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William T. Harris (1835–1909)

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 reason–and 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.


HARRIS, WILLIAM T., ed. 1867–1888. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. St Louis, MO: Knapp.

HARRIS, WILLIAM T. 1868–1880. 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 1835–1936: 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.


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