at the turn of the nineteenth century.

See also: Academic Disciplines; Common School Movement; Mann, Horace; Philosophy of Education.


Harris, William T., ed. 18671888. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. St Louis, MO: Knapp.

Harris, William T. 18681880. Annual Reports. St. Louis, MO: St. Louis Board of Education.

Harris, William T. 1889. Introduction to the Study of Philosophy. New York: Appleton.

Harris, William T., et al. 1895. Report of the Committee of Fifteen. Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Harris, William T. 1970. Hegel's Logic: A Book on the Genesis of the Categories of the Mind (1890). New York: Kraus.

Resse, William J. 2000. "The Philosopher-King of St. Louis." In Curriculum and Consequence: Herbert Kliebard and the Promise of Schooling, ed. Barry M. Franklin. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Schaub, Edward Leroy, ed. 1936. William Torrey Harris 18351936: A Collection of Essays, Including Papers and Addresses Presented in Commemoration of Dr. Harris' Centennial at the St. Louis Meeting of the Western Division of the America Philosophical Society. Chicago: Open Court.

Peter Hlebowitsh

Harris, William T. (1835-1909)

views updated May 17 2018

William T. Harris (1835-1909)


Educational philosopher, administrator

Early Years. Without slighting the accomplishments of educational giants such as Henry Barnard or Horace Mann, historian Lawrence Cremin has described William Torrey Harris as the commanding figure of his pedagogical era. Born in Killingly, Connecticut, on 10 September 1835, Harris came of age after the foundations for public education had already been laid by Mann, Barnard, and others, and his public life straddled two critical periods: the formative years around midcentury, when the public school system was beginning to take definite shape in urban areas throughout the country, and the period following the Civil War, when the strains of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration threatened to bring the system tumbling down. His own philosophy thus embodied both the optimistic faith of the reformers who had preceded him and the growing conservatism of those alarmed by new potential for social instability and unrest. He was born into a well-to-do farming family and attended the district school for several years before finishing his elementary education in Providence, Rhode Island. Following this, he was enrolled in one academy after another before attending Yale College in 1854. His restlessness and dissatisfaction with the curriculum at Yale led him to leave after only two and one-half years, and shortly thereafter he began his career as an educator in Saint Louis.

Saint Louis Public Schools. Harris began teaching in the Saint Louis public school system in 1857 and was married a year later to Sarah T. Bugbee. By all accounts, he did well in his capacity as teacher and won the respect of his colleagues. Within several years he was made principal of the Clay School, became assistant superintendent of the citys public schools in 1866, and two years later was elevated to the office of superintendent. Under his energetic direction, the Saint Louis public-school system became an object of national acclaim, and his name became a household word among reformers. With its large German and working-class population, the city provided a vast laboratory for broad implementation of Harriss educational philosophy, and his thirteen Annual Reports were regarded by contemporaries as a mine of practical guidance and information. Unlike many reformers Harris viewed the Pestalozzian fad with some skepticism. It is false psychology which says we derive all our knowledge from sense-perception, he complained, positing instead a uniform curriculum, built around his concept of the five windows of the soul. It was through the study of grammar, art and literature, mathematics, geography, and history that students would find the key to the common storehouse of culture, Harris maintained, a body of knowledge that would serve them in any endeavor. His opposition to sense-learning did not prevent Harris from adopting other reforms, however, when they fit with his overall philosophy. It was under his direction, after all, that Saint Louis became the first public school system in the country to operate kindergartens.

The Hegelian Influence. Harriss management of the Saint Louis public schools and his later career as United States Commissioner of Education were intimately bound up with his philosophical ideas. Shortly after his arrival in Saint Louis, Harris made the acquaintance of Henry C. Brokmeyer and a small circle of German émigrés influenced by the ideas of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a relationship that would deeply influence Harriss outlook for the rest of his life. Harris became the most prominent exponent of Hegels idealist philosophy in the United States, and the influence of the so-called Saint Louis Movement would in turn reflect his educational ideas. According to Hegel the elevation of the state as an arbiter of the shortcomings of individuals justified the existing order and authorities by declaring that whatever is, is an inevitable stage in the unfolding of objective reason or the world spirit, and is therefore right.

Conservatism. Harriss version of Hegelian theory was a philosophy ready-made for preserving the status quo against the chaos and confusion of the mid nineteenth century; social unrest, in the view of Harris, was not symptomatic of social injustice, or of defects in the social order, but of a people who had not been sufficiently reconciled to obedience and self-discipline. All the evils which we suffer politically, he told a convention of the National Education Association in 1874, may be traced to the existence of an immense mass of ignorant, illiterate, or semi-educated people who assist in governing the country while they possess no insight into the true nature of the issues which they attempt to decide. Where his contemporaries had struggled to reconcile their reformist optimism with the need for social stability, Harriss conservative course was implicit in his outlook. He emphasized the school as a means for instilling punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence, traits which would preserve and save our civil order. He also viewed the kindergarten as the means by which a divine sense of shame could develop among children who might otherwise be lost to all manner of corruption and immorality.

