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Harold Taylor (1914–1993) was a progressive educator who urged universities to reform traditional systems by embracing the individuality and freedom of each student. He abolished grades, standard curricula, and faculty hierarchies at Sarah Lawrence College in favor of personalized and cooperative learning. Such educational reform, according to Taylor, had the potential to solve the societal and political problems of the world. Often described as youthful and energetic, Taylor fervently spoke and wrote authoritatively about educational reform and social philosophy, even risking his career by defending academic freedom during the Red Scare. He fostered a deep concern for global affairs and was actively involved in peace efforts and the performing arts. Taylor’s legacy is evident today in his corpus of publications and the continuing contributions of the educational, political, and artistic committees he directed during his lifetime.

Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Taylor received his bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in philosophy and literature from the University of Toronto, and earned a doctorate at the University of London. Taylor then moved to the United States, where he joined the philosophy faculty at the University of Wisconsin and taught courses in social philosophy and aesthetics. He took a brief wartime leave of absence to perform psychological research for the National Defense Research Council.

In 1945, a career path change enabled Taylor to become an active spokesman for radical educational reform. At the age of 30, Taylor became the nation’s youngest college president when he assumed executive duties at Sarah Lawrence College, a nontraditional institution that focused on the individuality of students and their effects on society. Taylor’s own educational and philosophical beliefs coincided with the school’s mission, enabling him to further develop and defend educational reform. Under Taylor’s direction, Sarah Lawrence College encouraged students to engage in independent study through close consultations with their professors. He also pressed for racial integration at the college, which was a women’s institution with predominantly white enrollment. Throughout his tenure, Taylor developed several experimental educational programs, many of which included performing arts in the curriculum. He also launched a teacher preparation program in which academic study was coupled with direct experience with local school children.

Taylor introduced his educational views to the broader world through a variety of publications. One of his first major works, Essays in Teaching (1950), presented Sarah Lawrence College faculty members’ thoughts on the student as an individual and the need for personalized curricula. Taylor avowed that the best education encompasses cooperation between the student and professor, who together develop a curriculum that relates to the social and moral issues of society in a meaningful way. He expanded upon these ideas in On Education and Freedom (1954), in which he identified the purpose of education as “to make people free.” Taylor claimed that colleges must recognize the freedom and maturity of students so that they can make original, positive impacts on society. He boldly risked his career when the book criticized the federal government for its Communist hunt, which severely limited the academic freedom of teachers and students.

In 1959, Taylor retired from Sarah Lawrence College to concentrate on research, writing, and teaching. He served as a visiting lecturer at universities across the globe, where he spoke to educators and political leaders about problems of modern society. In these lectures, he detailed his evolving thoughts on educational and social philosophy.

His widely read books transmitted his original and provocative ideas about educational reform in the United States. In 1969, Taylor published Students without Teachers: A Crisis in the University, in which he stated that universities have the potential to reshape global society, if only they would listen to students and provide appropriate leadership. He acknowledged the need for large public universities to help solve social and political questions by educating students to deal with important societal issues. That same year, Taylor published The World as Teacher (1969), which examined how the forces of education could connect to the solutions of world problems; he advocated the need for teachers who could think globally and understand how their own country is implicated in world society. In How to Change Colleges: Notes on Radical Reform (1971), Taylor recommended a reevaluation of the entire learning process to make colleges less rigid. He insisted on listening to students to understand their freedoms and intelligence, as well as making them active participants in their own educational future. He optimistically declared that colleges can reform within existing structures by starting at the departmental level.

Performing arts played an integral role in Taylor’s idea of educational reform. He believed that because the arts directly correlated with the development of sensibility, they were an essential component of all learning—including scientific learning. Of the many works he published on the arts, Taylor’s most prominent were Art and the Intellect (1960) and Moral Values and the Experience of Art (1952), both of which were originally lectures delivered to the National Committee on Art Education at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He served as president of the American Ballet Theater, president of the Agnes de Mille Dance Theater, vice chairman of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, and trustee of the New York Studio School.

Taylor also was very active in peace efforts. He served as chairman of the National Research Council on Peace Strategy, was the founder and chairman of the Committee on Peace Research sponsored by the Institute for World Order, and was cofounder of the Peace Research Institute (later combined with the Institute for Policy Studies). Taylor also was a human rights adviser to Adlai Stevenson and the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial Foundation.

Taylor remained committed to educational progress in world affairs and held positions with numerous educational committees and organizations. He cofounded the National Committee for Support of Public Schools, founded and directed the Center for International Service at Staten Island College, directed a pilot project for a World College with other United Nations countries, founded and chaired the United States Committee for the United Nations University, and hosted the ABC television series Meet the Professor from 1962–63.

Harold Taylor’s legacy is embodied through his numerous publications and at Sarah Lawrence College, which continues to foster his same tradition of liberal education. The college’s Library Archives house the Harold Taylor Papers, which included personal and professional documents from Taylor’s presidency, office correspondence, news clippings, a manuscript of his doctoral dissertation with handwritten notes in the margins, and several files regarding his defense of academic freedom during the McCarthy era.

Contributed by Kathleen G. Earthman, The University of Texas at Austin

Geismar, M. 1954. A liberal mind. Nation 178(26): 547.

Lambart, B. 1993. Harold Taylor, novel educator and college president, dies at 78. New York Times, Feb. 10

Sarah Lawrence College Archives. 2002. Harold Taylor papers.

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