By the time I first met Robert Maynard Hutchins, in 1966, he was sixty-seven years old and, I now realize, intellectually quite dead. He carried around, however, a splendid corpse. “Presence” was the word then often applied to Hutchins. When he walked into a room—even a large, high-ceilinged, noisy room—everyone noticed; any room he sat in, he seemed to dominate. He was tall (nearly 6′3″), naturally slender, and had what used to be called a fine bearing. He wore clothes well, without seeming to care much about them. (In 1949, the American Tailors Guild, citing his “learned look,” voted him third on its list of best-dressed men.) His hair was full and wavy and white; the bones in his face were strong but refined. When I knew him, the feature that seemed primary was his mouth: it smiled rarely, and then usually wryly, and laughed almost never—a mouth that was a touch prim and slightly disapproving.
I was twenty-nine and very much in awe of Robert Hutchins, who had left the chancellorship of the University of Chicago in 1950, or five years before I came there as a student. But I always felt that the aspects of the university I most appreciated were owing to Hutchins’s twenty-one-year tenure as its head. When I was a student at Chicago, Hutchins was a name that could put an end to friendly parties or enliven dull ones—no one, on the subject of Robert Hutchins, was neutral. There were those who felt that his were years of divisiveness, distraction, and general decay. Lawrence A. Kimpton, who succeeded him as chancellor, remarked that nothing Hutchins did at the university “had any degree of permanence, except for the financial headaches, the neighborhood deterioration, and the faculty embitterment.” But then there were such men as Edward Levi, himself later president of the university, who not merely admired but loved Robert Hutchins for his high-mindedness and for his courage in acting always in consonance with his ideals.
The context for my meeting Hutchins was that I had recently been hired as a senior editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., where he was chairman of the board of editors. Hutchins’s connection with Britannica was a lengthy one, beginning back in the 1940’s, when General Robert E. Wood of Sears, Roebuck transferred the Britannica Corporation to William Benton, Hutchins’s classmate at Yale, in a complicated arrangement that paid out a handsome royalty to the University of Chicago. For a time Benton, who had made an early fortune in advertising (the Benton & Bowles agency was his and his fellow Yalie Chester Bowles’s), worked for Hutchins at the university as a vice president for public relations; but Hutchins would work for Benton for much longer, and eventually become his stipendiary. Neither greedy nor even greatly money-minded, Hutchins, accustomed as a young man to going first-class, lived as if perfectly unaware that any other class was possible. “If you have to look at the meter,” was one of his well-known sayings, “don’t take cabs.” Past the age of twenty-five he probably never paid for a cab out of his own pocket.
Neither of us paid for lunch that day, which was at the Tavern Club, a block or so south of the Britannica offices across the Chicago River on Michigan Avenue. Seven or eight Britannica editors were at that lunch, with Mortimer J. Adler at the head of the table as our ostensible host. I was seated to Hutchins’s left. Everyone tried to steer the conversation around toward him, almost as if we felt under an obligation not to let Robert Hutchins grow any more bored than he already appeared to be, though it was clear there was little any of us could do to prevent it. At one point he leaned toward me and, remarking that he understood I had gone to the University of Chicago, asked, “Have they brought football back yet?” I assumed he was joking. “Not the last I heard,” I said, and asked if he had much occasion to visit the university. “Never,” he said, with the kind of finality with which a man might answer a question about whether he still saw an old mistress or ex-wife. I recall wanting to break in to tell him that attending the university had been the crucial intellectual event of my life, but then he did not seem the sort of man to whom one blurted out such avowals. After lunch, waiting for the elevator, he stood posture perfect in a charcoal gray suit, red vest, and black knit tie, raincoat draped over one arm, a cigarette in hand, looking like a more handsome version of the actor Conrad Nagel, a man with only the simulacra of responsibilities whose real life, or so it seemed to me, was essentially finished.
Jobs that other men should have felt pleased to have achieved at the culmination of their careers, Robert Hutchins had as a young man—by current reckoning, as hardly more than a boy. In 1927, at the age of twenty-eight, he was appointed dean of the Yale Law School; in 1929, at the age of thirty, he was made president of the University of Chicago. To be considered promising is one thing; to have one’s promise so quickly acknowledged and rewarded, quite something else again. Edith Wharton, in A Backward Glance, remarks upon her own good fortune as an artist in never having been ever considered promising, since many of the most brilliant young men of her generation, weighed down by the pressure of their promise, petered out quickly. Robert Hutchins’s own youthful promise seems not in any way to have daunted him. He appears to have reacted much as did the young Otto von Bismarck, who, upon receiving a very delicate diplomatic mission in his early twenties, is supposed to have declared: “What is being asked of me is clear. Whether I have the talent and understanding sufficient to accomplish the task is God’s affair.”
