On this day in 1852, the great physicist and educator Edward Bouchet was born. Although he lived a good and useful life, he also lived a tragic life. As most African-Americans of that time and to a lesser extent today, there were not many professional options for him. In 1874, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. He was ranked sixth out of class of 124 students. He later went on to get his PhD in physics from Yale, writing his dissertation on geometrical optics. He was the first African American to get any kind of PhD from an American university, but he was only the sixth person of any kind to get a PhD is physics.
Given his qualifications, he should have been hired as a college professor somewhere. But he was not. And notice: he was born in Connecticut. He wasn’t trying to get by in the south. Racism was and is a thing all over the nation. As a result, Bouchet spent his entire career working at high schools. Most of his career was spent at the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) — a Quaker founded school because most schools in Philadelphia would not accept African-American students.
After 26 years at ICY, he left because the school changed (following the philosophy of Booker T Washington) toward industrial education rather than the traditional classical education. I understand the thinking behind this, but it is wrong. We are going through it now across the nation. The idea is that children should be trained for jobs, but we’ve seen where this leads: poorly paying jobs and more inequality. Regardless, this led Bouchet to a series of teaching jobs in various locations before retiring due to poor health.
Edward Bouchet was clearly a brilliant man who we should have cherished. Instead, we provided him with a kind of torture. We allowed him to show his greatness in education and then denied him the opportunity to utilize it throughout his life. Even still, he doubtless had a huge positive effect on his students. He stands as a proud example of human self-actualization. And he is yet another example of a great man that our nation spurned.
Happy birthday Edward Bouchet!