Commentary Magazine

Hutchins of Chicago

Though the public still hears from Robert M. Hutchins as head of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and perennial critic of the higher vocationalism of our colleges and universities, he is perhaps best known for his years at the helm of the University of Chicago. From the time he took office as the thirty-year-old “boy president” in 1929 until he left under heavy fire in 1951, Mr. Hutchins was a permanently controversial figure in American education who managed to stamp his personality and ideas upon the national scene as no other university president has done before or since. Arthur A. Cohen, who was an undergraduate at Chicago toward the close of Mr. Hutchins's tenure, characterizes his career as that of a moralist among educational leaders. Many others would say moralist rather than educational leader, for despite his immediate impact, there is little evidence that Robert Hutchins had any lasting influence on the nature and structure of American universities, as, for example, his great forerunner, William Rainey Harper, did at Chicago or Daniel Coit Gilman did at Johns Hopkins, or Benjamin Ide Wheeler at California, or even Woodrow Wilson did at Princeton—whose mind was as morally driven as Hutchins's own. Far from being, as he has so often been described, the last of the academic leaders among university presidents, Mr. Hutchins was the first president to illustrate, often with devastating fall-out, the impossibility of one-man leadership in the modern university, even by individuals of his talents, once faculties have become great and proud, as Chicago's so plainly had long before 1929. The dramatic interlude of “the Hutchins years” has often diverted attention from the fact that the University of Chicago, for about two decades prior to 1930, was unquestionably the greatest single university, department for department, school for school, that this country had seen. Its intellectual and scholarly leadership in the country during that period has not since been matched, in scope at least, by Harvard, Columbia, or California. What President Hutchins did for, or to, Chicago must be seen, therefore, in terms very different from those in which men like Harper, Gilman, Wilson, or Wheeler are assessed. Hutchins inherited a great university, not a mediocre academy.

In a recent collection of essays written in honor of Hutchins,1 David Riesman puts his finger squarely on the reason why no president can “lead” a great university—why indeed “leadership” by the president, in the old-fashioned sense, is one of the infallible signs of institutional mediocrity, of feebleness of faculty. With “the rise of an educated elite, with the use of the universities as sorting stations for talent to run the society, academic values enjoy a priority which they never had before in America. This ensures that power will not be centered in the president or his administrators, but in the academic guild as such.”


Guild may not be exactly the word to describe today's academic reality. Say, rather, feudalism, with its powerful and conflicting autonomies, its rich hierarchy, its National Academy noblemen, towered over by Nobel Prize barons, extending itself across the country from fief to fief, barely acknowledging the existence of president-monarchs, and putting even Congressional committees in the unwonted position of diffidence. Professor Riesman is both right and shrewd in wondering, however, where the spark of academic innovation will come from in the future, for faculties typically guard, rather than innovate, and although lament of lack of leadership is the staple of every faculty club lunch table, no one in practice wants it, for the simple reason that the structure of the university could no longer today tolerate it. Mr. Hutchins did not, I think, ever learn this truth.

He didn't learn it because, despite more than two decades of exposure to the university, it is fairly clear that Robert Hutchins never really understood the university or, understanding, care for it. Nothing in his entire career suggests that scholarship has ever had the slightest appeal to him. Dialogue, colloquy, “Great Books,” yes, but not scholarship. And scholarship is, and has been since the university, as an institution, was founded nearly a thousand years ago in Western Europe, what universities are about. Teaching, too, but teaching within scholarship.

As one looks today at the addresses which Mr. Hutchins delivered throughout the 30's (and he has not since added to their message), they have something of the quality that Mencken's Prejudices had: wit, colossal self-confidence, occasional brilliance, but rarely any feeling for the real forces involved. If one compares these addresses with the remarkable book, Universities: American, English, German, that Abraham Flexner had written a few years earlier (and whose coruscating reflections on vocationalism and mental torpor in American colleges are so clearly the background of Mr. Hutchins's own jabs), the conclusion is plain that whereas Flexner's often harsh and even arrogant criticisms proceeded from a love of universities—one in the direct tradition of Newman and Hastings Rashdall—Mr. Hutchins's proceeded from love of something else, something equally fine, if we like, but as different from the historic university as dialogue is from scholarship, colloquy is from teaching, and faith is from works.

