Identity and Distinction: William Torrey Harris, Mass Schooling and the Open Secret of the Universe by Kevin Cole

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Identity and Distinction: William Torrey Harris, Mass Schooling and the Open Secret of the Universe by Kevin Cole

“Education practices the youth in the habits and activities which are necessary to social life, and secures his cooperation in realizing the ideals set up by the conscience and reason of the people…It must make the individual obedient to the requirements of the social institutions under which he lives.” [1]

“Wherever civilization develops, there develops the school, as supplementary to the family, and propaedeutic to the State, the Church, and Civil Society. The more advanced a civilization, the greater the complexity of its forms and usages – the more extended its fabric of institutions; hence, too, the more important the school, as a special institution devoted wholly to the work of training the immature individual for taking part in those complex forms of life.” [2] 

– William Torrey Harris

Following the death of Cecil John Rhodes in 1902, the first Commissioner of Education in the United States from 1899-1906, William Torrey Harris was responsible for the approval and introduction of the Rhodes Scholarships program as a meritocratic overlay on the present collegiate system.  Harris made this introduction enthusiastically at a speech given to the National Education Association where explained his view that the Rhodes Scholarships and the Oxford tradition in England from which they sprung, would be the “best place in which to begin” [3] the work of bringing the United States into the world of foreign relations.  This was to be accomplished in part by educating “hundreds of our scholars and politicians in jurisprudence and international law” so that “we must have a corps of trained specialists who know the minute details of each great nation’s past history and present achievements.” [4]

Harris believed that the Rhodes Scholarships and the University of Oxford itself possessed within their traditions an excellence in training that was capable of creating a particular type of Gentleman whom he thought “cannot be pushed off his feet by an attack directed upon the weakness of his personality.“ [5]  He explained how the Rhodes provisions were “made with noble purpose of bringing about a more intimate and sympathetic acquaintance with the most influential class of citizens in the English nation and the people who have gone out from it in past times and founded an independent nation on the basis of constitutional liberty and local self-government.” [6]  Harris cited extensively from the Last Will and Testament of Cecil John Rhodes in order to highlight Rhodes’ ultimate purpose of “the union of the English-Speaking peoples throughout the world” and he saw the Scholarship bequest as coming at the most opportune time for the training of American citizens to become diplomats and agents of influence abroad.  He proclaimed that the “offer of constant residence in the great English university to one hundred students of the United States will afford the best preliminary training for the experts required in our consulates, embassies, home cabinets, and international commissions.” [7]

If it’s starting to sound like Harris didn’t have much faith in the average individual apparent in his fostering the creation of a meritocratic expert class, it should come as no surprise that this same man had already concluded in his lectures on The Philosophy of Education in 1893 that:

“Ninety-nine out of a hundred people in every civilized society are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual under his species.” [8]

– William Torrey Harris, The Philosophy of Education (1893)

This often misquoted and misunderstood passage followed Harris’ discussing the role of literature across cultures in providing an analogical reasoning structure which would hold up the “highest ideal to be realized” for any society, using as examples, divine books, the sacred texts and writings of the Chinese, the traditions of Phoenicians, and the Greek and Roman influence on educational curriculum and organizational structures respectively.  Harris believed that “whether or not a person is educated reflectingly into civilization, he finds himself in the great network of usages that go to make up civilization” and that “education is the means to give one an insight into the genesis of these things, so that he can detect an element of each in the threads of his civilization.” [9]

“Substantial education” for Harris entailed an “education by means of the memory; the education which gives to the individual, methods and habits and the fundamentals of knowledge.”  Harris viewed this as “education by authority—that is the individual accepts the authority of the teacher for the truth of what he is told, and does not question it or seek to obtain insight in the reason for it being so.” [10]  Juxtaposed to this “Substantial education” for Harris, was “individual or scientific education” which he categorizes as being opposed to authoritative learning and stated that “when this kind of education is acquired, it frees the individual from the authority of the other” and allows for one to verify truth for himself on a case by case basis in accordance to universally recognized principles.  It is nonetheless true that Harris saw a danger in this second type of education by personal insight, thought and research, because he believed it would eventually lead a student to “drift toward empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority.” [11]  His thinking was that these two modes of education should be made complimentary to maintain unity in society, while also advocating changes to the methods of study and ways to deal with the problem of discipline and corporal punishment which he wanted to minimize within the school environment.

