William Torrey Harris Essay

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William Torrey Harris, educator, philosopher, and policy maker, influenced the foundation for the American public school system that exists today. As Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, Harris advocated for equal education, the grade school system, and free universities. He was also instrumental in establishing the first permanent kindergartens in the United States.

Under Harris, the curriculum was broadened to include the arts and modern history in addition to basic literature, science, and mathematics. Although he believed that all children should be allowed to realize their full potential, his philosophy left no room for questioning. Students learned in an environment governed by rules of silence, punctuality, and rote learning. The teacher was the fundamental authority, and Harris set the stage for teacher credentialing.

Harris was an ardent follower of German philosopher George W. F. Hegel. Inherent in Hegelianism is an ideal, the idea that the perfect is knowable, if not attainable. The educational system fashioned by Harris is based in Hegelianism.

Additionally, Harris was president and life director of the National Educational Association from 1875 until his death; a member of its select Committee of Ten, then the Committee of Fifteen, which determined educational policy for the nation’s schools; and president of the National Association of School Superintendents. Founder and editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Harris wrote Logic: A Book on the Genesis of the Categories of the Mind (1890), Psychologic Foundations of Education (1898), Elementary Education (1900 and 1904), and The School City (1906).


  1. Goetzmann, W. H. (Ed.). (1983). The American Hegelians: An intellectual episode in the history of western America. New York: Knopf.

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