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Born in North Killingly, Connecticut, he attended Phillips Andover Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. He completed two years at Yale, then moved west and taught school in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1857 to 1880, where he was superintendent of schools from 1868 to 1880, and established, with Susan E. Blow, America's first permanent public kindergarten in 1873. It was in St. Louis where William Torrey Harris instituted many influential ideas to solidify both the structural institution of the public school system and the basic philosophical principles of education. His changes led to the expansion of the public school curriculum to make the high school an essential institution to the individual and to include art, music, scientific and manual studies, and was also largely responsible for encouraging all public schools to acquire a library.
Harris's St. Louis Schools were considered some of the best in the country. His fellow educators were local farmers that immigrated from Germany after they tried and failed to make Germany a republic.
He founded and edited the first philosophical periodical in America, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1867), editing it until 1893. He was a key member of a philosophical society that, during the beginning of the American Civil War, met in St. Louis; it promoted the view that the entire unfolding was part of a universal plan, a working out of an eternal historical dialectic, as theorized by Hegel.
Harris was associated with Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy from 1880 to 1889, when he became U.S. Commissioner of Education, serving until 1906. He did his best to organize all phases of education on the principles of philosophical pedagogy as espoused by Hegel, Kant, Fichte, Fröbel, Pestalozzi and many others of idealist philosophies. He received the degree of LL.D. from various American and foreign universities.
As the United States Commissioner of Education, Harris nearly succeeded in making Hegelianism the official philosophy of American education during the late 19th century.
Throughout time, his influence has been only momentarily recognized, disregarded and misunderstood by historians. Harris’ extreme emphasis on discipline has become the most glaring misrepresentation of his philosophy.
In 1906 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching conferred upon him "as the first man to whom such recognition for meritorious service is given, the highest retiring allowance which our rules will allow, an annual income of $3000."
"Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual."
And in that same book, The Philosophy of Education (1906), he writes:
"The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places ... It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world."
Critics cite these passages to portray Harris as a proponent of self-alienation in order to better serve the great industrial nation of America. In fact, argue supporters, it can be found that quite the opposite is true of Harris when you are able to go beyond the surface of his educational philosophy. According to Harris's supporters, as a devout Christian he was quite concerned with the development of morality and discipline within the individual. Harris believed those values could systematically be instilled into the pupils, promoting common goals and social cooperation, with a strong sense of respect for and responsibility towards one’s society.
Harris was a strong proponent of the American colonial projects in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. In an article entitled "An Educational Policy for Our New Possessions", Harris wrote:
“…[I]f the other people of the world to the number of some fourteen hundred millions are united under the five great powers of Europe, while we in turn have only one hundred millions, our national idea will be threatened abroad and have more dangers than ever at home.” “We must accept the charge of as many of these colonies as come to our hand. We must seek to give them civilization in the highest sense that we can conceive of it.” “The highest ideal of a civilization is that of a civilization that is engaged constantly in elevating lower classes of people into participation of all that is good and reasonable and perpetually increasing at the same time their self-activity. Such a civilization we have a right to enforce on this earth [emphasis added].”
He was also assistant editor of Johnson’s New Universal Cyclopaedia and editor of Appletons' International Education Series. He expanded the Bureau of Education and started graphic exhibits of the United States in international expositions.
Harris was one of the 30 founding members of the Simplified Spelling Board, founded in 1906 by Andrew Carnegie to make English easier to learn and understand through changes in the orthography of the English language.
In the book The Educational Philosophy of William T. Harris by Richard D. Mosier, it is stated that Harris forms the bridge between the mechanism, associationism, and utilitarianism of the 18th century and the pragmatism, experimentalism, and instrumentalism of the 20th century.
Besides voluminous reports on educational matters, many papers contributed to the Proceedings of the American Social Science Association, and various compilations edited by him, his publications include:
Nathaniel H. R. Dawson
|United States Commissioner of Education|
Elmer E. Brown