How it came about that Hutchins was offered such jobs so early has long been something of a mystery, at least to me. That mystery has now been cleared up by a full-scale biography, Unseasonable Truths: A Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins by Harry S. Ashmore,1 a friend and, in his last few decades, close colleague of Hutchins. Ashmore’s biography sets out to be definitive, which, factually, it probably comes close to being. It is, however, something less than that psychologically. As befits the portrait of one friend by another, Ashmore has told the truth but not the whole truth. He does not probe into areas where his subject might be vulnerable, he tends to eschew motive when dubious behavior calls for interpretation, he everywhere gives his subject the benefit of the doubt, and he operates on the assumption that Robert Hutchins was a great man, instead of a greatly interesting one.
Unseasonable Truths is also somewhat skewed by the fact that Ashmore first came to know Hutchins after his glory days were done. The editor of the Arkansas Gazette, for which he helped win a Pulitzer Prize during the Little Rock desegregation crisis, Ashmore was first impressed into the Hutchins crew as a board member of the Fund for the Republic, of which Hutchins was president, in 1954. He went on to work at the Encyclopaedia Britannica and at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (where, for a time, he was also president). Ashmore, then, knew Hutchins during the period in his life when he, Hutchins, was learning the bitter lesson that the world would be recalcitrant to all his efforts to reshape it. Ashmore tends to see these as years of noble experiment, bold engagement, impressive idealism. He does not allow that to an outsider they might seem one vast stretch of misbegotten ideas, high self-delusion, ridiculous waste, and immitigable sadness.
Certainly, it did not begin that way. It began as if Robert Hutchins were assembling America’s perfect résumé, one that would perhaps culminate in a final entry of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, or possibly President of the United States. Hutchins never made the vulgar and silly error of starting at the bottom or even at the middle. He was well-born, as these things are reckoned by genealogy, with family members on both sides going back to settlement in New England in the late 1600’s. Like many among his notable contemporaries—E.E. Cummings, Henry Luce, and Norman Thomas come to mind—Robert Hutchins was the son of a minister. Reverend William Hutchins was a Presbyterian with a congregation in Brooklyn when Robert was born. Reverend Hutchins later became a professor at Oberlin Theological Seminary in Ohio and, after that, president of Berea College in Kentucky. The Hutchinses were a family in which puritan notions of public service and academic achievement were much-honored traditions.
Hutchins was himself always an excellent student, but, one gathers, of the quick-study kind: quick to grasp, quick to execute, quick to move on. Apparently he was naturally gifted at things of the mind; he was good at acquiring foreign languages, and in later life wrote a clear, impressively concise, confident prose. Even fellow students who did not like him—an element of arrogance, or at any rate of seeming arrogance, put many people off Hutchins all his life—had to respect him because he was so obviously smart. Both at Oberlin College, where he began his undergraduate education, and at Yale, where in 1919 he picked up again in his junior year after serving with the U.S. Ambulance Service assigned to the Italian army toward the close of World War I, Hutchins breezed by. Highly intelligent, supremely self-confident, “collar-ad handsome” (in Harry Ashmore’s phrase), Hutchins, despite having rather less money than many of his classmates, nonetheless was a great success at Yale.
Certainly Yale posed no academic problem for Hutchins, unless it was boredom. But then boredom was one of the perennial Hutchins problems. The ambulance corps in Italy had presented vast stretches of boredom, undergraduate study at Yale meant boredom, much of the work of a university president would spell boredom, and boredom after his years at Chicago seemed to cling to him like a bad case of dandruff. Like dandruff, Hutchins’s boredom was palpable during these meetings I sat in with him at Encyclopaedia Britannica in Chicago. I recall one in particular in which Mortimer J. Adler, speaking with the stammer caused by a racing mind, set out eleven arguments in favor of a policy for which he desired Hutchins’s consent. Hutchins stared down into the bowl of his Dunhill until Adler had finished, then removed the pipe from his teeth, announced, “I do not consider that an adequate statement of the alternatives,” replaced the pipe, and mentally floated off to God knows where.
