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David S. Ferriero at the MIT150 Convocation

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the MIT150 Convocation

“Mens et Manus:  A Vision for the Future”

April 10, 2011

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David S. Ferriero

David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

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video camera Video of the Convocation
[Archivist's address is at 37 minutes and ends at 48 minutes.]

The Archivist was introduced by MIT President Susan Hockfield.

Thank you, President Hockfield.  It is an honor to participate in today’s celebration of the institution which launched my career and shaped my worldview and to share my thoughts on MIT’s striking founding vision and how pervasive its influence has been, even in unexpected places. 

The craftsman at the anvil and the scholar with a book, the stacked volumes titled science and arts, and the Latin motto “mens et manus”—mind and hand—embody the educational philosophy of William Barton Rogers and the founders of MIT.

The original proposal to create MIT—Objects and Plan of an Institute of Technology—addresses itself to “…manufacturers, merchants, mechanics, agriculturists, and other friends of enlightened industry in the Commonwealth.” 

The final paragraphs of “Objects and Plan” read:

“In the features of the plan here sketched, it will be apparent that the education which we seek to provide, although eminently practical in its aims, has no affinity with that instruction in mere empirical routine which has sometimes been vaunted as the proper education for the industrial classes. 
“We believe, on the contrary, that the most truly practical education, even in an industrial point of view, is on founded on a thorough knowledge of scientific laws and principles, and which unites with habits of close observation and exact reasoning a large cultivation. 

“We believe that the highest grade of scientific culture would not be too high as a preparation for the labors of the mechanic and manufacturer; and we read in the history of social progress ample proofs that the abstract studies and researches of the philosopher are often the most beneficent sources of practical discovery and improvement.

“But such complete comprehensive training can, in the nature of things, be accessible to only comparatively few; while the limited and special education which our plan proposes, would, we hope, fall within the reach of a large number whom the scantiness of time, means, and opportunity would exclude from the great seats of classical and scientific education in the Commonwealth.”

A reference, I like to think, to our friends up river!

So where did William Barton Rogers get his inspiration?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:  “A man is known by the books he reads…”

Rogers was a geologist by training but a look at his personal library gives one a sense of the range of his knowledge, interests, and attitudes toward the approach to education outlined in the Objects and Plan. 

In 1975, when the MIT Alumni Association was celebrating its Centennial, a colleague and I had the opportunity to prepare an exhibit based on our yearlong effort to identify and reassemble the founder’s original library.  Working from a crude inventory in his own handwriting and with a lot of time at the shelves of all of the MIT Libraries, we discovered more than 1,000 titles which had survived.  These books formed the very first MIT Library and represent the remarkable range of interests of Rogers, his brothers, and his wife, Emma Savage. 

The collection includes books on science of every sort—geology, mineralogy, astronomy, ornithology, pharmacology, conchology, experimental physics, optics, chemistry, botany, zoology are all represented, along with civil engineering, mechanics, acoustics, scientific agriculture. 
There are yearbooks of facts, volumes on useful information, proceedings of scientific and technical associations both here and abroad, publications of the great Paris and London exhibitions, books on railroads and canals, and books on political economy. 

There are books by Humboldt, Silliman, Agassiz, Faraday, Dana, Lyell, Darwin, and Huxley to name a few.  There are the histories of civilization, John Stuart Mill on logic, a treatise on Sanskrit literature, a book on the metric system, accounts of Perry’s expedition, books on Gothic architecture, on manufacturing, on the great elm on the Boston Common. 

There are books on the Civil War, the sermons of Reverend Theodore Park of Boston, a catechism of the steam engine, and James Bigelow’s elements of technology.

And the letters of Thomas Jefferson.  It is safe to assume that he shared fellow William and Mary graduate Jefferson’s philosophy on the “more general diffusion of knowledge.” 

