William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT (review)
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William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT. By A. J. Angulo. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. xv+220. $55.

This biography by A. J. Angulo chronicles the scientific life of William Barton Rogers and also his central role in creating a particular educational mission for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Successive chapters move back and forth between these two themes, and the narrative seeks to integrate them.

So, we learn of his early education at the College of William and Mary, where his father taught chemistry and natural philosophy—a position Rogers himself would later fill on his father’s death. And we are reminded of the difficulties facing anyone seeking to make a career in the pursuit of science in antebellum America. Talented people like Rogers grabbed at part-time teaching jobs in the mechanics’ institutes of that era, when no university positions existed for them; sought for service in the several state geological surveys that came out of the larger movement of internal improvements; and tried to make their work known to their peers.

In that fashion, Rogers cobbled together a professional toehold for himself, publishing essays on aspects of soil fertility in Edmund Ruffin’s Farmer’s Register and positioning himself to secure the superintendence of the Virginia geological survey—all the while teaching unrewarding students at William and Mary, and then later at the University of Virginia, in a region increasingly hostile to open intellectual inquiry. But the four Rogers brothers made for a pretty powerful combination in the science politics of their [End Page 968] time, which benefited each of them, and it would have been interesting to learn more about that dynamism. Even if unspoken, it is equally obvious that Rogers’s wife’s money made a very big difference in his life choices.

Of necessity, Rogers worked in a cultural and political context that emphasized the practical applications of science. The best institutional expression of the country’s focus on usable knowledge were the mechanics’ institutes and lyceums so widely established during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and though Angulo doesn’t quite catch it, they clearly had considerable influence both on Rogers’s ideas and the unfolding of his career. Those organizations always promoted the democratic possibilities inherent in the combination of theory and practice and claimed it the key to unlocking the talents and energies of a broad segment of the population. They also pioneered the use of a variety of working models and laboratory devices like the air pump to illustrate scientific principles, just as they imagined advanced technical schools and museums to round out their vision of an alternative educational form for those involved in the useful arts. So there is a clear and direct line that runs from Rogers’s experience with the Maryland Institute in 1825 to the 1837 plan he developed for a School of Arts under the aegis of the Franklin Institute, and then to his 1847 plan for a polytechnic in Boston.

Since there were so many people, at the same time, with the same kinds of ideas for advanced technical and scientific education, some of them even in Boston itself, the interesting question becomes: how did Rogers succeed? One answer is that he just barely did. Finding money for the enterprise was a problem from the beginning, and one of the best chapters in the book describes the fight between Rogers and Louis Agassiz for the funds from the Morrill Land Grant Act, a tussle that has interesting parallels to their debate over evolution. Certainly MIT was not founded because Rogers “personified the useful arts ideal” (p. 151), or because he was unique in arguing for a connection between theory and practice or for laboratory classes of instruction. It was rather, I think, because of his standing as a science educator and administrator that Rogers’s insistence on absolutely separate institutions for advanced education in engineering and science, and on their real intellectual equivalence to traditional classical forms, finally proved persuasive. But even with that clear vision for MIT, it came very close to being absorbed into Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School three...


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