Spring 1998

People of the Century

Enlightening New Generations

H igh school teacher, college professor, university dean - WPI graduates have held these and many other positions in the field of education. They have also been associated with important developments in educational techniques and technology. Charles A. Bennett, Class of 1886, for example, was an important figure in the manual training movement of the late 19th century, which sought to teach young people practical skills such as woodworking and metalworking. He taught high school in Minnesota before joining the faculty of Teachers College at Columbia University and, later, Bradley Polytechnic Institute. He was the first editor of the journals Manual Training and Vocational Education and founded the Manual Arts Press in Peoria, which published these and other journals and books. For a time, he was president of the Manual Training Department of the National Education Association.

Like Bennett, James E. Smith '06 believed in giving young people the skills they needed to build successful careers. That belief led him to establish one of the nation's earliest and most successful study-at-home programs, the National Radio Institute. As a high school teacher in the state of Washington, he built a receiving station and began teaching his students about the exciting new field of wireless communications.

He decided to turn his hobby into a business. The National Radio Institute was the first correspondence school to teach through hands-on experiments using professional tools, and it was the first to teach TV repair (students built their own operating televisions as early as 1932). By the time of Smith's death in 1973, his school had taught more than a million students around the world. In 1968, the National Radio Institute became a division of McGraw-Hill, where as NRI Schools, it is still a leader in distance education.

Tsinghua University is China's top engineering school, and also one of its most distinguished educational institutions. It owes that status, in large part, to the accomplishments of Yi Chi Mei '14, who led the university during one of its most challenging periods. Mei was one of the first Chinese students to study in America under a scholarship program created when the United States and Great Britain chose to return some of the funds exacted from China after the Boxer Rebellion. After graduating from WPI, he returned to China to teach at Tsinghua University and became president in 1931. Under his leadership, the university nearly doubled its enrollment and it established an engineering school. The Japanese invasion of China in 1938 led to several harrowing years as the university was forced to move repeatedly and carry out its programs under constant threat of bombing. After World War II, Mei settled for a time in the United States. In 1955, he established National Tsinghua University in Taiwan and served as its first president.

Richard K. Irons '27, a longtime faculty member at the Groton School in Massachusetts, had the distinction of being WPI's first Rhodes Scholar. Irons tried engineering for a while after graduating, but decided he had chosen the wrong profession. He earned a bachelor's degree in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1929, the same year he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University. He taught history at Groton for 42 years, inspiring such future leaders as McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor under President Kennedy, his brother William Bundy, assistant secretary of state and director of the CIA, and Endicott Peabody, a Massachusetts governor.

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