Beyond Life Writing: Reflections on Biography and Historiography

Article excerpt

In May 2001, I attended a conference on "The Craft of Biography" hosted by Harvard University's Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. At the conference, historian Bernard Bailyn discussed the challenges of writing The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson. He concluded his talk with a surprising and memorable comment: there are really only three reasons why anyone should bother writing a biography. One reason, he argued, was that the subject must have influenced the course of history. Lives in this category have left an imprint on a branch of history--whether political, intellectual, economic, religious, and so forth--in some significant way. Second, if not a significant participant in recorded history, the figure must give special insight into the experiences and interests of large numbers of people. In this case, the life becomes a means through which we can improve our understanding of broader social movements and realities. Third, if neither of the first two applies, the life must have been witness to a significant historical event. By this standard, the selection of the subject is almost wholly dependent on the extent and quality of records the subject left behind. (1)

At the time, I was conducting research for what became William Barton Rogers and the Idea of MIT. What struck me right away about Bailyn's reasons was how each of them applied to Rogers. I'd learned enough about Rogers by this point to know that his life had historiographical value well beyond his most oft-cited claim to distinction--that he was the conceptual founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was also a nineteenth century scientist--a geologist and physicist--who spent half of his career at William and Mary and the University of Virginia, who directed the Virginia Geological Survey, who was active in the professionalization of science, and who later left the South as the Civil War approached, began anew in Massachusetts, and went on to establish MIT. What drew me to this subject was the way in which his life intersected with broader concerns (and even heated debates) in the historiography. (2)

This essay will consider three of these intersections and how they align with Bailyn's heuristic. First, there's the traditional interpretation of MIT's origins. I suggest below that our understanding of this contribution to educational history has been wedded unnecessarily to macro-level developments in mid-nineteenth century America; in essence, scholars have ignored a critical, biographical perspective--the life experiences and intellectual history of the founder--that offers a much more satisfactory explanation for why and how the institution came into being. Second, Rogers participated in a broad-based movement to bring about the professionalization of science. His approach to scientific inquiry sidestepped well-established categories created by historians of science, providing an alternative glimpse into the lives of scientists of the era. Finally, Rogers's life as an educator and researcher in Virginia engages a longstanding debate in southern history. Some scholars have viewed the Old South as romantic and unscientific, perhaps even hostile to science; others vehemently reject this view; very few have made much use of biography to engage either side. Rogers served as a crucial witness to the development of southern science and higher education in the years leading up to the Civil War, and his letters and papers offer a new dimension to this historiographical controversy.

A Life in Education

Rogers's idea of MIT was a hotly-contested and, yet, highly influential model in higher education history. It was controversial to classicists and scientists alike, but influential in shaping the discourse and, at many institutions, the practice of science and scientific instruction. The forces and principles that brought this institution into existence, however, have largely been misunderstood in the literature. …