The above quote on the automata in civilized society, while giving insight into Harris’ unfavorable view of his modern world and of his fellow man, is often misappropriated contextually and neglects the “other educational principle” which follows in his lecture that he viewed as subordinate but no less important to that of “substantial” education.  This secondary principle he calls the “emancipation from subsumption” which is expressed in the ability to not be limited by arbitrary claims to authority from the substantial forms of education, in particular, textbook learning and memorization learning, which were his direct concerns at the time.  Harris believed that the “student of advanced education must first avail himself of the wisdom of the race and learn how not to be limited by it”, but that he should not become “so subsumed that he cannot investigate scientifically, and with the safety to himself, all problems that present themselves.” [12]

Harris is no stranger to the questions of implicit, explicit, a priori or a posteriori forms of knowledge and the philosophical underpinnings of modern education, after all, he helped to build it through the creation of Kindergarten, advocacy for compulsory education and the implementation of new curriculums for primary through high school education.  An ardent follower of German idealism and the philosophies of Plato, Fichte, Schilling, Kant and Hegel, there is perhaps no one aside from Horace Mann, who is more responsible for the importation of educational technologies into the United States.  It was Harris along with Susan Blow who established the first public Kindergarten in the United States in 1873 in St. Louis, Missouri, where Harris had been Superintendent of Schools from 1868-1880.

In St. Louis, Harris, an immigrant and ex-Prussian soldier named Henry Conrad Brokmeyer and Denton Snyder founded a movement known as the “St. Louis Philosophical Society” or the “St. Louis Hegelians” and published the first Philosophical journal in the United States entitled “The Journal of Speculative Philosophy” from 1867-1893.   A few of the primary objectives of the Journal were the translating of Hegel into English, the importation and proliferation of German idealist philosophy and the hope of spreading speculative philosophy so it would come to play the role of religion in the new world.

From his inaugurating article of the journal entitled “The Speculative”, Harris writes:

 “Not only do speculative writers agree among themselves as to the nature of things, and the destiny of man the world, but their results furnish us in the form of pure thought what the artist has wrought out in the form of beauty.   Whether one tests architecture, sculpture, painting, music, or poetry, it is all the same…While art presents this content to the senses, Religion offers it to the conception in the form of dogma to be held by faith: the deepest Speculative truth is allegorically typified in a historical form, so that it acts upon the mind partly through fantasy and partly through the understanding.  Thus Religion presents the same content as Art and Philosophy, but stands between them, and forms a kind of middle ground upon which the purification takes place.  ‘It is the purgatory between the Inferno of Sense and Paradise of Reason.’  Its function is mediation; a continual degrading of the sensuous and external, and an elevation of the supersensual and internal.  The transition of Religion into Speculative Philosophy is found in the mystics.  Filled with the profound significance of religious symbolism, and seeing in it the explanation of the universe, they essay to communicate their insights.  But the form of Science is not yet attained by them.  They express themselves, not in those universal categories that the spirit of the race has formed in language for its utterance, but they have recourse to symbols more or less inadequate because ambiguous, and of insufficient universality to stand for the archetypes themselves.  Thus “Becoming” is the most pure germinal archetype, and belongs therefore to logic, or the system of pure thought, and it has correspondences on concrete planes, as e.g., time, motion, life, etc.  Now if one of these concrete terms is used for the pure logical category, we have mysticism.” [13] – William Torrey Harris

It should now be somewhat easier to reconcile the role that Speculative philosophy played in the development of Harris’ thought and some of his educational methodologies.  Harris viewed himself and his Philosophical Society as furthering the historical dialectic or synthesis of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel.  Plato’s method of understanding very much corresponds to Harris’ view of the “substantial education” or the initiation process into the assumed “definitions, axioms, postulates and the like, which it never examines nor attempts to deduce or prove” [14] and the speculative method corresponds greatly to the “emancipation from subsumption” in that he contends that it “frees the individual from the authority of the other” to arrive at the “principle of the universe” and that self-determination or poetry is actually the “origin of all identity and distinction likewise.” [15] For Hegel and therefore Harris “becoming” or progress is the end result of a dialectical process and the minds natural inclination to attempt to categorize the absolute or universal.

