|William Torrey Harris and the Hegelian Philosophy of Education|
|Susan Blow and The Kindergarten Movement|
|Moving Beyond Hegel: John Dewey|
The name of William Torrey Harris, though unfamiliar to most historians, holds a special place in the annals of the history of education. J.J. Chambliss, in The Origins of American Philosophy of Education, states that Harris was the "central figure in rationalism's influence on American philosophy of education" (Chambliss 48). Neil G. McCluskey, in Public Schools and Moral Education, claims that the "consensus among historians of education and students of social thought clearly indicates that Horace Mann, William Torrey Harris, and John Dewey can be considered the triumvirate whose thought has most affected the creation and development of the present philosophy of the American public school" (McCluskey 6). Whether or not such a consensus is clear, it is true that the industrious Harris, with his extreme devotion to Hegelian principles, made the American educational system his life work.
William Torrey Harris set out to make education the nation's highest priority after the Civil War. In so doing, he proved to be a prolific, masterful writer. Harris's wide influence in the field of educational philosophy was at least partly due to the massive number of articles, essays, speeches, and other writings which Harris used to "establish associations" and get "in touch with the thinking men of the world over" (Schaub 3). Harris was the founder and editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, he co-edited the Appleton series of school readers and edited fifty-seven volumes of Appleton's International Education Series, and he served as editor of Webster's Dictionary of the English Language. Besides these major contributions, Harris wrote articles and essays that were published in nearly all the leading journals and reviews of the period. In fact, when Harris's daughter contributed his works to the Library of Congress in 1953, the shelf space required for the collection was an unheard-of 19.8 feet! (McCluskey 119). Thus, Harris was widely influential in the community of professional educators and philosophers of education, even though his works rarely reached those outside of the profession, due to their highly specific content.
The material evidence of Harris's influence on American education is perhaps less substantial than his influence on the philosophy of education. However, as Superintendent of Schools in St. Louis and, later, as U.S. Commissioner of Education, Harris proved himself a marvelous systematizer, speaker, and leader. Under his direction, the St. Louis public school system became the most highly-revered and well-organized educational system in the nation. Once appointed Commissioner of Education, Harris used his rationalist philosophy to convince teachers and non-teachers alike that education was the single most important factor in building a strong republic. Harris was also responsible for the graded school system we are familiar with today, as well as the expansion of the public school curriculum to make the high school a commonly-accepted institution. Besides these important achievements, Harris was also largely responsible for encouraging all public schools to aquire a library (McCluskey 101).
The roots of Harris's work in the American educational system were firmly planted in Hegelian principles. To the American Hegelians, education was an effective tool for developing the individual mind to promote "self-activity," or to cultivate the mind to a point at which every individual became entirely aware of his position as a subject in the complex interactions of reality. As Harris put it: "...education is the process through which the individual is led to attain his freedom" (Harris, Twentieth Annual Report 41). Although the ultimate goal of Hegelian education is freedom of the individual, "freedom" in the Hegelian context denotes a dependence on the influence of institutions. Institutions, as the embodiment of man's rational behavior and thought, are the ultimate tool of freedom. No individual is free on his own; only by positing his incomplete conception of "self" against his observation of "others" is an individual able to gain a true conception of himself. Institutions such as the state, church, family, and civil society are the essential means by which an individual gains knowledge of "others." "Out of the savage state man ascends by making himself new natures, one above the other," and thus, says Harris, "he realizes his ideas in institutions, and finds in these ideal worlds his real home and his true nature" ("The Church, the State, and the School," 227). Education, as an instrument of each of these institutions, is the tool by which individuals' minds are trained to understand their place within these institutions. "Education practices the youth in the habits and activities which are necessary to social life, and secures his cooperation in realizing the ideals set up by the conscience and reason of the people....It must make the individual obedient to the requirements of the social institutions under which he lives" (Harris, "The History and Philosophy of Education" 28). Thus, the ultimate goal of a Hegelian education is to produce an individual whose only true freedom comes to him from his involvement in larger institutions of humanity.
