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Charles William Eliot

Eliot, Charles William, 1834–1926, American educator and president of Harvard, b. Boston, grad. Harvard, 1853. In 1854 he was appointed tutor in mathematics at Harvard and in 1858 became assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry. In 1863, Eliot went abroad for two years' study, returning to become professor of chemistry at the new Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two articles on "The New Education: Its Organization," published in the Atlantic Monthly, were in part responsible for Eliot's election in 1869 to the presidency of Harvard. The corporation's choice of a layman and a scientist, coupled with the fact of Eliot's youth, aroused some opposition.

Under Eliot's 40-year administration, Harvard developed from a small college with attached professional schools into a great modern university. Several notable reforms were introduced in the college: the elective system was extended, the curriculum was enriched through the addition of new courses, written examinations were required, the faculty was enlarged, and strict student discipline was relaxed in favor of flexible regulations. Increased entrance requirements prevailed both in the college and in the professional schools, which Eliot reformed and revitalized. The courses of study were radically revised, and the standards for professional degrees were raised with the able cooperation of such men as Christopher C. Langdell, dean of the law school. New schools were established, including the Bussey Institution (agriculture), schools of applied science, the graduate school of arts and sciences, and the school of business administration. Eliot also supported Elizabeth Cary Agassiz in her project to establish a women's college and then fostered the development of Radcliffe College, which was affiliated with Harvard. He was greatly interested in secondary education, and as chairman of the Committee of Ten, appointed in 1892 by the National Education Association, he was influential in securing a greater degree of uniformity in high school curriculums and college entrance requirements.

After Eliot's resignation in 1909 he turned to public affairs. He had been a strong advocate of civil service reform for many years and was a member of the General Education Board and a trustee of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Among his published works are The Durable Satisfactions of Life (1910, repr. 1969), which presents his religious and ethical views, and The Conflict between Individualism and Collectivism in a Democracy (1910, repr. 1967). His most important papers written before 1914 are reprinted in two volumes, edited by W. A. Neilson, under the title Charles W. Eliot, the Man and His Beliefs (1926), and those since 1914 in A Late Harvest (1924), edited by M. A. De Wolfe Howe. In 1901 he wrote a biography of his son Charles Eliot, 1859–97, a landscape architect, who established a reputation through his work in planning the park system of Greater Boston.

See biography by H. James (1930); S. E. Morison, The Development of Harvard University, 1869–1929 (1930); H. Hawkins, Between Harvard and America: The Educational Leadership of Charles W. Eliot (1972).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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