Harris provides this history and definition of the Speculative Method which he credits to Plato and Aristotle, only to be fully realized by Hegel:

“The Speculative has insight in to the constitution of the positive out of the negative.  ‘That which has the form of Being,” says Hegel, “is the self-related;” but in relation of all kinds is negation, and hence whatever has the form of being and is a positive somewhat, is a self-related negative.  Those three stages of culture in knowing, talked of by Plato and Spinoza, may be characterized in a new way by their relation to this concept.

The first stage of consciousness—that of immediate or sensuous knowing—seizes objects by themselves—isolatedly—without their relations; each seems to have validity in and for itself, and to be wholly positives and real.  The negative is the mere absence of the real thing; and it utterly ignores it in its scientific activity.

But the second stage traces relations, and finds that things do not exist in immediate independence, but that each is related to others, and it comes to say that “Were a grain of sand to be destroyed, the universe would collapse.”   It is a necessary consequent to the previous stage, for the reason that so soon as the first stage gets over its childish engrossment with the novelty of variety, and it attempts to seize the individual thing, it finds its characteristic marks or properties.  But these consist invariably of relations to other things, and it learns that these properties, without which the thing could have no distinct existence, are the very destruction of its independence, since they are its complications with other things.”

In this stage the negative has entered and has full sway.  For all that was before firm and fixed, is now seen to be not through itself, but through others, and hence the being of everything is its negation.  For if this stone exists only through its relations to the sun, which is not the stone but something else, then the being of this stone is its own negation.  But the second stage only reduces all to dependence and finitude, and does not show us how any real, true, or independent being can be found to exist.  It holds fast to the stage of mediation alone, just as the first stage held by the immediate.   But the dialectic of this position forces it over into the third.

If things exist only in their relations, and relations are the negatives of things, then all that appears positive—all being—must rest upon negation.   How is this?  The negative is essentially a relative, but since it is the only substrate (for all is relative), it can relate only to itself.  But self-relation is always identity, and here we have the solution of all the previous difficulty.  All positive forms of identity, are self-relations, consisting of a negative or relative, relating to itself.  But the most wonderful side of this is the fact that since this relation is that of the negative, it negates itself in its very relation, and hence its identity is a producing of non-identity.  Identity and distinction are produced by the self-same process, and thus self-determination is the origin of all identity and distinction likewise.  This is the speculative standpoint in its completeness.  It not only possesses speculative content, but is able to evolve a speculative system likewise.  It is not only conscious of the principles, but of their method, and thus all is transparent.  [16]

Harris summarizes this dialectic by stating that:

“ is one of the most inspiring things connected with Speculative Philosophy to discover that the “Open Secret of the Universe” has been read by so many, and to see, under various expression, the same meaning; yet it is the highest problem of Speculative Philosophy to seize a method that is adequate to the expression of the “Secret;” for its (the content’s) own method of genetic development must be the only adequate one.  Hence it is that we can classify philosophic systems by their success in seizing the content which ‘is common to Art and Religion, as well as to Philosophy, in such a manner as to allow its free evolution and to have little in the method that is merely formal or extraneous to the idea itself……..In this, the profoundest of subjects, we always find in Plato light for the way.  Although he has not given us complete examples, yet he has pointed out the road of the true Speculative method in a way not to be mistaken.  Instead of setting out with first principles presupposed as true, by which all is to be established, (as mathematics and such sciences do), he asserts that the first starting points must be removed as inadequate.  We being with the immediate, which is utterly insufficient, and exhibits itself as such.  We ascend to a more adequate, by removing the first hypotheses; and this process repeats itself until we have come to the first principle, which of course bears its own evidence in this, that it is absolutely universal and absolutely determined at the same time; in other words it is the self-determining, the “self-moved,” as Plato and Aristotle call it.  It is its own other, and hence it is the true infinite, for it is not limited but continued by its other.

From this peculiarity results the difficulty of Speculative Philosophy.  The unused mind, accepting with naiveté the first proposition as settled, finds itself brought into confusion when this is contradicted and condemns the whole procedure.” [17]

Goethe and the Open Secret of the Universe  

“When Nature begins to reveal her open secret to a man, he feels an irresistible longing for her worthiest interpreter, Art.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe

Harris’s allusion to the “Open Secret of the Universe” refers to the Fairy Tale by the poet, Freemason, future Illuminati initiate and defector, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe entitled Das Märchen, also known as the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily.  The “Open Secret” is discussed in detail in Volume 5 of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in Goethe’s Story of the Snake by Carl Rosenkranz which was translated by Anna Brackett.  In Goethe’s tale, an old man has entered into a cave and is entertaining a conversation between a Dragon, a Monarch and a Snake about the gold, silver and brass adornments on the walls.