Harris encouraged the teaching of more than just academic exercises in the public schools to achieve this goal of freedom within the set rules of society. Harris considered morality, polite behavior, and "the proper use of social opportunities" to be necessary aspects of a public-school education. However, Harris drew a sharp line between the education of the school and the education of the Church. "It is an error to demand of the school all kinds of education: education for trades and business, education in religion, education in politics and statesmanship, education in habits which the nurture of the family should supply" ("The Education of the Family, and the Education of the School," 1). Harris saw the education of the schools as a fundamentally different form of education than that of the Church; although morality was a key factor in both institutions, the schools were intended to increase mental powers through the proper use of "books and the written language" while the Church was intended to produce an intimate relationship with the Divine through the use of "dogma and ceremony" (McCluskey 123-124). This distinction between the duties of the family, civil society, State, and Church is a thoroughly Hegelian principle, and in his writings on education, Harris turned again and again to the German philosopher's thought.
The aspect of Hegel's thought that Harris and his colleagues in the St. Louis Philosophical Society depended upon most for all of their philosophical meanderings was the dialectic. "I not only thought Hegel, but lived Hegel, was Hegel," says Denton J. Snider, the society's historian. "All that I had ever known or done I Hegelized with a sort of desperation" (Snider, The St. Louis Movement 69). In his introduction to a translation of Hegel's "Logic," Harris stated, "Even the hunting of wild turkeys or squirrels was the occasion for the use of philosophy to solve all problems connected with school- teaching and school management" (xiii). Time and again Hegel's dialectic was the foundation of Harris's educational philosophy. For instance, Harris's explanation of the need for high schools and graded courses relied on the following Hegelian triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis:
Elementary schools, as the thesis of the educational triad, provide students with the foundations of education, but do not require a great deal of speculation, which is necessary for true "self-activity." High schools, as the antithesis of elementary education, provide an opportunity to reflect upon and "cultivate" the bare facts gained in the early stages of education in order to comprehend the complex relations among and within institutions of nature and man. However, the mind is not yet fully developed by secondary education to comprehend both the facts in and of themselves as well as understand facts in their relation to each other. Tertiary schools, however, transcend both elementary and secondary schools by concentrating both on facts in and of themselves and the concepts that link all of these separate facts together; thus, colleges and universities are the synthesis of the Hegelian educational triad (Chambliss 57).
The American Hegelians also relied upon Hegel's dialectic to defend an educational system that they believed should be subject to continual change. This concept was especially important during the late 19th century, as industrialization and urbanization made the challenges of public education more difficult, yet more important to the survival of the republic, than ever before. Anna C. Brackett, another member of the St. Louis circle, states this concept nicely: "...in modern city life, the great complication of events, the uncertainty in the results--though careful forethought has been used--the immense development of individuality, and the pressing need of various information, break the power of custom, and render a different method necessary....The systems of Education once sufficient do not serve the needs of modern life, any more than the defenses once sufficient against hostile armies are sufficient against the new weapons adopted by modern warfare" (Brackett 14). To the Hegelians, all pedagogical theories were involved in the dialectical struggle; new ideas would arive on the educational scene from time to time to bump the old theories out of the spotlight for a time, but these new ideas were due at any time to be knocked off by another challenger more suited to the spirit of the times ("Zeitgeist"). In a world of continual dialectical struggle, pedagogical theses and antitheses would rise and fall along the march towards the ultimate synthesis.
As for specific pedagogical theories advanced by Harris and the other Hegelians as befitting the Zeitgeist of post-Civil War America, a great deal of attention was paid to the humanities and the arts. Literature, history, art, and music were all seen as important aspects of any child's education. Literature, in the thought of the Hegelians, performed two valuable functions: it recorded the Zeitgeist of a culture in concise, beautiful terms, while it also reinforced a student's understanding of the written language. History, of course, played a major role in the thought of the Hegelians (see my "Hegel's Philosophy of History" webpage). More than any other academic exercise, the study of history became a means of understanding the beauty and necessity of human and divine institutions; as the study of "the unfolding of the mind of God," history forced students to comprehend the complex relations between individuals and institutions. Harris added a slight twist to the Hegelian concept of history by asserting that reading literature was often the best method of studying history: "Shakespeare's historical plays give us an account of the development and growth of the English nation....No history yet written shows us the essentials like these historical plays of Shakespeare....A novel may give us a true picture of an historic epoch, while the historian's account may be far from adequate" (Harris, preface to Letters to a Mother xiv). The American Hegelians also reserved a special place in their philosophy of education for art and music. Like the ancient Greeks, the Hegelians considered art and music to be divine in nature. However, the Hegelians did not interpret music or art as a gift from the gods; rather, art and music were the bridge that humans built between themselves and the divine. Thus, the Hegelians viewed the study of art and music in schools as a means of achieving a more perfect union with the divine, and consequently, a means to ultimate knowledge.
