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During the eighteenth century higher education began to develop into the outlines of today’s modern university. Societies needed educated individuals to push forward social progress and thus universities were established in close relationship with civil service. The knowledge an individual learned in a university was geared towards real world applications. As the nineteenth century progressed nations began to formulate and refine their own unique types of education systems and ideals. Universities played an important role in defining a sense of national culture and identity. This expansion of universities occurred in European countries such as Germany, France, and England, and was also established in America. Germany in particular implemented an emphasis on educating students rather than merely preparing them to be competent in their professions. This was a very new idea, which manifested itself in the German Research Model instituted by Wilhelm von Humboldt. The ideals of the German model were slowly integrated throughout the world. The young but growing nation of America adopted many educational traditions of Europe. More commonly found in America during its early years was the French Education Model. It wasn’t until a man called William Barton Rogers, the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), that the new German Model’s ideals took shape in an American school of higher education. The founding of MIT introduced a new innovative system of education based upon the German Research Model, thus placing a great deal of emphasis on educational self-fulfillment and connecting science with American Industry.

The establishment of MIT signified the lifetime ambition of William Barton Rogers. His life spanned nearly the entire nineteenth century. This era experienced many social transformations (i.e. industrialization, reform movements, the Civil War, and Progressivism) (Angulo xii). Rogers had tried in two previous attempts for the acceptance of his proposal for a polytechnic school. It was not until his third proposal, during his stay in Boston, Massachusetts that he found the support needed to create MIT. Initially it was the Massachusetts governor, John Andrew, who expressed, “the need to incorporate ‘educational improvements’ in Boston’s Back Bay policy” (Angulo 89). While still adhering to commonly used methods of teaching, MIT took the idea of research to a higher level of importance. In 1860 Rogers presented this proposal known as Objects and Plans of an Institute of Technology to his colleagues, turning their interests away from the idea of a museum exhibit to the topic of science instruction. According to Angulo, “the Objects and Plans…galvanized support from various quarters” (93,94,97). While other states and universities had refused to adopt many of Roger’s ideas for higher education, support was finally found in Boston. On the tenth of April 1861 Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts signed the Act of Incorporation for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rogers had succeeded in finding a home in Massachusetts for his school, but he still had many obstacles to face before his dream would be made a reality.

A mere two days after the granting of Roger’s proposal, the Civil War began, and threatened to thwart all of Roger’s previous accomplishments. The war made it difficult for Rogers to keep the idea of MIT from dissipating altogether for, “the state gave him a one-year deadline to raise $100,000” (Angulo 109). Even for this time period this was a substantial sum that before the war, Rogers had great faith in achieving. Rogers’ saving grace came in the summer of 1862 with the passing of the Morrill Act. This act served the purpose of, “donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts” (United States 1862). This legislation mandated that institutions receiving funds would promote these fields of study. This gave Rogers no doubt that MIT could fulfill the needs of the land-grant for it was through an emphasis in laboratory research that Rogers wished to build his institution.

While still adhering to commonly used methods of teaching, MIT took the idea of research to a higher level of importance. Rogers believed that, “existing programs erred either on the side of practice or theory” (Angulo 86). It was a combination of these two concepts that Rogers wanted his institute to promote. Traditional American universities enacted the French Education Model, founded heavily on the Socratic method. Recitations, lecture room teaching, and examinations continued to be the basis of education in America well into the nineteenth century. These formats of teaching did not offer the necessary room for a system of education that offered multiple fields of study based around science and the inductive learning of both professors and students. Angulo believes that Rogers’, “offering made his science offerings potentially more inviting, especially to students accustomed to the drone of recitations in ancient languages. He drew listeners in with his emphasis on technologies for instruction” (74). The classical system of teaching lacked in both innovation and discovery. Rogers gained insight of his ideal educational system through many sources of his own, including in European universities. He followed European advances in science and within his own papers incorporated these ideas. Roger’s character reflected the education system he wished to establish, a dynamic style that he utilized to seek out and build upon the latest scientific developments. It was Rogers who, “advocated a vision for a ‘comprehensive’ institute, meaning an institute that offered students specialties within engineering, provided opportunities to specialize in the natural sciences and taught by way of laboratory research” (Angulo 86). Rogers sought an unqualified centrality around laboratory exercises.

Through his method, students would gain the ability to critically ask and solve questions for their own benefit of knowledge. Rogers also recognized the need for students to have a solid foundation in which to build upon, and to this he assigned the role of general physics. In a letter to his brother about beginning a polytechnic school he wrote that, “without a sufficient groundwork of this kind in general physical laws, it is obvious that in the details of applied science would have but little attraction, and being but vaguely apprehended would convey little valuable instruction” (420). Rogers wished to provide his students with the foundational knowledge necessary, but also stressed the need for self-exploration through laboratory exercises beginning at the undergraduate level. No school before in America had accomplished this feat to its full potential.

