Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926) was made president of Harvard University at age 35 and held the position for forty years. He was an educational reformer who changed the institution more fundamentally than anyone before or since.
Harvard was founded in 1636, originally to train clergymen. Although it was gradually secularized, by the 1860s prominent alumni worried that the direction of the school was increasingly irrelevant to the changes of the time. Eliot’s extensive travel-based research and persuasive essays about higher education made him their agent of choice. He was appointed in 1869.
Dr. Eliot expanded the faculty and broadened the curriculum. He created the elective system to allow each student to explore various avenues of learning and focus on what most interested him. Applying to higher learning the economic theories of division of labor, he sought to have students focus on what they were best at, theorizing that relative specialization would be best for the student and most productive for society.
The second half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth was an optimistic time; revolutions in science and technology held promise that all social ills could be solved. The science of education received new attention and within this sphere Eliot’s influence grew. His opinions were valued in universities and preparatory schools across the country.
Still, ninety-seven percent of Americans had no opportunity for higher education. Eliot, recognizing this, often said that the fundamentals of a good education could be had without professors, by careful and diligent reading of the great books themselves:
I had more than once stated in public that in my opinion a five-foot shelf would hold books enough to give in the course of years a good substitute for a liberal education to any one who would read them with devotion.
In 1909, near retirement, he was asked by the publisher P. F. Collier & Son to develop the idea. With the combined expertise of several dozen other scholars at Harvard and across the country, he selected and cataloged twenty-two thousand pages of extensively cross-indexed source material, spanning fifty volumes and three millennia of thought. The Harvard Classics were born.