And my favorite—published in 1868--The American Beaver and His Works.   Nature’s engineer!
The revolutionary power of Rogers’ educational philosophy is best expressed in the words of a student in the class of 1868, Robert H. Richards, who stayed on to teach and lead the Mining and Metallurgy Department and to marry Ellen Swallow:

“The method of teaching was completely new to all of us.  We found ourselves bidding goodbye to the old learn-by-heart method, and beginning the study of observing the facts and laws of nature.  We learned from experiment and experience what might be expected to happen if a given set of forces started to act.  In short, our feet were set at last in the way of real knowledge.  We learned, perhaps falteringly at the outset, the four steps that mark the only route into true science:  how to observe, how to records, how to collate, and how to conclude.  The effect on the classes was totally different from anything that I had seen in any school before."

So, from inception, the themes of theory and practice, observation and knowledge, mind and hand were embedded in the culture of MIT.

One hundred and fifty years later those themes have served the Institute, the Nation, and the World well.  This Land Grant, Sea Grant, and Space Grant institution has trained problem solvers, solved problems and replicated its mode of practical education around the world.  No problem is too great, no challenge too daunting, for MIT to tackle.  Inventing the future comes easy to this place.
While studies of MIT’s influence over the years have focused on its students and faculty and researchers, little attention has been focused on staff.  So let me speak to you from a staffer’s perspective.  That ethos of theory and practice, mind and hand, is the pervasive culture which also drives the Institute’s workforce.

My narrow slice of the pie was 31 years in the MIT Libraries.  The MIT Libraries have served as laboratory during the 50s and 60s for Phillip Morse and his Operations Research group, during the 60s and 70s for Project Intrex creating information storage and retrieval systems, and today with the innovative work being done around electronic content with DSpace and the OpenCourseWare initiative—creating the digital future.

The can-do, problem solving culture of the Institute has spawned generations of leaders in research libraries around this country—Dartmouth, Washington University, University of Texas, Purdue, North Carolina State University, Duke University, University of Virginia, University of California at San Diego, Northeastern University, and the great research libraries of the New York Public Library have all been led by librarians trained at MIT. 

Each of us carried with us the spirit of MIT in the work that we did here with students, faculty, and researchers—a spirit characterized by innovation and creativity and a passion for practical education.  So, you see, MIT’s reach is far and pervasive.      

One more personal example of the extent of MIT’s reach.

As the nation’s record keeper, I am responsible for protecting among other documents, the Declaration of Independence.  THE Declaration.  The parchment copy.  Until recently I have been giving Dolly Madison sole credit for saving the document.  It was Dolly who reminded her husband to get the Charters of Freedom out of Washington the night before the British burned the town during the War of 1812.

In August of 1876, concerned about the fading of the lettering of the Declaration, Congress adopted a Joint Resolution establishing a Commission…”to resort to such means as will effectively restore the writing of the original manuscript…”

The Commission was not appointed until 1880 and it requested that the National Academy of Science appoint a committee of experts to consider whether restoration “...be expedient or practicable…”  The Academy President at the time was William Barton Rogers.

Several “skilled penmen” volunteered their services to trace over the letters to restore the original luster with special new inks.

Rogers’ report to the Commission was clear:

“…it is not expedient to attempt to restore the manuscript by chemical means partly because such methods of restoration are at best imperfect and uncertain in their results, and partly because the Committee believes that the injury to the document in question is due, not merely to the fading of the ink employed, but also and in large manner, to the fact that press copies have been taken from the original so that a part of the ink has been removed from the parchment.”

So…now I can proudly acknowledge Dolly Madison and William Barton Rogers when I am describing how it is that the Declaration of Independence has survived.

A far reach has MIT indeed!

Mens et Manus—a founding and sustaining vision for the future.

Friday was a pretty crazy day in Washington, but on Friday afternoon my boss was thinking of all of you here and sends the following message:

The Archivist read a message from the President of the United States, congratulating MIT on its 150th anniversary.