In the early nineteenth century, American universities still modeled those in Europe. As Rothblatt expressed, “the role and expectations of American universities with respect to professional education were little different from those of Oxford and Cambridge, that is, they provided law lectures merely as part of a liberal education as part of the education of gentlemen” (152). For some time and even continuing past the establishment of MIT, many American universities sought to provide a liberal arts education to their students. Professional education was strictly controlled based upon practice. Some universities however came close to what Roger’s perceived as the ideal higher education model founded on what he called the ‘useful arts’. The military academy West Point founded in 1802 came close by offering its students the first engineering program in the United States. It was at West Point that, “the academy had become well-known for preparing engineers and scientists for practical fieldwork” (Angulo 86). In American history, this was an important step towards science, however two obstacles hindered Roger’s acceptance of this institution. The first hindrance was the mere fact that West Point placed a high emphasis on producing military officers and admission requirements were minimal. Secondly, between 1855 and the Civil War, courses of study became entirely practical (Angulo 87). The idea of theory and research were left by the wayside when the country found it necessary to produce able-bodied officers. This point is acceptable, but the institution as a whole as many others failed to translate theory into practice. Along with American universities as reference models, Rogers looked to European schools that held influence in education. It was not at all uncommon for American universities to adopt particular aspects of many learning models.

Through out his years as professor, Rogers observed many educational models being enacted, one in particular was found in Europe: the Paris Ecole Centrales. It is important to point out that during this time period of social changes around the world, education was also impacted. The Ecole Centrales was founded during the French Revolution and established a model for a modern industrial museum (Angulo 88). Thus, countries such as France began, just as America would, adopting aspects of other educational models. Ultimately, Rogers looked to a French school for inspiration but one that was not entirely reflective of the French model. The Ecole Centrales had been infused with and reflected much the German model of education. The Ecole Centrales was founded as juxtaposition against the country’s prestigious Ecole Polytechnique, a state and military based school of engineering. The Ecole Central provided a source of education disconnected from the state and military power of France. It allowed for students to specialize in diverse areas of industrial and civil engineering, (Angulo 89). For France this was an important move in education that allowed for a more liberal and practical application of engineering where a student’s learned skills could be applied to French industry. Within the school, “its exhibits featured products of applied science, in addition to lectures from distinguished scientists, a technical library, and laboratories for research” (88). With the growth of educational systems dedicated to practical applications progressive through science, industry also boomed in innovation. According to Angulo the, “useful arts stood as the Ecole Centrale’s most important, if unstated, principle, one that Rogers recognized and sought to import to the United States” (89). Rogers wanted an institution that reflected these educational qualities founded on American soil. In reality, both the Ecole Centrales and MIT were successful due to the integration of a particular educational model, The German Research model that brought research to the forefront of learning.

To better understand the importance of MIT and the impact it had on American education, an understanding of the development of European education must be made clear. While William Barton Rogers based his principals of higher education on many educational models, it can be argued that the most influential was the German Research model. Wilhelm von Humbodlt (1767-1835) was a German philosopher and diplomat (Senft 173). Humboldt’s ideals were based off of the German concept of Bildung, meaning culture and enlightenment. Many philosophers before him, two most influential being Moses Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant, wrote extensively on the idea of Bildung. Culture referred to practical matters while enlightenment touched upon man’s possession of rational knowledge and insight into human life. Both Kant and Mendelssohn took this term and broadly applied it to the intellectual, moral, and emotional development of individuals (Rothblatt 73-75). Therefore the concept of Bildung put forward the idea that knowledge and learning was based on the self-fulfillment of an individual. This idea rested firmly against the idea of students merely learning practical knowledge rather than becoming ‘educated’. It was Humboldt who then took the concept of Bildung and, “was able to translate his ideas into actual institutions and regulations”. This important concept played a primary role in the establishment of the University of Berlin where Humboldt believed that research and instruction were interdependent of each other (Rothblatt 82). The university of Berlin became the initial home of what was recognized as the German Research Model or Humboldtian ideals where,

“The subjective side of acquiring knowledge [was] stressed. The role of the teacher is never to impose knowledge on the pupil, but rather to elicit talents and predispositions, which every human being possesses. Therefore the process of learning in this context mean self-fulfillment, as the boy or girl…learns to actualize something which he or she already potential has” (Rothblatt 80).

Students through this model were given a more liberal foundation in which to learn. Unlike traditional education, based solely upon recitations and lectures, students were given the tools and knowledge necessary to then implement research and discover new knowledge themselves. It was the professor’s responsibility to guide the student in his own self-fulfilling education. Along with this idea, Humboldt changed another facet of professors in which, “Berlin was the first university in the whole world where research and not only instruction was regarded as a primary duty of its professors” (Rothblatt 82). This idea rooted in the German Research Model was an idea that could later be recognized as the defining factor in modern universities between teachers and professors. Professors, like their students, are consistently progressing the available knowledge to society. This concept changes a higher education system from being in many ways stuck in scholastic learning to a dynamic system of discovery and research. This concept can be applied to any era and social context.