Boredom with undergraduate study caused Hutchins in his senior year to leave Yale College and enroll in the law school. Law was the one thing that did not bore him, or so for a while it appeared. It was at law school, he would later maintain, that his education, at the age of twenty-one, finally began. “It is sad but true,” he subsequently wrote, “that the only place in an American university where the student is taught to read, write, and speak is the law school.” Although he left Yale Law to teach at a private school for a year, when he returned—as a student holding down a full-time job as secretary of the Yale Corporation—he finished top of his class and second on the state bar examination. As the law school’s most brilliant graduate, he was offered a job on the faculty, which, in 1925 at the age of twenty-six, he accepted.
Four years earlier Hutchins had married a tall, striking young woman of his own social and economic position—long on genealogical lines, short on cash—named Maude Phelps McVeigh. She was of artistic temperament, a sculptor and later a novelist good enough to be published by New Directions in her day but no longer, I can testify, very readable in ours. They were a dazzling couple, Bob and Maude, something out of F. Scott Fitzgerald; unfortunately, out of Tender is the Night more than any other novel, for Maude Hutchins was to undergo nervous breakdowns and to bring her husband much domestic grief and not a little public embarrassment, at one point obliging him to vacate the capacious president’s house at the University of Chicago and hide out in various downtown hotels while running the university’s affairs from an office in the Loop. Like T.S. Eliot, who also encountered long periods of misery with his first wife, Hutchins, after a difficult divorce, perhaps seeking stability, married his secretary. But then misery in marriage is not something that tends to be factored in when a man’s classmates vote him, as his at Yale voted Hutchins, “most likely to succeed.”
Hutchins might more accurately have been voted “most quickly to succeed.” At the Yale Law School he took only two years to rise from instructor to associate professor. He taught evidence, and soon became a strong critic of established views of the subject. He was one of those professors, Felix Frankfurter of Harvard most prominent among them, who protested the handling of evidence at the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti. When the then-dean of the school left to take up a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the faculty could not decide on either of the two leading candidates for his replacement, Hutchins emerged as a compromise candidate. More pertinently, he was supported for the job by the president of Yale, James Rowland Angell, who not only admired his earlier work as secretary of the Yale Corporation but, as a former academic psychologist, agreed with Hutchins on the need to bring the findings of contemporary social science into the study of law.
Hutchins was appointed full professor and for two short terms was called acting dean, after which the “acting” was dropped from the title. In the event, he turned out to be an excellent dean. He broke the logjam of retrograde tradition which had kept the law school from being first-rate. He altered the curriculum so that a principled understanding of the law along with a mechanical one was taught. He opened enrollment policy, so that family pedigree was no longer the primary consideration for acceptance. He enlarged the faculty, making a number of interesting appointments, among them Jews. In a very short while he had begun to transform a dull institution into an impressively lively one, and in doing so he found himself, as Harry Ashmore writes, “accorded a place in the very front rank of American educators.”
As at the Yale Law School, so at the University of Chicago, Hutchins at the outset was not in the running when Max Mason retired from the presidency of the university to become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. The university’s search committee came up with a list of no fewer than fifty-six names, and that of Robert Hutchins was not on it. But once again a split among factions made it possible for him eventually to be offered the job. One faction on the faculty was worried lest a new president turn Chicago, which was from its beginnings a great research university with an emphasis on graduate study, into something more collegiate, on the model of Princeton or Yale. Others wanted undergraduate study to be given more attention. Still others felt that Chicago was beginning to lose its experimental air and so wanted someone who could restore the school’s intellectual excitement. Given so many cross-purposes, interlaced with such elevated aspirations, many candidates were soon weeded out.
At this point Robert Hutchins, younger than many assistant professors on the Chicago faculty, began to be seriously considered. In some quarters his youthfulness worked against him. President Angell of Yale, the same man who had supported Hutchins for the law-school deanship, wrote to say that he was still five or ten years shy of the maturity required for the presidency of a major university, arguing that he had no acquaintance with general educational problems and tended to be intolerant of people who disagreed with him. On the other side, Hutchins’s youth was his great selling point. A powerful trustee named Edwin Embree, president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, expressed concern lest the university settle into solid respectable mediocrity, and registered the opinion that Hutchins possessed precisely the “youth, imagination, and courage” Chicago needed to lead it back to its great days under William Rainey Harper. After all, Harper had himself been only thirty-five when, with large injections of Rockefeller money, he became the first president of the University of Chicago in 1891. In a final series of interviews with trustees and senior faculty, Hutchins, with his charm, forthrightness, and suave confidence, must have blown away any further possible objections to his candidacy. In April 1929 he was offered the job. The career of “the boy wonder” of American higher education had begun in earnest.