William Torrey Harris, as a leader of the St. Louis public school system and later as U.S. Commissioner of Education, put his Hegelian philosophy to practical use in the field of American education. Along with obvious accomplishments such as the introduction of the high school, the common acceptance of the school library, and increased systematization of national and municipal educational organizations, Harris was largely responsible for introducing to Americans a very plausible and influential philosophy of education based on Hegelian principles. Hegelian ideas such as the freedom of man as gained through his acceptance of institutions and the ubiquitous dialectic clash of theses and antitheses formed the basis for Harris's pedagogics. Though Harris supported the teaching of morality in his schools, and indeed claimed that schools were "founded in Christianity," he was a perennial supporter of the separation of Church and school. His emphasis on dialectic led him to support the graded system of schools as well as the creation of public high schools in an era "when such institutions were still not universally accepted" (McCluskey 101). The Hegelians also used the dialectic to justify their belief that pedagogics was a constantly evolving science. This adaptability to changing circumstances was extremely valuable during the period of drastic social upheaval between the Civil War and the twentieth century. Finally, Harris and other American Hegelians involved in education relied on Hegel's aesthetics to justify an increased study of art and music, while Hegel's philosophy of history justified an increased study of history and literature. Thus, we see that many of the ideas of the American Hegelians as promoted by William Torrey Harris have remained an essential and even commonplace aspect of modern American public education. Harris, however, was not the only Hegelian who influenced American education.
Though William Torrey Harris was the most widely influential Hegelian in American education, Susan Blow was perhaps the most influential in a specific field. Blow, a well- read member of the St. Louis circle, was heavily influenced by Hegel's philosophy. As an advocate of the public kindergarten in American, Blow combined Hegelian dialectic and metaphysics with the educational philosophies of Froebel and other prominent German educational philosophers of the era. Blow was the premier intellectual advocate of the kindergarten movement in late 18th-century America, using her incredible writing skills to convey the complexities of Froebelian and Hegelian philosophy to educators and politicians eager to know the philosophical basis for kindergarten education.
Friedrich Froebel was responsible for founding the first kindergarten in Germany in the mid 19th century. The basic tenets of Froebel's thought include a belief that children gain knowledge most readily through exposure to symbols and a belief that a nurturing environment in the child's youth is the premier predictor of the child's success in life. As such, games that emphasize trust, happiness, and symbolic representations of complex subjects are the basis of the kindergarten's daily activities.
Among the early advocates of the kindergarten in the United States was Mrs. Carl Schurz of Watertown, Wisconsin, who had studied in Hamburg under Froebel himself. Mrs. Schurz was largely responsible for introducing the concept to the United States, but it was Elizabeth Peabody who started the first kindergarten in Boston in 1860. Peabody went on to become one of the most vocal and untiring advocates of the kindergarten as an indispensable part of American education (Boone 332-337). The idea of kindergartens caught on relatively quickly in the east and upper midwest, where German intellectual refugees from the repercussions of the revolutions of 1848 abounded and were sympathetic to the cause. However, it was up to a highly educated Hegelian to bring the concept to the American West. Susan Blow, the intellectual crusader of the kindergarten movement, used her connections in St. Louis to rally support for the cause.
Susan Blow, besides providing the "brains" behind the movement, was also the founder of the first public school kindergarten in St. Louis in 1873. Until Blow became involved in the movement, most kindergartens were either private or parochial institutions (Boone 335). Blow, as a friend, colleague, and admirer of William Torrey Harris, attempted to integrate the public kindergartens with Superintendent Harris's public school system. In fact, Harris, Blow's long-time mentor, edited one of her most influential works, Letters to a Mother on the Philosophy of Froebel. In the volume, both Harris and Blow rely heavily on Hegel's dialectic and concept of the mind to explain Froebel's thought and justify the need for kindergartens in American education.
