James Rowland Angell

James Rowland Angell (1869-1949) was a pioneer in the development of psychology in America and a leader in higher education.

James Rowland Angell was born May 8, 1869, in Burlington, Vermont, to James Burrill and Sara (Caswell) Angell. His father was president of the universities of Vermont and Michigan and his grandfather was president of Brown University. The Angell home was an academic environment visited by distinguished faculty and guests including Grover Cleveland, Andrew White, and Matthew Arnold. Angell's life was further enriched by travel. His family spent a year and a half in China, where his father served in a diplomatic post, and later traveled around the world.

Academic studies were not taken seriously by the young Angell until he read John Dewey's text on psychology during his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. That experience began an intellectual life which would lead him into the profession of psychology. After graduation (1890) he spent three years in graduate study. The first year he remained at the University of Michigan, receiving a master's degree in philosophy under the direction of John Dewey, a renowned philosopher. The second year he studied at Harvard with William James, a prominent psychologist, and graduated with a master's degree in psychology. The third year he traveled to Germany to further his psychology studies. At the end of that year his doctoral thesis was accepted at the University of Halle, contingent on a revision to improve its German. But instead he accepted a teaching position in psychology at the University of Minnesota. Soon after his arrival in Minnesota, he married his fiance of many years, Marion Watras. They had two children.

Teaching and Research (1893-1914)

One of Angell's chief delights was working with students. Beginning with his first teaching assignment at the University of Minnesota (1893), he worked long into the nights, seeking to perfect his teaching talents. Using the Socratic method, he developed questions that provoked thinking and continued interesting the students. The next year, as an assistant professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Chicago, he developed a psychology laboratory where he and graduate students collaborated on experimental research. During his years at Chicago he assisted over 40 doctoral students in psychology, a number of whom later became leaders in psychology (e.g., John B. Watson, an originator of behavioral psychology in America). Angell encouraged his students to study with other professors, particularly recommending minors in philosophy, biology, and education.

In the field of psychology, Angell is viewed as an early originator of functionalism, one of two major competing schools of thought during this period. Seeking to develop psychological principles and to advance the discipline, Angell applied the philosophies of James and Dewey in his laboratory. While his scholarly contributions to psychology have been eclipsed by later works of others, he was a pioneer in standardizing experimental procedures, developing apparatus and laboratory courses, and systematizing the principles of a new science. In addition to scholarly articles, he published two popular texts: Psychology (1904) and Chapters from Modern Psychology (1912). He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1908, the youngest person to have received that honor. During these years at Chicago he developed one of the more prestigious psychology programs in America.

Educational Administration (1912-1937)

As a professor Angell had to supplement his salary by teaching evenings and summers. So he welcomed the opportunity to enter college administration. In 1911 he became dean of faculties. Although he continued editing a psychology monograph series (1912-1922), his work in psychology virtually ended.

Functionalism, losing its chief spokesman, quickly faded in prominence. A leave of absence (1919) allowed him to assume chairmanship of the National Research Council and to oversee the fundraising for and construction of a new building for the National Academy of Sciences. The following year he returned as acting-president at Chicago, to be followed by the presidency of the Carnegie Foundation. Then in 1921 he accepted the presidency at Yale University, the first non-Yale graduate since 1766 to receive that honor.

In his autobiography, Angell raises some doubts as to his success at Yale; however, his alumni, students, and faculty often felt otherwise. During his tenure there the social life of students changed with the division of the university into smaller resident colleges; the curriculum and faculty were expanded with the addition of new programs of nursing and drama and the founding of the Institute of Human Relations; the campus was completely rebuilt with 35 new buildings; and the general financial situation improved—in particular, the endowment quadrupled. In sum, under Angell's leadership, Yale was transformed from a small liberal arts college to a "true" university.

After retiring from Yale in 1937, Angell accepted an appointment as educational counselor to the National Broadcasting Company. He was director of the New York Life Insurance Company, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, and a member of the Rockefeller Foundation. He died in Hamden, Connecticut, on March 4, 1949.

Further Reading on James Rowland Angell

A brief autobiography by Angell is in Carl Murchison, ed., A History of Psychology in Autobiography, III (1936). A biographical essay by Walter S. Hunter, emphasizing his psychological research, is in National Academy of Science, Biographical Memoirs, XXVI. A student's perspective of Angellis found in Maynard Mack's "Portraits from a Family Album," Yale Literary Magazine (Nov. 1931). A brief biographical sketch and several republished, complete obituaries are in Yale Alumni Magazine (April 1949). His Chapters from Modern Psychology (1912) is written for the general audience. A collection of his speeches and essays on education may be found in Higher Education (1938). Two critical books which comprehensively describe his tenure at Chicago and Yale are: The Chicago Pragmatist by Darnell Rucker (1969) and Yale: The University College, 1929-1937, vol. II, by George W. Pierson (1955).