William Torrey Harris

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William Harris
The Americana; a universal reference library, comprising the arts and sciences, literature, history, biography, geography, commerce, etc., of the world (1908) (14765349965).jpg
United States Commissioner of Education
In office
September 12, 1889 – June 30, 1906
PresidentBenjamin Harrison
Grover Cleveland
William McKinley
Theodore Roosevelt
Preceded byNathaniel Dawson
Succeeded byElmer Brown
Personal details
Born(1835-09-10)September 10, 1835
North Killingly, Connecticut, U.S.
DiedNovember 5, 1909(1909-11-05) (aged 74)
Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.
Alma materYale University
SignatureSignature of William Torrey Harris

William Torrey Harris (September 10, 1835 – November 5, 1909) was an American educator, philosopher, and lexicographer.[1] He worked for nearly a quarter century in St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught school and served as Superintendent of Schools for twelve years. With Susan Blow, in 1873 he established the first permanent, public kindergarten in the country. He is also known for establishing high school as an integral part of public education.

Increasingly interested in Hegelian philosophy, he was cofounder of Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1867), the first philosophical journal in the US. He also worked with Amos Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy. In 1889 Harris was appointed as US Commissioner of Education, and served in that role, under four presidents, until 1906.


Born in 1835 in North Killingly, Connecticut, he attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He completed two years at Yale College, then moved West.

Beginning at age 22, Harris taught school and made his career in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1857 to 1880, a period when the city was growing rapidly. It served both as a gateway to the West and as an industrializing city on the Mississippi River.

He served as Superintendent of Schools from 1868 to 1880, and had a strong influence on the system. With Susan E. Blow in this city, in 1873 he established America's first permanent public kindergarten. While in St. Louis, William Torrey Harris implemented many influential ideas to strengthen both the institution of the public school system and the basic philosophical principles of education.

His changes resulted in the expansion of the public school curriculum to include high school. He believed it was essential to growth of an individual and to meet new challenges of the industrial age. The expanded programs included art, music, and scientific and manual studies. He also encouraged all public schools to acquire libraries.

Harris's St. Louis schools were considered some of the best in the country. His fellow educators included many local farmers and tradesemen who were immigrants from German provinces after the failed revolutions of 1848. They had a strong belief in education.

In St. Louis, Harris met mechanic and philosopher Henry Clay Brockmeyer, a German immigrant whose influence turned him toward Hegelianism. With Brockmeyer and other of the St. Louis Hegelians, Harris founded and edited the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1867); it was the first philosophical periodical in the United States. He edited it until 1893. Its contributors promoted Hegel's concept of time and events as part of a universal plan, a working out of an eternal historical dialectic.

Harris returned to New England, where he was associated with Amos Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy in Massachusetts from 1880 to 1889.

In 1889 Harris was appointed as U.S. Commissioner of Education, serving under presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, until 1906. Harris worked 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.

As US Commissioner of Education, Harris also strongly supported education and assimilation of Native Americans. He wrote the introduction to the Bureau of Education Bulletin (No. 1, 1889) on "Indian Education", issued under Thomas Jefferson Morgan, Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Harris called for mandatory education of American Indians through a partnership with Christianity in order to promote industry. Harris called for the removal of Native children from their families for up to 10 years of training for the "lower form of civilization", as a way of assimilating Indians into "American" civilization. He believed this was necessary to save the race, who he believed had to shift from their traditional cultures.

Harris wrote,

"We owe it to ourselves and to the enlightened public opinion of the world to save the Indian, and not destroy him. We can not save him and his patriarchal or tribal institution both together. To save him we must take him up into our form of civilization. We must approach him in the missionary spirit and we must supplement missionary action by the aid of the civil arm of the State. We must establish compulsory education for the good of the lower race."

Harris died on November 5, 1909 in Providence, Rhode Island.[1]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Harris was awarded the honorary degree of LL.D. from various American and foreign universities, as he had an international reputation.


Harris–Stowe State University in St. Louis is named for Harris, and author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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."[2]

Notable quotations[edit]

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].”


William Torrey Harris 1.jpg

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.

He was responsible for introducing reindeer into Alaska so that the native whalers and trappers would have another livelihood, before they brought other species to extinction.

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.[3]

As editor-in-chief of Webster's New International Dictionary (1909), he originated the divided page.[citation needed]

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.

William Torrey Harris took Bacon’s original ideas on the organization of information for libraries and modernized them to be applied in the United States by the second half of the 1800s. William Harris, who worked creating a library catalog for the Public Library School of St. Louis, wrote an essay on creating an organization system for libraries. It wasn’t the first one in America, but it was an scheme that gained international reputation rapidly. Harris used a deductive hierarchy and created a structure better adapted to the interrelation of knowledge, which facilitated its application in libraries’ catalogs. Harris proposed a practical system of rules for the classification going from the generic to the specific. Those rules included main divisions, ultimate divisions, appendixes, and hybrids. The problem with Bacon’s approach was the difficulty to limit all knowledge within a restricted classification. Conversely, Harry suggested that content is predominant in minor divisions and sections, while form is the “guiding principle[4]” in the main divisions.


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:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "William Torrey Harris Dead" (PDF). New York Times. November 6, 1909. Retrieved 2014-02-18. William Torrey Harris, former United States Commissioner of Education died here to-night. Mr. Harris' work in educational lines gained for him intentional ...
  2. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (Vol. 15 ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms. 1967. p. 2.
  3. ^ "CARNEGIE ASSAULTS THE SPELLING BOOK; To Pay the Cost of Reforming English Orthography. CAMPAIGN ABOUT TO BEGIN Board Named, with Headquarters Here -- Local Societies Throughout the Country.", The New York Times, March 12, 1906. Accessed August 28, 2008.
  4. ^ Harris, William (1870). "Book Classification". The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. 4 (2): 114–129. JSTOR 25665714.

Further reading[edit]

  • Curti, Merle. The Social Ideas of American Educators (1935) pp 310–47
  • McCluskey, Neil Gerard. Public Schools and Moral Education: The Influence of Horace Mann, William Torrey Harris, and John Dewey (Columbia University Press, 1958) online
  • Mosier, Richard D. "The educational philosophy of Wíllíam T. Harrís." Peabody journal of education (1951) 29#1 pp: 24-33.
  • The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 45, No. 5 (Feb. 26, 1948), pp. 121–133

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Nathaniel Dawson
United States Commissioner of Education
Succeeded by
Elmer Brown