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William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT

A. J. Angulo

Publication Year: 2009

Conceptual founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, William Barton Rogers was a highly influential scientific mind and educational reformer of the nineteenth century. A. J. Angulo recounts the largely unknown story of one man's ideas and how they gave way to the creation of one of America’s premier institutions of higher learning. MIT's long tradition of teaching, research, and technological innovation for real-world applications is inexorably linked to Rogers’ educational philosophy. Emphasizing the “useful arts”—a curriculum of specialized scientific study stressing theory and practice, innovation and functionality—Rogers sought to revolutionize standard educational practices of the day. Controversial in an era typified by a generalist approach to teaching the sciences, Rogers’ model is now widely emulated by institutions throughout the world. Exploring the intersection of Rogers' educational philosophy and the rise of technical institutes in America, this biography offers a long-overdue account of the man behind MIT.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xv

The commencement speech didn’t last long, but it remains one of the most memorable in academic history. If he spoke slowly, it might have lasted three to four minutes. William Barton Rogers, conceptual founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was not exactly known for his brevity, but then again few could have...

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1. An Uncertain Future

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pp. 1-16

Almost as soon as he’d finished a course of studies at the College of William and Mary, young William Barton Rogers packed his belongings and left for Maryland. Accompanied by his brother, Henry Darwin Rogers, William headed for the small town of Windsor located near Baltimore. William had only a vague idea...

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2. Tenure in the Tumult

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pp. 17-31

William Barton Rogers had a decision to make: Would he stay at the Maryland Institute or return to his alma mater as a faculty member? Most candidates at the time wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Moving from a little-known institute to a well-recognized college made the most sense. But Rogers’s experiences...

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3. From Soils to Species

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pp. 32-56

Despite the challenges he faced in the South, Rogers established a career in geology and natural philosophy. He did so with a worldview organized around the useful arts. By adopting this emphasis, Rogers sidestepped the two most common models available to early-nineteenth-century scientists. On the one hand, Baconians...

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4. Advancing and Diffusing

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pp. 57-70

As a geologist, more so than as a natural philosopher, Rogers participated in some of the earliest efforts to professionalize science in the United States. To those efforts he brought along the same useful arts ideals that colored his scientific research. From the survey of Virginia he learned the art of combining state interests...

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5. Thwarted Reform

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pp. 71-85

Rogers's ideas about higher learning followed the pattern of his scientific and professional thought. A combination of theory and practice stood at the forefront of what he believed a college or university should promote. The useful arts, in other words, appeared once again as an organizing principle in his worldview...

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6. Instituting a New Education

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pp. 86-100

Although Rogers encountered setbacks to his first two proposals, those in Philadelphia and Boston, the experiences became rehearsals for his third reform effort. Across the higher educational landscape of the 1850s could be seen institutions that satisfied parts of his own plan, but Rogers sought to bring these...

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7. Convergence of Interests

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pp. 101-123

Rogers had only two days to celebrate the start of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On the morning of April 12, 1861, an old friend of his helped bring about an abrupt end to any optimism then occurring in the nation. That day Edmund Ruffin, Rogers’s old “marl” partner from his Virginia years, had...

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8. Reception of the Idea

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pp. 124-152

Emma called it “nervous exhaustion.” MIT’s mathematics professor John D. Runkle dubbed Rogers’s illness “Institute on the brain.” Rogers himself said he was “liable to much nervous perturbation.” When the stroke hit, leaving him with partial but temporary paralysis, he broke off all engagements in Boston and decided...

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9. This Fatal Year

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pp. 153-157

Although he'd retired from his duties, Rogers gave no indication that he planned to stay away from MIT for very long. Within weeks of handing the presidency to Francis A. Walker, he accepted an invitation to deliver the Institute’s May 1882 graduation speech. On that fateful day Rogers, in a very literal sense, gave...


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pp. 159-194

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 195-212


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pp. 213-220

E-ISBN-13: 9781421400297
E-ISBN-10: 1421400294
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890338
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890330

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 1 halftone, 3 line drawings
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 609199933
MUSE Marc Record: Download for William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT

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Subject Headings

  • Science -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- United States -- History.
  • Engineering -- Study and teaching -- United States -- History.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- Presidents -- Biography.
  • Rogers, William Barton, 1804-1882.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- History.
  • College presidents -- Massachusetts -- Biography.
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