CHRISTOPHER R. BEHA

EVERY READER FINDS HIMSELF

NOTES ON THE BOOK I DIDN’T WRITE ABOUT DR. ELIOT’S FIVE-FOOT SHELF

DISCUSSED: Academic Snubs, Total Wastes of Time, Illiterate Med-School Students, The Birth of the American Research University, Julia Child, “Stunt Books,” Metaphorically Employed Unicycle Acronyms, Junior-Varsity Reading Loads, Autodidactic Everymen, Culture Warriors, The Problem of Death, Proust

1.

A hundred years ago this month, a man named Charles Eliot retired after forty years as president of Harvard, ending probably the most significant career in the history of American higher education. In some ways, Eliot’s success was unlikely, though his story certainly began with promise enough. He was born into two of New England’s old families—the Lymans on his mother’s side, the Eliots on his father’s—and he graduated second in his Harvard class, in 1853. He was immediately hired as a tutor there, making him one of only thirteen faculty members at the college. Within a few years, he was elevated to an assistant professorship in chemistry and math.

So far, so good. But when his term came up, Eliot was passed over for a full professorship in favor of Wolcott Gibbs, a scientist with no previous connection to the college. This snub may have been justified: for all his later success as an administrator, Eliot never distinguished himself as a scholar, while Gibbs proved to be one of the great chemists of the age. But Gibbs’s chief advantage at the time was that he wasn’t Harvard educated: while Eliot had received lots of drilling in Latin and Greek, Gibbs had studied chemistry in France and Germany, where he worked in the laboratory and gained practical research experience.

Eliot was invited to stay on at the college in a lesser capacity, but he opted instead to leave for Europe, where he spent the next two years studying the education systems that had given Gibbs such an advantage over him. In Germany and France he saw the research institutions whose specialization allowed for more sophisticated instruction than could be found anywhere in the States. The trip confirmed Eliot’s belief that most of what passed for undergraduate education in America was a total waste of time. Upon his return he published his ideas about education reform in a series of well-regarded essays. These essays so impressed Harvard’s board that they offered Eliot the college’s presidency, just a few years after denying him a professorship. He was thirty-five. He would be seventy-five before he retired.

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Christopher R. Beha is an editor at Harper’s. His memoir, The Whole Five Feet, is out this month from Grove Press.

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