A little jump in standard of living went along with the new job. The Hutchinses now had five live-in servants, among them a butler, a cook, maids, and a nurse for their young daughter, not to mention a gardener and a chauffeur. The presidential mansion was refurbished for them, with a sculpture studio especially built for Maude. Handsome allowances for travel and entertainment made it unnecessary for Hutchins to go very deep into his annual salary of $25,000. The Hutchinses summered with the John D. Rockefeller, Jrs. in Seal Harbor; during the regular university year they were courted by such trustees as Harold Swift, the heir to the meat-packing fortune, who loved the university, and by the rich of Chicago with cultural pretensions. In recounting these details, Harry Ashmore paraphrases Robert Hutchins’s quip about resembling the man who had no desire to be a millionaire, merely to live like one. Like many a good joke, this one was at bottom serious. Hutchins seems never to have cared greatly about money; but prosperity, as they will tell you at your local race track, takes little getting used to, and henceforth Hutchins never lived other than as well as possible.
In its standard version, the myth of Robert Hutchins at Chicago has it that a young and idealistic president in fairly short order turned a respectable but rather staid university into a toweringly great institution. He was able to achieve this in large part through the personal magnetism of the visionary, for Hutchins was nothing if not a man with a steady vision of the course higher education ought to take in the modern world. Hutchins was also the last of the strong university presidents, in the line and tradition of Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, Daniel Coit Gilman of Johns Hopkins, Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia, an educational innovator, reformer, leader. He made enemies, to be sure, but he also changed the character of higher education, not only at his own institution but nationally, with results that continue to reverberate into our own time. Such, as I say, is the standard version of the myth.
In fact, when Hutchins arrived at Chicago in the autumn of 1929, the school, though it lacked the social cachet of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, was probably, department by department, the most intellectually impressive university in the United States. It had been first-class right from the outset, an achievement owing to two factors. The first was William Rainey Harper, a shrewd judge of scholarly talent with a clear sense of what he wanted—namely, a research institution centered on graduate study and modeled on the German university. The second was the money of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., who backed Harper all the way and provided a model of selfless munificence. The combination of Harper’s energy and imagination and Rockefeller’s money built a great university faster than it had ever been done before or is likely ever to be done again.
Harper was said to have been a brilliant teacher, and in his original plan for the university he did not scant undergraduate instruction. After his death in 1907, however, the teaching of undergraduates received less and less attention. When Hutchins arrived, he apparently decided it was here that he could best make his own impress. But there was this decisive difference between Harper and Hutchins: the former was a scholar who knew that the soul of a great university is in scholarship, while the latter was at best someone for whom the world of scholarship was, if not alien, then certainly foreign territory.
There is a story Harry Ashmore does not mention about the young Bob Hutchins. While a junior professor at Yale, he was in contention for a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship that would allow him to undertake two years of independent study wherever and with whomever he wished. When Hutchins learned he was to be made dean of the Yale Law School, he removed his name as a potential candidate for this fellowship. Years later, Hutchins told the historian Abraham Flexner that if he had accepted the fellowship he would never have been made president of the University of Chicago. “Maybe not,” Flexner is said to have replied, “but you would have been prepared to be.”
“The Young Rush In” is the title Mortimer J. Adler gives to the chapter in his autobiography in which he recounts Robert Hutchins’s and his own first year at Chicago. Adler was three years younger than Hutchins; they first met when Hutchins was at Yale, and shortly after accepting the presidency of Chicago Hutchins was able to arrange a three-year contract for Adler as associate professor of philosophy. Straightaway the two men became identified as speaking with one voice. We are talking here about a very odd couple indeed. No Don Quixote ever had a less practical Sancho Panza at his side than Robert Hutchins had in Mortimer Adler. By his own admission, Adler was even less experienced in academic politics than Hutchins and (in Adler’s words) “equally, if not more, impetuous and impatient.”