By the mid-1870s, St. Louis led the nation in number of students attending kindergartens (Boone 336). Milwaukee and Boston were other important seed-beds for the sprouts of the kindergarten movement, but St. Louis provided the role model for the nation like no other city. Kindergarten teachers from all over the country came to Blow's normal school to learn the latest techniques and report on their progress in establishing kindergartens in less accommodating school districts than that of William Torrey Harris. (Boone 335).
Kindergartens became a commonplace institution by the 1920s, but not without the help of early leaders like Susan Blow. Though her skills as an organizer and teacher were certainly commendable, her talent as a philosopher was essential for providing a philosophical justification for the kindergarten in America. Throughout works like Letters to a Mother on the Philosophy of Froebel, Blow proved time and again that she had not only mastered Hegel's dialectic, but that she was able to apply her knowledge to real and important situations.
American education would eventually undergo an even more drastic change when a young man who had formerly identified himself as a Hegelian took over the reins as the leading philosopher of education. John Dewey's philosophical outlook may have been constantly evolving (some would say revolving), but his dedication to the improvement of education never wavered. Like his Hegelian predecessors, Dewey believed that education was critical for forming virtuous individuals and laying the foundations of a strong republic. However, unlike his Hegelian mentors, Dewey questioned the importance of institutions and traditions in the education of the young. Rather than emphasize the need for "fitting in," Dewey believed that children should be allowed to bring their own experiences and desires to their school. In essence, Dewey believed that education should be not only for the students, but by the students as well.
Many aspects of Dewey's educational thought do not reflect his Hegelian background, but Dewey had no desire to tear down the achievements of Hegelians like Harris and Blow. Instead, Dewey wished to build upon their achievements. Dewey was not satisfied with a good education; he wanted every graduate to play his or her part to make the world a better place to live. Harris had wanted every student to come to a complete understanding of "self;" Dewey wanted every student to come to a complete understanding of society and a concomitant desire to fix the problems of that society.
Thus, Hegel's philosophy played an influential role in the formation of the modern American public education system. While William Torrey Harris and Susan Blow promoted the more conservative aspects of Hegelian philosophy, later philosophers of education would demand more and more of education, pushing American educators to continually adapt their techniques to changing societal demands. Although public education has come a long way since the days of the St. Louis Philosophical Club, we see that the fundamental ideas of the Hegelians have often remained intact. Separation of Church and school is perhaps more hotly debated now than in Harris's day, but the basic concept put forth by Harris remains the most commonly-accepted position on the matter. The "cultural literacy" of E.D. Hirsch seems to hearken back to the Hegelian emphasis on art, literature, history, and music. Hirsch provides a biased list of terms students should know in order to communicate effectively with their community; the Hegelians provide a biased list of "important" literary, historical, and aesthetic events that supposedly signify the existence of rationality in the universe, and hence, allow students to unite the community of mankind in spirit. Of course, kindergartens, grades, and high schools have all become quite commonplace institutions of the American educational system, as have school libraries. The Hegelians emphasized the need for evolving pedagogics in urban settings, as they realized the extreme amount of change that cities were undergoing in the late 19th century. Interest in revolutionizing urban education has picked up in recent years also, as cities experience unprecedented and extreme demographic shifts. Finally, the tradition begun by the Hegelians of using philosophy rather than trial and error to establish educational policy has remained strong throughout the twentieth century. Unlike many of the other aspects of Hegel's philosophy, his emphasis on education has remained a strong and influential aspect of modern American society.
Boone, Richard G. ed. by William T. Harris. Education in the United States. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1903.
Brackett, Anna C. "The Science of Education," Journal of Speculative Philosophy, December 1878.
Chambliss, J.J. The Origins of American Philosophy of Education. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1960.
Harris, William Torrey. "The Education of the Family, and the Education of the School," Journal of the American Social Science Association. XV, February 1882.
Harris, William Torrey. "The Church, the State, and the School," North American Review. CXXXIII, September 1881.
Harris, William Torrey. Twentieth Annual Report to the Board of Directors of the Saint Louis Public Schools for the Year Ending August 1, 1894
Harris, "The History and Philosophy of Education," The Chautauquan III, October 1882.
McCluskey, Neil Gerard. Public Schools and Moral Education. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958.
Schaub, ed., William Torrey Harris, 1835-1935. Unknown publisher, date.
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