Harris attended Phillips Andover Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.
He completed two years at Yale.
He moved west and taught school in St. Louis, Missouri, from 1857 to 1880, where he was superintendent of schools from 1868 to 1880, and established, with Susan E. Blow, America's first permanent public kindergarten in 1873. It was in St. Louis where William Torrey Harris instituted many influential ideas to solidify both the structural institution of the public school system and the basic philosophical principles of education. His changes led to the expansion of the public school curriculum to make the high school an essential institution to the individual and to include art, music, scientific and manual studies, and was also largely responsible for encouraging all public schools to acquire a library.
Harris's St. Louis Schools were considered some of the best in the country. His fellow educators were local farmers that immigrated from Germany after they tried and failed to make Germany a republic.
He was a key member of a philosophical society that, during the beginning of the American Civil War, met in St. Louis; it promoted the view that the entire unfolding was part of a universal plan, a working out of an eternal historical dialectic, as theorized by Hegel.
Harris was associated with Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy from 1880 to 1889, when he became U.S. Commissioner of Education, serving until 1906. He did his best to organize all phases of education on the principles of philosophical pedagogy as espoused by Hegel, Kant, Fichte, Fröbel, Pestalozzi and many others of idealist philosophies. He received the degree of LL.D. from various American and foreign universities.
As the United States Commissioner of Education, Harris nearly succeeded in making Hegelianism the official philosophy of American education during the late 19th century.
Introduction to the Study of Philosophy (1889)
The Spiritual Sense of Dante's Divina Commedia (1889)
Hegel's Logic: a Critical Exposition (1890)
A. Bronson Alcott, his Life and Philosophy (with F. B. Sanborn) (1893)
Psychologic Foundations of Education (1898)
Elementary Education (Monographs on Education in the United States; volume 1.) (1900; second edition, 1904)
The School City (1906)