The relationship of Hutchins and Adler was a peculiar and fateful one, and through various joint projects—among them, Encyclopaedia Britannica and The Great Books of the Western World—would last the rest of Hutchins’s life. Adler was not a mentor but rather more like an intellectual coach. He was better educated than Hutchins, and an even quicker study. Socially and in every other way, however, Hutchins was the dominant and superior figure. On the several occasions when I saw the two men together—they were then both in their sixties—the deference all went one way. Adler treated Hutchins with reverence, Hutchins, it seemed to me, treated Adler with an ever so slightly amused condescension. (Hutchins’s only true confidant was Thornton Wilder, the novelist and playwright, his classmate at Oberlin and later at Yale, whose background—Protestant, ministerial, intellectual, and puritanical—was similar to his own.) But Hutchins’s and Adler’s earlier years together must have been more in the nature of an intellectual, if not a spiritual, partnership.
In their first year at Chicago, Hutchins and Adler were like two Quiz Kids run amok. Earlier, Hutchins had confessed to Adler that, before becoming president of a major university, he had never given much thought to the subject of education. Adler allowed that he hadn’t, either. Yet each young man, in his own self-assured way, felt that no subject could elude his own extraordinary ratiocinative powers. Together they nicely illustrated the limitations of having a powerful IQ with nothing in the way of subtlety, experience, or humility to go along with it.
Right off Adler made plain his contempt for the pragmatic, Deweyan tendency of the university’s philosophy department, and for the intellectual quality of the senior men who staffed it, and word of this quickly got back to them. Adler next wrote a series of memoranda on what he took to be the fallacious assumptions of the social sciences—then as now, la spécialité de la maison at the University of Chicago—and formulated his findings in an address before the local Social Science Research Council. The first sentence Adleresquely ran: “Current research programs in the social sciences are misdirected and methodologically ill-advised because of erroneous conceptions of the nature of science which comprise the ‘raw empiricism’ characteristic of contemporary social science.” At lunch at the faculty club with a number of members of the physics department, Adler remarked that electrons, if Niels Bohr were correct, acted just as angels did, if Thomas Aquinas were correct. (“Should auld Aquinas be forgot” was a favorite Hutchins pun.) This, as you might imagine, put him in solid with the scientists at the university. And the winter quarter wasn’t even over yet.
Before it was, three members of the philosophy department had threatened to resign over an attempt by Hutchins to get three youngish men of Adler’s choosing evaluated along with the candidates being offered jobs by the department itself. Hutchins eventually had to back down, and he found himself saddled with legislation that henceforth restricted his hand in making faculty appointments. He also had to stand by while his friend Adler was bounced out of the philosophy department, with nothing for it but for Hutchins to make him an associate professor in the law school.
Hutchins’s own cavalier style did not help smooth the way. Although he was quite good at raising funds, he used to keep a sign in his desk, brought out to be displayed among friends, that read, “We Launder Dirty Money.” A sign atop his desk read, “Don’t tell the president what he already knows.” Lengthy memoranda from faculty or administrators would frequently meet with replies of a single sentence or even a single word. (Harry Ashmore quotes a colleague, Giuseppe Borgese, amusingly complaining that Hutchins’s terse style refused to recognize the “voluptuous role of the paragraph.”) Certain jobs, and one might think university presidencies among them, call for the abandonment of irony, but Hutchins refused to abandon his, and his quips and cutting remarks tended to get around. Laird Bell, one of the lawyers representing the university in the famous Walgreen case in the middle 1930’s, when the university was charged with subversive teaching, is supposed to have said to Hutchins on their way into a hearing, “I’ll give the university a hundred dollars for every wisecrack you don’t make.”
Such behavior set the stage for one of the great, prolonged pseudo-events in the intellectual history of the University of Chicago: what has since come to be known as the Chicago Fight. This broke out in earnest in 1934 when Hutchins delivered an address, entitled “The New Atlantis,” arguing that contemporary higher education, however scientific its pretensions, was at its core anti-intellectual. Driven by the need to acquire ever new facts, such education was entirely devoid of general propositions which might subsume and lend order to those facts. Worse yet, Hutchins reported:
There are no principles. The world is a flux of events. We cannot hope to understand it. All we can do is to watch it. This is the conclusion of the leading anti-intellectuals of our time, William James and John Dewey.