Arthur Cohen is right in emphasizing the moralistic quality of Mr. Hutchins's mind, but he does not bring out the special nature of this moralism, which is Protestant. Robert Hutchins is the essential and eternal Protestant in the Western tradition. (That “scholastic” and “Thomist” were the common epithets tossed at him in the 30's does not affect the matter; they concerned content, not personal thrust.) Exactly as Reformation Protestants hurled their moralistic thunderbolts at sacraments, indulgences, works without faith, and ecclesiastical courts within the historic Church, Robert Hutchins hurled his at these same things in the historic university. What he often seemed to be saying about degrees, admissions requirements, and curricula was what his predecessors had said about sacraments: to the elect they are needless, to others unavailing. To try to rescue dialogue from contexts grown heavy and sometimes corrupt, to regain immediacy between communicant and sacred writ, and to emancipate faith from ritual and textbook—this was surely as much the goal of Hutchins as it had been of a Luther, Calvin, or Wesley.

The celebrated College of the University of Chicago was, of course, the result, ushered in with near Cromwellian disregard of protocol. Its former Dean, F. Champion Ward, tells us in his contribution to Humanistic Education something of what the College was about, but he confines the telling to matters of curriculum. This is unfortunate, for distribution requirements never have saved souls, and they didn't even in the College during its great days. What made the College notable and seem millennial was the inspired conjuncture of teachers and students. Rarely have those who would gladly teach been surrounded by so many who would rapturously learn. And what teachers they were! I will confine mention to a handful in the social sciences whom I have since come to know personally and admire: David Riesman, Benjamin Nelson, Philip Rieff, Livio Stecchini, Daniel Bell, Reinhard Bendix. There were others, undoubtedly many others, in all fields, of like brilliance of mind and teaching. Bliss indeed was it to be alive and very heaven to be young. No other enterprise in any university in this country has ever aroused support so passionate, memory so devoted, from its students.


Did Mr. Hutchins understand the distinctive nature of even the College? Perhaps, though this has become steadily more difficult to believe with the passing of years and his absorption by enterprises like the Great Books program and, more recently, the Center at Santa Barbara. He may, like Dean Ward, assume that what was really involved in Chicago's undergraduate Enlightenment was simply the exposure of students to books—classics instead of textbooks—when, actually, it was to living minds, many of which have since become, through writings, major influences in American thought and scholarship. Great books (“Great Snippets” as I am told they were affectionately called, and generally were) would not, in the College, have amounted to any more than what they have amounted to in the pious sect-like adult circles to which they have since been taken, had it not been for their incidental (purely incidental) relationship with some vigorous teaching minds that were concerned with the themes and problems of Western society, not with great books or carefully allocated “distribution requirements,” much less with what Dean Ward calls general education, a hateful concept.

I wish we knew more about the College. Apart from Mr. Ward's unsatisfactory essay and a few scattered references elsewhere in Humanistic Education, we are told nothing of it, beyond the fact that it was eventually voted out by the University. But did the College, well before its official demise, begin to show any of the characteristically Protestant signs of moribundity: increasing reliance on writ and word, on perpetual assent rather than faith and enthusiasm? Had the all-too-familiar dissidence of dissent set in, among students and faculty? Did members of the College faculty, especially in later years, find themselves looking with increasing covetousness at their neighbors' departments in the University which, like the Catholic monasteries of Calvin's day, could seem freer somehow and certainly more affluent? Were there true members and not-so-true members? These questions are made relevant not by anything I know about Chicago but by a good deal I know about other experimental teaching enterprises in American colleges. Repeatedly, after an initial Aufklärung, these programs begin to show some or all of the symptoms I have mentioned. Minds of intellectual power are succeeded gradually by minds in which piety and devotion are uppermost. The students begin to look brighter than the faculty, which, its energy spent in the creative act, its faith unsupported by works (published), loses itself, at one extreme, in classmanship and, at the other, in obsessive curriculum tinkering. If none of these things happened at the Chicago College, then the greatest monument that could be dedicated to Mr. Hutchins would be a volume telling what prevented them. And let us hear much less about “great books” or “distribution requirements”!

