The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Pritchett the Progressive

2012 November 19

It is 1903. The President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Henry Smith Pritchett, is welcoming new students to MIT. His speech (preserved in the October 8 issue of the student newspaper), contains the usual banalities of such an occasion, enlivened by the President's enthusiasm for a new songbook, which, he hoped, would create the kind of spirit found among university students in Germany. (What did the music sound like? Like this!) But there is a serious message as well:

"Within a quarter of an hour's walk of this building lies a tenement house district of the city of Boston, made up of 25,000 working people, factory hands, casual laborers, and the more poorly paid grades of clerks. It is a district almost barren of social influences and in which the ideals of people are being shaped more and more by ambitious leaders, who become unconsciously, not only political leaders but moral leaders.

"In the midst of this district stands what is called 'Tech House,' a three-story brick building, fitted and equipped as a residence, in which a half dozen Institute students, sufficiently interested in the social and labor problems of the day to rub elbows with working men and working women, have their home. In addition to these six men who are daily coming into contact with the population of this region, there is need for several score of men, who can give an evening, or even an hour a week to some form of personal service.

"The men to volunteer are the men who can saw wood and show a group of small boys how to saw wood; men who understand the rudiments of telegraphy, who can make simple demonstrations in electricity for the edification of other men; steamfitters and engineers, or who can play ball or cricket or can do anything else to interest boys and men who have few wholesome interests in life and who will approach everything new without training and without discipline."

Pritchett became President in 1900 midway through a distinguished career in the educational bureaucracy. He was partly responsible for the extension of Standard Time across the US, having set up the time ball in Kansas City used to synchronise clocks and railway-schedules across the West. As superintendent of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, he had transformed an obsolete bureau on the verge of dissolution into a state-of-the-art scientific research agency.

But Pritchett had deeper interests than this record might suggest. He was a philosopher in the original, non-academic sense, and, like many scientific thinkers of the earlier Nineteenth Century but far fewer in his own generation, he considered science a "spiritual way". As he told a group of students, "Therefore let me hope that your study of science means something more to you than the facts of chemistry and of physics, which you may learn in the laboratory: to approach the problems of your duties and relations with men in the same spirit in which you approach a problem in the laboratory --- to be content with no lie, to rest with no evasion of the truth."

In an essay entitled "What is Truth?" he wrote: "The scientific method of study is characterized rather by a distinctive attitude of mind toward truth than by any new machinery for collecting facts. The scientific method insists that the student approach a problem with open mind, that he accept the facts as they really exist, that he be satisfied with no half-way solution, and that, having found the truth, he follow it whithersoever it leads."

As a scientist, Pritchett did not "pretend to be able to tell you where the truth is. Perhaps my position is somewhat like that of the small Swiss whom I met on top of the Gemmi Pass, and of whom I asked the question, 'Where is Kandersteg?' 'I don't know,' said he, 'but there is the road to it.'"

Pritchett was disgusted by the times in which he lived, the age of the Robber Barons: "We have become accustomed in these last years to a measure of personal and official dishonesty which is utterly demoralizing. Well-meaning men go wrong morally, in their intellectual judgments, in practical matters, and they excuse themselves for a refusal to listen to the inner voice on the ground, 'What I have done is as nearly right as was necessary.' ... [I]t is astonishing to find how simple is the machinery and how few links are needed to reach from the honest business man to the dishonest promoter, from the high-minded public officer to the political grafter. Into this atmosphere of compromises, of shiftiness, of uncertainty, the voice of science comes with the word, 'Nothing is worth while but the truth.'"

Science for Pritchett was a moral and indeed a religious activity, a liberation from ego. This was the position of many of the old natural philosophers (for example, of Adam Sedgwick, as described in an earlier post to this weblog), but in 1906 it was somewhat unusual. Unlike Sedgwick and his colleagues (most of whom were Anglican clergymen), Pritchett, although a Christian, held "advanced" religious views, heavily influenced both by the pseudo-Darwinian evolutionary thinking of Herbert Spencer and the Social Gospel of liberal evangelicalism. He saw no contradiction: "[Modern Christianity] is the product of the labor of religious men both in and out of the church. Darwin and Spencer and Tyndall have helped to mould the church of to-day no less truly than Luther and Zwingle and Wesley."

Pritchett's tenure at MIT is unfortunately remembered today mostly for an unsuccessful and unwise attempt to merge the Institute with Harvard, but Pritchett's legacy is more complex than this. After leaving MIT, he became the director of the Carnegie Foundation, which he (characteristically) transformed beyond recognition. Involved in all of the great educational controversies of his lifetime (including a doomed crusade against college football, which he had abolished at MIT), he continued throughout his life to advocate the same principles: scientific objectivity, asceticism, tolerance, social responsibility. Pritchett's philosophical thought, as it stood during his time at MIT, may be found in a collection of essays entitled What is Religion? and Other Student Questions (1906). A biography of Pritchett by his more-famous acolyte Abraham Flexner was published in 1943.