The Chicago Fight has been variously described as a battle between facts and ideas, between Deweyan empiricism and Aristotelian-Thomist metaphysics, between sheer belligerence and utter benightedness. For nearly half a decade it kept the university in a state of high agitation. After Hutchins’s speech, Adler jumped in with a number of lectures of his own; and a Mortimer J. Adler lecture could get things to the stage of rancor faster than a divorce lawyer. Debates were held, editorials written, friendships broken. Lined up against Hutchins and Adler and their followers were a number of key figures in social science, among them Louis Wirth, Harry Gideonse, and the brilliant economist, Frank Knight. Many wild things were said on both sides, and Hutchins was never to get quite free of the taint of Thomism while he remained at Chicago. But what made the whole thing a pseudo-event, as Edward Shils, who was on the scene, has pointed out, was that it had scarcely any effect on the true life of the university. While Hutchins and Adler were arguing away against the emptiness of science and social science that proceeded without metaphysical underpinnings, precisely those two spheres of intellectual activity went on adding to the already great prestige of the University of Chicago, and continue to do so even to this day.
Insofar as Hutchins’s antagonism toward academic specialization, his insistence on the formulation of the principles underlying knowledge, and his distaste for the “pastlessness” of empirical science and social science helped to shape actual education at Chicago, they did so in his reform of the undergraduate College. Hutchins always felt that these reforms did not go far enough, and in fact his ideas, such as they were, were later put into purer form at St. John’s College in Annapolis. But what Hutchins achieved at Chicago was impressively radical for its day.
Many aspects of Hutchins’s reforms were of administrative interest only; and some were almost immediately abandoned by his successor, Lawrence Kimpton. Notable among them was the decision to allow bright high-school students to enter the College at the end of their sophomore year, thus beginning their higher education at roughly fifteen. This particular innovation opened the way for A.J. Liebling, in The Second City, to remark that “the University of Chicago’s undergraduate college acts as the greatest magnet for neurotic juveniles since the Children’s Crusade, with Robert Maynard Hutchins . . . playing the role of Stephen the Shepherd Boy in the revival.”
At the heart of undergraduate reform at Chicago was what we should today call a core curriculum, except that the College’s was a fixed and serious one, and not merely a blatant attempt to placate touchy minorities. The College simply offered a number of survey courses with such boring titles as Humanities I, II, & III, Social Sciences I, II, & III, Natural Sciences I, II, & III, and so forth, with very few variations. No textbooks were used in any of these courses, only original material: Thucydides and Condorcet and Freud, not accounts of Thucydides, Condorcet, and Freud written by professors at Southern Methodist University.
As for the quality of the education, it varied, as elsewhere, from teacher to teacher. I myself, when I entered the College five years after Robert Hutchins had left, found the reading and the general atmosphere much more impressive than anything that went on in the classrooms. As for the atmosphere, “Every queer and unusual student who disliked athletics and the normal outlets of young people was attracted to Hutchins’s College,” Lawrence Kimpton would later say. That is a bit strong, but, true enough, one’s fellow students were a touch exotic. Certainly there was no type that the university produced as there was once a Princeton man or a Bennington girl. What they had in common was a certain breadth of intellectual ambition behind which lay, I believe, the figure of Robert Hutchins. His persistent putting-down of vocationalism in education and, by implication, his disdain for professionalism—some of which is set out in his book, The Higher Learning in America—found its more receptive audience among the undergraduates at his own university.
For all that Hutchins was wrong or even irrelevant about so much that was important in education, there was nonetheless a grandeur about him, and it was not a false grandeur, or something that could be chalked up, as we tend to do nowadays, to style or “image.” His was bound by inner integrity. Hutchins was, for one thing, intellectually courageous, with nothing of the public-relations man about him; he almost always said what he thought and was prepared to take the fire for having done so. He was politically courageous, too, as witness his unflappable conduct during the Walgreen affair; he was sound on academic freedom, and protected those of his faculty whose political opinions rendered them vulnerable to outside pressure from congressional committees or anyone else. Nothing about Robert Hutchins was small, nothing mean or meaching. He was clearly cut out for great things.