During his lifetime Wilhelm von Humboldt had been influenced by the political events occurring around him mainly between the French and German powers. Specifically the political events and the ideas of German idealist philosophers are what made Humboldt,” convinced that a rational development of state was possible only with the assistance of rational and knowledgeable citizens” (Clark 7). The German model thus created educated citizens capable of contributing new innovations to society. The idea of research became what Humboldt called Bildung durch Wissenschaft, meaning ‘education through science’ (Clark 7). A science education system based upon research led to a more successful society in Germany. This idea is what William Rogers will later use in America to apply his primary idea of a university education system founded upon the utilization of laboratory research. Once MIT was established, its new innovative educational method joined other universities around the world in a relationship between science and industry.

The elevation of knowledge in American universities due to the adaptation of the German model led to its quick necessity in America’s growing industry. Scientific research provided the tools and innovations necessary for societal progress. Rothblatt supports this claim that, “the American university truly came of age during the inter-war years” (245). Just as war in Germany caused Humboldt and the University of Berlin to become a powerhouse of technological innovation for industry, MIT became America’s outlet for necessary industrial innovations. It was, “science applied toward military ends [that] played a vital role…Industrial power, as associated with scientific technological innovation, was perceived to have shaped the course of human events” (Angulo 101). Through out history, the early universities who adopted the German model, made great contributions to society in times of need, whereas the universities who chose to stay grounded in scholastic and practical teaching methods. Universities such as MIT prospered because it provided its students with the knowledge necessary to test and stretch the boundaries of known engineering and scientific discoveries. There was a reason why many universities practically avoided Roger’s idea of the Humboldtian ideal of hands on personal education. Angulo stated, “Roger’s proposal challenged conventional wisdom by seeking to place tools of science in student hands,” which at the time were considered by many universities too valuable to be utilized for student use. It was true for the time period that scientific apparatuses were high in cost and were mainly used for lecture demonstrations or public exhibits (Angulo 78). However as the nineteenth century progressed, those institutions that had adopted the German model began to find funding for scientific research outside of the university and, “for the first time American universities could look to regular, recurrent sources of support for the direct expenses of conducting organized research” (Rothblatt 248). The industrial revolution of America required the knowledge of scientists and engineers to advance production and efficiency. William Barton Rogers recognized this relationship between science and industry before MIT was even established. In his proposals and letters he wrote that the useful arts would contribute practical applications in the world. He saw the need for skilled laborers for, “among practical pursuits there are, perhaps, none whose dependence upon the determination of physical science is more generally recognized than those of the machinist, the engineer and the architect” (423). For the students at MIT, scientific research proved to have substantial utility and application as well as material usefulness. MIT’s scientific research has been so important in its contributions throughout American history that it received another outlet for scientific research in Lexington, Massachusetts at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory. Within this laboratory, researchers received federal funding for the development of national security ( The establishment of a laboratory such as this signifies the success and acceptance of a laboratory-based source of knowledge Rogers hoped to incorporate into American society.

MIT was founded as a mechanism for social and educational change in America. William Barton Rogers sought to change the way students obtained knowledge, by integrating the German Model of education with his own ideas of a laboratory-based education. It became an important facet in education to enable students to pursue knowledge through the same hands on applications they would use in the professional environment. MIT like other American institutions allowed for the progression of industry and society. The whole purpose of MIT was to allow students the chance to seek knowledge through scientific inquiry, as opposed to the traditional process of learning without application. This idea of seeking knowledge was not a purely new idea during Rogers’ time, and was initially founded in the teachings of Wilhelm von Humboldt and the German idea of Bildung. Through this concept teachers became the figures that guided learning, never acting to impose knowledge upon students. Knowledge thus became the self-fulfilling responsibility of the student. The modern university developed out of institutions such as MIT, thus producing educated individuals who would enable the change necessary for social and industrial progression.




MIT and Educational Progress in America


Page Author: Elizabeth Anne Rathburn

Sunday, 4 March, 2012 18:52



Angulo, A.J. William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009. Print.

Clark, Burton R. Clark, ed. The Research Foundations of Graduate Education Germany, Britian, France, United States, Japan. Oxford: University of California Press, 1993. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

Rogers, William B, Emma Rogers, and W T. Sedgwick. Life and Letters of William Barton Rogers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896. Print.

Rothblatt, Sheldon, and Bjorn Wittrock. The European and American university since 1800 Historical and Sociological Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.

Senft, Gunter, ed. Culture and Language Use. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

United States. Cong., Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. 37th Congress. 2nd sess. Sec 2. Washington: GPO, 1862.

n.p. version #, Massachusetts Institutes of Technology, January 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.


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