Commissioner of Education. In keeping with his philosophical interests, Harris had founded the Journal ofSpeculative Philosophy in 1867, and when in 1880 he resigned his position in Saint Louis, he moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where he devoted himself full-time to aiding the establishment of the Concord School of Philosophy. After nine years with little success in this endeavor, Harris accepted an appointment as U.S. Commissioner of Education, a position he held from 12 September 1889 until 30 June 1906. During this period he wrote hundreds of articles in magazines and journals and exerted an influence upon American schooling that was unmatched among his contemporaries. He continued to attempt to develop a philosophical basis for educational practice and to advocate a leading role for industrialists and corporations in formulating educational policy. Harris voluntarily resigned his position in 1906 and died in Providence three years later.


Neil Gerard McCluskey, Public Schools and Moral Education: The Influence of Horace Mann, William Torrey Harris, and John Dewey (Greenwood, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975);

John Stacey Roberts, William T. Harris: A Critical Study of His Educational and Religious Philosophical Views (Washington, D.C.: National Educational Association, 1924);

Selwyn Troen, The Public and the Schools: Shaping the St. Louis System, 18381920 (Saint Louis: University of Missouri Press, 1975).

Harris, William Torrey (1835-1909)

views updated May 23 2018

William Torrey Harris (1835-1909)

U.s. commissioner of education


Advocate of Universal Education. The educator William Torrey Harris was graduated from Yale in 1855 and began teaching in Saint Louis in 1857. As a teacher, principal, superintendent, and eventually U.S. commissioner of education, Harris recognized that all children must be educated. Education must relate first to citizenship, he wrote in 1898. He claimed that especially in the industrial age, citizens had to maintain mobility, for with the great inventions of our age, we find ourselves all living in a borderland. Education, he argued, was the only way to give people the power to climb up to better paid and more useful industries out of lives of drudgery. Despite his advocacy of lifelong education, he counted the school as only one of several important educational institutions, the others being the church and family.

Economy in Education. Harris was the reformer of the schools in Saint Louis, establishing the first free public kindergarten under the direction of Susan Blow, as well as advocating serious public health initiatives such as school-based vaccinations and a board of health closely allied with the board of education. However, he was keenly aware of economy in government. He advocated forty to sixty children in a classroom and employed women exclusively as educators in the elementary grades. He acknowledged that women not only used milder forms of discipline but also worked for lower wages.

Harriss Influence. Harriss success in establishing excellent schools in Saint Louis, from the innovative public kindergarten through a much visited high school, served as a model for other educators. During his tenure as the U.S. commissioner of education (1889-1906) he participated in the National Education Associations Committee of Tens Committee of Ten, a group appointed to determine the ideal national secondary school curriculum. Although Harris strongly believed that schools should teach material that is applicable to a students life, he resisted demands for trade and vocational education, espousing instead studies of classics and a rigorous academic preparation for college. He also raised standards of teacher preparation and oversaw the standardization of the academic calendar for most public schools at seven months in 1889.


I. L. Kandel, ed., Twenty-Five Years of American Education (Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), p. 64.

William Torrey Harris

views updated May 14 2018

William Torrey Harris

William Torrey Harris (1835-1909) was a dominant influence in American education through his writings and by his own example as a school administrator.

William T. Harris was born in North Killingly, Conn., on Sept. 10, 1835, into a Congregationalist farming family. He entered Yale College in 1854 and completed 2 years before traveling west. In St. Louis, Mo., he tried editing, tutoring, selling, and teaching shorthand. His permanent career in education started in 1858, when he was appointed to teach in a St. Louis grammar school. He married a childhood friend, Sarah Tully Bugbee, on Dec. 27, 1858.

In 1859 Harris became principal of one of St. Louis's expanding public schools. In 1867 he was appointed assistant superintendent of the entire school system, and the following year he became superintendent.

Harris's ascendancy in education was paralleled by his study of philosophy, particularly of G. W. F. Hegel and German idealism. His superintendency drew notice for its philosophical base and its well-organized management. His Annual Reports stressed the idea of education as a means of achieving the social and moral progress of civilization. He promoted new ideas, notably the kindergarten, making the St. Louis public school system the first in the nation to experiment with this European concept. He traveled, lectured, and published extensively.

Harris's service to St. Louis lasted until 1880, when he resigned to travel and analyze European education. On the advice of other American educators, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Harris commissioner of education in 1889. He held this influential office until 1906, gathering and disseminating national and international information concerning educational developments.

During the 1890s Harris served on significant investigatory committees of the National Education Association. In 1895, on a committee seeking to remodel elementary education, he articulated his theory of coordinated subjects as "windows of the soul" through which children might gain an understanding of people and nature.

Harris published more than 475 educational and philosophical works. He died on Nov. 5, 1909, in Providence, R.I.

Further Reading

The best account of Harris's life is Kurt F. Leidecker, Yankee Teacher: The Life of William Torrey Harris (1946). A comprehensive study of Harris's educational and philosophical viewpoints is John S. Roberts, William T. Harris (1924). A good short summary of his life and work appears in Merle Curti, The Social Ideas of American Educators (1935; new ed. 1963). □

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