Why, one wonders, did he not achieve them? If Robert Hutchins’s spirit lingered over the University of Chicago long after he left it, his flesh longed to depart much earlier than it did. Hutchins himself used to say that ten years was just about the outer limit for someone to hold on to a university presidency, which would have made his own departure date 1940. But even before that date arrived, Hutchins, after his various intramural battles with Chicago faculty, was considering other jobs. Mortimer Adler had advised him to pack it in and take on the presidency of St. John’s in Annapolis. But much larger, lusher fish were sighted. According to Harry Ashmore, Hutchins was offered the presidency of the New York Stock Exchange but turned it down. Harold Ickes, FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, approached him not long afterward about the chairmanship of the National Recovery Administration, though this particular deal fell through. Hutchins later rejected the chairmanships of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, even though Roosevelt himself suggested that taking such jobs might place him among the candidates for the vice-presidential nomination on the 1940 Democratic ticket.
The job Robert Hutchins apparently truly wanted was a seat on the Supreme Court. But when the first of two such seats became available, it went to Hugo Black; the second went to Hutchins’s longtime friend William O. Douglas. Roosevelt, evidently, never felt fully confident that Hutchins was, in the phrase of a political insider whom Ashmore quotes, “on ‘our side.’ ” So the only job Hutchins really wanted and actually lobbied for, the one job he felt he could have rested content in, was simply not available to him.
In the time left him at Chicago, Hutchins still had lots of fireworks to shoot off, flares to send up, grenades to lob. To go from smaller to larger explosions, Hutchins arranged to drop football, and took Chicago out of the Big Ten: “Football has the same relation to education,” he famously said, “that bullfighting has to agriculture.” As the United States headed toward World War II, Hutchins found himself increasingly sympathetic to the isolationist position, though as a liberal he could never be an America Firster. Irony of ironies, it was to be the University of Chicago, led by this self-declared isolationist, that supplied the resources and facilities to Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Harold Urey, and the other high-powered scientists who worked on what was then known as the Metallurgy Project but what all now know would eventually lead to the development of the atomic bomb. By the time the war was over, Harry Ashmore reports, Chicago “had handled a greater volume of military projects than any other single institution.” What, one wonders, if Hutchins had been frankly in favor of the war?
With the end of the war, university life must have seemed even duller to Hutchins. He had the idea of forming the Committee on Social Thought, which, for better and worse, may be said to have been the origin of so-called interdisciplinary studies in higher education; it was also an excellent resort for extraordinary people who did not seem to fit comfortably in conventional academic niches. When called in on any important appointment—especially from among the German refugee scholars sent into exile by Hitler—his instincts tended to be sure and correct. He remained a powerful raiser of funds; he was always good with the rich, though not above making witticisms about them behind their backs. “The rich,” he used to say, “have one thing in common: a short attention span. When you have that kind of money you don’t have to listen.”
As Hutchins came near his 20th anniversary as president of Chicago, his own work must have bored him blue. He had turned, as he told Mortimer Adler, from an educational administrator to an educational philosopher. His speeches, usually short, never sweet, generally laced with irony, began to be increasingly laden with those pronunciamentos of the snore-inducing kind in which, in our own day, university presidents have come to specialize: education for democracy, education for leisure, education for freedom. There is something particularly hopeless about such subjects, and Hutchins was too clever a man not to recognize it. A man so intellectually ruthless with everyone else could not have been easy on himself.
Hutchins was a notably efficient worker. He rose early, dealt tersely with his correspondence, speed-read his way through memoranda, proposals, and other university business documents, kept to a strict schedule with his daily round of meetings and interviews. He was said to have been able to compose and memorize a speech for perfect delivery in three or four hours. Harry Ashmore recounts a great many such details, but it is a failing of his biography that he tells us very little of Robert Hutchins’s intellectual life. What books did he not speed but merely read? In what direction did his taste run in things of the mind? Did he like novels? (He wrote some faintly amusing light verse.) Did he read history? Did he read at all? When at one point the Committee on Social Thought, at the inspiration of the Chicago editor and publisher Henry Regnery, brought out a magazine entitled Measure, Hutchins served as chairman of its editorial board. Regnery recalls a meeting of the board at which manuscripts were passed out to board members, and someone handed Hutchins an essay on the law. “Why are you giving this to me?” Regnery remembers Hutchins saying. “I no longer know anything about the law. I don’t know anything about anything.”
