Reviewed by Campbell Scribner (History and Educational Policy, University of Wisconsin)
Published on H-Education (March, 2010)
Commissioned by Jonathan Anuik (University of Alberta)
Testing, Testing: An Experiment in Science Instruction
In William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT, A. J. Angulo traces the origins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through the life of its founder, William Barton Rogers. However, as the title suggests, he is less interested in the institution itself than in the “idea” underlying its curriculum. That idea was a juxtaposition of scientific theory and practice unknown to most nineteenth-century colleges which emerged out of Rogers’s experiences as a lecturer, inventor, professor, and field geologist. The institute’s eclectic, utilitarian focus and its emphasis on laboratory work, although revolutionary at the time, would soon become the model for postsecondary science instruction.
Angulo writes his chapters thematically but arranges them along a loose chronological arc. The first two follow Rogers as a student and young professor in the antebellum South. He taught briefly at a technical institute in Baltimore before assuming his father’s position in natural philosophy at the College of William and Mary (1828), leading the Virginia Geological Survey (1835), moving to the University of Virginia (1835), and becoming the chair of that institution (1848). Yet despite his swift professional ascent, Rogers frequently chafed at the backwardness of southern intellectual life. His repeated attempts to modernize the curriculum failed: superiors allowed him to teach through lectures and conduct scientific demonstrations, but they balked at the notion of replacing rote recitations with electives or hands-on laboratory work. Moreover, the region’s hardening slave regime and culture of student violence created a provincialism and pugnacity on campus that stifled intellectual freedom and led to assaults on nonconforming professors. One foreign professor was killed, and several others were denied teaching positions. Whatever their politics or their field, faculty members were subjected to rigorous scrutiny.
This repressive environment highlights one of the book’s recurrent themes, the politicization of science but also reveals the limitations of a narrowly focused biography. While southern professors might have “faced mounting pressure to make their work relevant to ... the defense of slavery,” the only example Angulo provides from Rogers’s own experience is a legislative disagreement about coal exploration (p. 20). This is the first of several points at which Angulo might take a step back from his subject to provide readers with others’ experiences. He cites excellent secondary literature--in this case, Larry E. Tise’s Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America (1987) and Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South (2004)--but does not adequately incorporate it into his text, leaving readers with only a hint of the historical tectonics underlying his narrative. Fortunately, the lack of context becomes less of an issue as Rogers leaves the South and moves to the center of theoretical debates.
It was the scientific community, with its opportunities for travel and international correspondence, which allowed Rogers to transcend sectionalism and gain a national reputation. “He came to lead a double life,” Angulo writes, “with one foot in the North and the other in the South,” his eyes on Europe and his hands in the soil of the Appalachians (p. 21). Angulo’s third chapter, his longest and certainly his best, traces Rogers’s intellectual development during his last years in Virginia and his first in Boston. The discussion of the Virginia Geological Survey concludes with a lucid description of the era’s competing scientific paradigms: Baconism, with its emphasis on cataloging and classification, and Humboldtism, which focused on the “interrelationships of all observable phenomena” (p. 32). Angulo portrays his hero as uniquely situated to synthesize the two approaches in the defense of emerging Darwinian theories. “Without the collection and classification work he had conducted,” he notes, “Rogers would not have had the detailed knowledge of geology that became central to the debates [over Darwin]. The basic Baconian-style science aided him in the largely theoretical dispute over the origins of species” and allowed him to best Louis Aggasiz in a series of public debates (p. 55). By exploring how Rogers’s personal qualities led to scientific advances, chapter 3 reads much like Louis Menand’s description of the development of American pragmatism in The Metaphysical Club (2001), an interesting blend of social and intellectual history.
Success in the Agassiz debates established Rogers in Boston circles but also denied him a faculty position at Harvard University, where Agassiz was a department chair. Thus, the final six chapters lay out a decade of Rogers’s frustrated attempts to establish a technical college. His vision of science education stood in stark contrast to the generalist approach taught at Harvard: students should not only memorize theories, he believed, but also test them. In this sense, however, he also differed from contemporary technical institutes, which frequently limited themselves to engineering, metallurgy, and other forms of applied science. Rogers argued that students’ work was not merely vocational but should contribute to the advancement of scholarly knowledge. Much like a French polytechnic school, he wrote, “an institute should provide an advanced education for the mind and thorough training of the hand” (p. 81). After years of campaigning, he finally secured public funding for MIT, which opened in 1861 and expanded rapidly after the Civil War.
The success of Rogers’s idea soon brought overtures from Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and a former MIT professor himself, either to lure Rogers away or merge the two institutions. Rogers resisted both but continued to exert notable influence on the region’s intellectual life. In addition to converting several of Aggasiz’s disciples to Darwinism, he inspired Eliot’s curricular reforms at Harvard and Francis Wayland’s at Brown University. In many respects, Angulo establishes Rogers as the progenitor of modern science instruction in universities in the United States.
William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT is most effective when Rogers’s own dynamism comes to the fore as a teacher, debater, and lobbyist. As noted above, it raises several interesting questions about the interaction of science and politics. How does one preserve an institution’s integrity in the face of competition and budget cuts? How can one cultivate political support for a somewhat obscure research agenda? How can political debates become educative tools? Rogers hoped that the use of sedimentary deposits as fertilizer could not only ease soil exhaustion and a declining tax base in Virginia but also provide “an incentive for farmers to learn basic geological principles” (p. 36). The book also offers clear discussions of scientific and curricular debates in the nineteenth century. For example, referring to the Yale Report of 1828, Angulo asks: “Why did the classics provide the best furnishings for the mind? Why should science faculty teach by way of recitations, the methods of language instructors, when the laboratory offered more for scientific studies? Why should professional and practical education be marginalized and not taught with the same rigor and given the same value as the classical curriculum?” (p. 77). These questions, so discordant to modern ears, provide readers with a helpful reminder of just how radically science instruction has changed in the last century.
The book does have two significant weaknesses. As noted above, context is often lacking or else appears much too late. Angulo references technical institutes throughout the early chapters but does not explain their history until chapter 6. The text also suffers from distracting lapses in editing. Contractions and strange analogies plague the preface and return in the last chapter although Angulo’s writing is clear and crisp through the middle. Ultimately, however, William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT provides a pithy summary of science education during the nineteenth century and would be appropriate as supplementary reading for graduate seminars in the history of science or the history of higher education.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-education.
Campbell Scribner. Review of Angulo, A. J., William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT.
H-Education, H-Net Reviews.
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