“Thus we have the questions: “What is more nobler than gold?”  “The light.”  “What is more refreshing than the light?” “Speech.” And again: “What is the greatest secret?”  And the right worthy answer, “The open secret.”  The open secret refers to regeneration, for all errors appear at the conclusion as blotted out, all ties renewed, and all spirits inspired with fresh intelligence.   But all this is represented as possible only in so far as the different powers combine for one and the same end.  Isolated efforts avail not.” [18]

For Goethe, the Open Secret is revealed by nature, mystical symbolism (the Ouroboros) and in the fairy tales conclusion that speech is more invigorating than light we are able to observe that the inner meaning and content of this secret is that “words are soulless…they are disembodied spirits, and language is a medium…to disguise thought.” [19]  Human beings are not the arbiters of this reality or nature but are a part of its process of creation and regeneration.  The light of knowledge is subordinate to “the instrument” by which it “is conveyed from soul to soul” and nature exists in a state of disinterested flux. [20]   In a literary review from 1772, Goethe explained this view of nature and man’s place within it.

“What we see in nature is power, devouring power, nothing stationary, everything transitory; a thousand germs destroyed, a thousand born, every moment; great and full of meaning, infinitely manifold, beautiful and ugly, good and evil—all existing side by side with equal rights.  And art is the exact opposite: it springs from the individual’s effort to maintain himself against the destructive power of the all (or whole).” [21]

Initiation into this open secret is a process of self-awareness, recognition and acceptance of the transcendent fact that words do not accurately describe reality, that they are merely instruments of social agreement and that human beings are a part of the whole of nature attempting to impart a balance through art, poetry and forging a communal understanding.  While we “live in her midst” in actuality “we know her not.” [22]

William Torrey Harris saw it as the “highest problem of Speculative Philosophy to seize a method that is adequate to the expression of the secret; for its (the content’s) own method of genetic development must be the only adequate one.”[23]  For Harris, successful philosophical systems should be determined by their ability to seize the “content which is common to Art and Religion, as well as to Philosophy, in such a manner as to allow its free evolution and to have little in the method that is merely formal or extraneous to the idea itself.”  What Harris was describing was a procedure, graduated method of initiation or curriculum that allows for the pupil or initiate to come to this understanding without the open secret being formally divulged.

From an article entitled “Prophecy, Transcendentalism and Progress,” published in 1841 in the Transcendentalist publication The Dial, A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy and Religion, Volume 2 (edited by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller and George Ripley), it is asserted that “Only when he discerns the “open secret of the universe”, is able to look through the veil of the visible, and read the deep, infinite significance, which it contains and shadows, are man’s eyes truly open.   He then becomes a prophet, a seer of the future, and his utterance is with power.” [24]  Prophecy is qualified within the article as having the same meaning as poetry in “several of the ancient languages” and it is observed that “the poets and prophets, were the earliest legislators and civilizers of mankind” [25] who possessed a “gift of insight, the faculty of communication, instruction, persuasion, a deep sense of mission…a profound faith and the earnest eloquence, which could infuse their own convictions into the minds of their countrymen, and animate and encourage them” into action. [26]

Other prominent members and contributors to the Journal of Speculative Philosophy included Adolf Kroeger who was the most prolific translator of Fichte into English of his time (also of Leibniz and Kant) and Thomas Davidson, the Scottish educator, historian, wandering scholar and founder of the Breadwinners College, the Glenmore Summer School for the Culture Sciences and the Fellowship of the New Life (which became the Fabian Society in England) and the first person to produce an English translation from Greek of “The Grammar of Dionysios Thrax”.  This was the “first attempt at a systematic Grammar in the Western World” and it made its English debut thanks to Harris and his “Journal of Speculative Philosophy.”