When in 1950 Hutchins was offered the key associate directorship of the Ford Foundation, responsible for activities having to do with education and world peace, he took it without much hesitation, resigning officially from Chicago at the close of the 1951 spring term. In those days as in ours, apart from a career in the U.S. Senate or as a state governor, where else could a former president of a major university go but into a job at one of the richer foundations? The comforts are roughly the same, the aggravation is less, and the air of unreality likely to be even greater. Irving Kristol once told a young man about to take a foundation job that he would never eat another bad lunch and that no one would ever again tell him the truth. Hutchins made much the same point shortly after joining the Ford Foundation. “It’s a nice job,” he said. “You meet such interested people.”
For the last twenty-six years of his life, Robert Hutchins lived chiefly in that world. Harry Ashmore devotes more than half his book to these years—to the skirmishes, power struggles, and shifting alignments within the institutions in which Hutchins worked—but in anything resembling solid achievement it all came to damnably little.
In time, Hutchins’s job with the Ford Foundation turned into the presidency of the Ford-underwritten Fund for the Republic (“A wholly disowned subsidiary of the Ford Foundation,” as he once described it); and then the Fund for the Republic gave way to the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California. Dwight Macdonald, in The Ford Foundation: The Men and the Millions, passes along the remark of an unnamed observer that Hutchins, with Ford money, was now trying to buy what, as president of the University of Chicago, he couldn’t himself sell—namely, his old ideas about education.
It turned out that he couldn’t buy them, either. Nor did he have much better luck with some of the other ideas he had acquired: the idea of world government, with its apparent need for endless drafts of a world constitution; the idea of the so-called “dialogue,” stressing the importance of intellectual collaboration; and, as an offshoot of the latter, the great splashy international conferences, such as the Pacem in Terris affairs and others that he organized in Florence, at Wingspread, in Rome; and more of the same, sad, thin stuff—all of it talk talk talk, and so little of it good talk.
Liberal-Left though the general drift of Hutchins’s thought tended to be, he was for the most part disdainful of the political movements of the middle and late 60’s. The emotionalism of the counterculture and its crude Marxism, Harry Ashmore reports, put him off; the general coarseness of it all could not have helped. Not that he couldn’t match the New Left at the level of the inflammatory, uninformed generalization, as in the following item: “All we can say of American education is that it’s a colossal housing project designed to keep people out of worse places until they can go to work.” But then Robert Hutchins’s radicalism, as Ashmore wisely notes, was not, like that of the 60’s young, rooted in fantasies of alienation; he had not given up on America and its institutions.
Nobody, however, was really listening to Hutchins during these years, except the stray millionaire he was able to get to pick up the tab for one of his conferences or to meet the expenses for the chat and buffet and salaries at the Center in Santa Barbara. He was never able to attract truly serious people permanently to the Center; despite everything the place offered in the way of luxury and the little it asked in the way of work, it must have resembled nothing so much as an endless talk show to which no one was tuned in. Hutchins had to settle for second- and third-rate academics and such occasional intellectual celebrity freaks as Alex Comfort (author of The Joy of Sex) and Bishop James Pike (who claimed to have been in touch with his dead son). He was loyal to all these people. One of the main patterns of his life was his persistent and enduring loyalty—to, as it seems to me, the wrong people. He died in 1977 worrying about what would become of the Center that in the end he knew was a flop. “Well,” he wrote to his friend Thornton Wilder a few years before his death, “it was a great idea.” But it was not even a good idea, not for a minute.
In the lives of the great, every turn, each unexpected twist, seems in retrospect the exactly right one. Accidents, setbacks, illnesses, unhappiness, family tragedy—all seem to conduce to the production of the masterworks, the grand discoveries, the saving of the nation. In the lives of the almost great who fail, the reverse seems to obtain. Every break, piece of good fortune, natural advantage conduces to the series of sad botches that end in ultimate failure. It was to Thornton Wilder that Hutchins wrote: “I was right to leave [the University of Chicago]; but I went to the wrong place [the Ford Foundation].” But any other place, one feels on reviewing his life, would have been the wrong place, every turn probably a mistake.
Had Hutchins been a mite less quick, less handsome, less lucky in his early years, might he not, given his natural superiority, have done something genuinely, breathtakingly extraordinary? Perhaps; perhaps not. Poor Hutchins. His life was of a kind to set one to composing apothegms about the sad fate of those whom the gods, with their well-known taste for irony, too heavily favor when young.