The university, like the church, will always suffer, at any given moment, by comparison with the inspired college or the sect. Its genius lies in the fact that though it can never match the sudden, explosive brilliance of the experimental college, or sect, and must settle for less than perpetual Renaissance or Reformation, neither is it as likely to descend to the depths that are reached in college or sect when monolithic enthusiasm hardens into ritual, when requirements become canonized, and true believers come into existence. There is no tyranny like the small tyranny, no conventionality like revolt enshrined. The university may seem, to a mind like Mr. Hutchins's, intolerably purposeless and complicated in its many mansions, but to those who wish to go their individual ways (also a form of freedom!), it can seem wonderfully frontier-like.

William O. Douglas's essay in Humanistic Education reminds us of another facet of Robert Hutchins's career: his devotion to the freedom that must be granted by society to the university, as to any other institution that requires autonomy for its mission. It would be a rash and ignorant business leader or government official who today challenged the university (there is some symbolic satisfaction in the memory that the late Senator McCarthy's downfall began at the time of his attack on Harvard), but this was not always the case; and while it is true that a whole revolution in national values on the academic function has occurred since the 30's and 40's, when attacks were fairly common, it would be churlish to separate this revolution wholly from the dedicated and skillful defenses that Mr. Hutchins mounted before tycoons and legislative committees. The title of Justice Douglas's essay is “The Society of the Dialogue.” As a title, it would fit perfectly what one may infer to be Mr. Hutchins's idea of Utopia. That such a Utopia has little to do with what great universities are and have been is perhaps less important than that in his spirited defense of freedom of dialogue, he also contributed a good deal to the defense of what universities should do in classroom, study, and laboratory.

Rare is the man who, after surviving two decades of a university presidency, has before him a career more likely in the long run to become his monument than all that precedes it. This could certainly be the case in Mr. Hutchins's biography. The moralism that was so often blunted against the rock of the University has since had wider latitude and fewer barriers of historic entrenchment. Whether in direction of the Commission on Freedom of the Press, his presidency of the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, his presidency of the Fund for the Republic, or in his unremitting devotion to adult education, the passion of Protestant moralism has never waned. Nor has it waned in the Great Books Program or the Encyclopaedia Britannica, both of which have been suitably and amply rewarded by what early Calvinists called the outward signs of inner grace.

Very probably, however, it is the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions that, in posterity's eyes, will seem the most fitting of all his enterprises, the perfect vessel of his unique blend of worldly sophistication and relentless moralism. What indeed could be more perfect for Robert Hutchins than the Center: exquisitely set in Montecito's rich and lovely hills above Santa Barbara, resembling, in the generally affluent piety of its principal inhabitants, nothing so much as an early Puritan's secret dream of monastic release from worldly torments, its tables lighted by the lamp of fellowship, its shelves heavy with Great Books, where colloquy and dialogue begin each day by the bell, where faith is uncorrupted by scholarship, by faculty committees, or by examinations and degrees, where the faithless and intransigent are not saved by academic tenure, and where all institutions—press, church, corporation, labor union, and government—can be subjected, in a modern revival of tractarianism, to moral scrutiny as benign as it is merciless. Truly the Kingdom of Heaven has become his. And the academic world is no doubt divided between those who would say that he has richly earned it and those who would say he has brought it on himself, every last word of it!


* Humanistic Education and Western Civilization: Essays for Robert M. Hutchins, edited and with an introduction by Arthur A. Cohen, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 250 pp., $5.75.

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