Also of note are Immanuel Fichte (son of Johann Gotlieb Fichte), Hegel’s disciple Karl Rosenkranz, Josiah Royce and Amos Bronson Alcott, the Massachusetts Transcendentalist whom Harris had learned much from as secretary to his Concord School of Philosophy.   Bronson Alcott was the founder of the progressive Temple School in 1834 which convened above a Masonic Lodge in Boston where his assistants were Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, a devotee (like Alcott) of Friedrich Froebel and Johann Pestalozzi and also assisting was Margaret Fuller, the abolitionist, and Great-Aunt of inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller.  Elizabeth Peabody established the first English-language kindergarten in the United States in 1860 and her sister Mary (also an assistant to Alcott), was the wife of the previously mentioned educational reformer Horace Mann.

Entire books could be dedicated to the impact William Torrey Harris had on modern education, but it was important for me to illustrate his philosophical foundations before returning to Harris’ own commentary on the Rhodes Scholarships and Oxford University.   One of the additional points I wish to impart in this reflection on Harris’ life and thought, was his and the Philosophical Society’s preoccupation with the concept of Bildung – which I introduced in relation to Matthew Arnold and John Robert Seeley in the previous chapter as the best of what has been thought and said in culture.

“By nature he (man) is totally depraved; that is, he is a mere animal, and governed by animal Impulses and desires, without ever rising to the ideas of reason. . . . Out of the savage state man ascends by making himself new natures, one above the other; he realizes his ideas in institutions, and finds in these ideal worlds his real home and his true nature.” [27]  –William Torrey Harris

The St. Louis Hegelians built their philosophy on this German organicist concept of culture and self-cultivation and did so through the lens of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who had believed that only those who were suited for professional careerism were worthy of this type of learning.  Harris believed that all progress should be enshrined within the institutions of the State, Church, Civil Society and the Family, but he concluded that mass schooling was the primary mediating force necessary to supplant the particularity of family life so children could be introduced to communal ideas of society and so the unity of the whole could be maintained.

“It is now easy to find the school admirably disciplined and its pupils enthusiastic and law-abiding—governed entirely without the use of corporal punishment.   The school possesses very great advantages over the family in this matter of teaching respect for law.  The parent is too near the child, too personal to teach him this lesson.” [28]


End Part One:

Next: William Torrey Harris, The Trivium and the Lines Laid Down By Oxford

Next: The Characteristics of an Oxford Gentleman

(If you appreciate the work and the time that I have invested in the following article/chapter, please consider supporting my ongoing research and forthcoming book.  You may also do so at the Donate link on the homepage.  Thank you for your support!)


[1] Harris, William Torrey, “The History and Philosophy of Education” pp. 28)

[2] Harris, William Torrey “The Church, the State, and the School,” pp. 216

[3] Harris, William Torrey, “Oxford University and Rhodes Scholarships”, National Education Association, pp.278 (1903)

[4] Ibid. pp. 278

[5] Ibid. pp. 278

[6] Ibid, pg. 264

[7] Ibid. pp.268

[8] Harris, William Torrey, “The Philosophy of Education” pp.2

[9] Ibid, pp.2

[10] Ibid. pp.3

[11] Ibid. pp.3

[12] Ibid. pp.3

[13] Harris, William Torrey, “The Speculative”, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Volumes 1-2, pp.2

[14] Ibid. pp.2

[15] Ibid, pp. 4

[16] Ibid, pp. 4

[17] Ibid, pp. 3

[18] Rosencranz, Carl, and Brackett, Anna, “Goethe’s Story of the Snake”, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Volume V”, pp. 221

[19] Mapel, J.J., “Elementary Education, a Paper prepared for the Wisconsin Teachers Association,” (1887), pg. 11

[20] Ibid, pg. 11

[21] Thomas, Calvin, “Goethe”, Henry Holt and Company, New York, (1917), pg. 307

[22] Tobler, George Christoph, “On Nature”, Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science”, MacMillan and Co. (1870) (Wrongly attributed to Goethe himself, but was forged through correspondence with he and Tobler)

[23] Ibid, pp. 3

[24] Saxon, J.A., “Prophecy, –Transcendentalism, –Progress,” The Dial, vol. 2, 1841, pg. 86

[25] Ibid, pg. 85

[26] Ibid, pg. 84

[27] Harris, William Torrey, “Nature vs. Human Nature, or the Spiritual,” American Journal of Education 3 (1871), pp. 4-5

[28] Harris, William Torrey “Moral Education in Common Schools”, Circular of Information, No.4. Bureau of Education, (1888) pp.81