Education and Exclusion

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago 1929-1950 by William McNeill
    Chicago, 194 pp, $24.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 226 56170 4
  • Robert M. Hutchins: Portrait of an Educator by Mary Ann Dzuback
    Chicago, 387 pp, $24.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 226 17710 6
  • Jews in the American Academy 1900-1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation by Susanne Klingenstein
    Yale, 248 pp, £22.50, November 1991, ISBN 0 300 04941 2

In the 1960s President Clark Kerr of the University of California explained why the multiversity can absorb dreamers and utopians without exciting affection. The ‘idea’ of a multiversity is that it has no conception of ‘essence’. The multiversity has a long nave with plentiful seating and many smaller circumjacent chapels. In the next decade, David Riesman and Gerald Grant continued in the same vein but added: ‘Occasionally a visionary from one of the side altars will seize the main pulpit ... to lecture the vulgar utilitarians and then march off to found a rival church.’ Among the Luthers they placed Robert Maynard Hutchins.

Hutchins is the wunderkind of pre-Sixties American higher education. In fact, as Kerr foresaw, he may well be among the last of a type for a very long time. For about a hundred years, if not longer, American colleges and universities were virtually built or shaped by strong-willed presidents backed by admiring, powerful lay boards of trustees into whose charitable hands Americans placed their hopes and expectations. Presidents raised money. They hired, promoted and more or less dismissed professors, cajoled or bullied them into accepting innovations and devised means of going around them when opposition stiffened. In the process they captured media attention and became well-known public figures. In the Eighties one of them even became national commissioner of baseball.

The professors sometimes respected their presidents. Often they feared them, laughed at them or simply waited them out – a rather more difficult task in the past than at present, when academic leadership turns over every five to ten years. Europeans were naturally appalled. Their vice-chancellors and rectors did not actually ‘run’ universities. Neither did the ministries which funded higher education on the Continent. The heads merely presided, while the faculties and senates governed according to hoary precedents derived from guild organisation and the precepts of practitioner-based education.

Hutchins was 30 years old when he arrived in Chicago in 1929. He was a Midwesterner laundered through Yale Law School, where his striking good looks, administrative abilities and oratorical skills made a highly favourable impression. He was rewarded with a number of minor administrative posts. Yale in his day was making the transition from ‘college’ to ‘university’. Indeed, everywhere in the United States postgraduate and professional education were flexing their 20th-century muscles. But other reforming ideas were also making the rounds, and Hutchins was attracted to these. His interest, as both biographers agree, was less in the ideas themselves than in how they could be used to promote further reforms. Hutchins had, in fact, some of the qualities of Roosevelt (from whom many years later he expected but never received an appointment to the bench of the Supreme Court). Both had a talent for popularising difficult ideas. In both, charisma and sophistication were combined with a certain superficiality.

The response to the challenges tossed up by stronger postgraduate forms of education was a renewed interest in, and attempts to strengthen, undergraduate education, and especially to undo some of the effects of the modular course and elective course-credit systems that had taken over American collegiate education in the second half of the 19th century. Despite the prestige enjoyed by the leading research universities today, Americans have always been sentimentally attached to the university college of the Colonial period, and periodically feel that Alma Mater has been violated and led astray. In the 1920s Alexander Meikeljohn established an Experimental College at the state university of Wisconsin. Columbia University, a model in some respects for all reformers, was well advanced in its new and successful collegiate curriculum of ‘great’ ideas and ‘great’ books. Rollins College in Florida was a place for radical reform and disagreement and inspired, after a fashion, the short-lived Black Mountain College founded in the Thirties. The University of California at Santa Cruz, established in the Sixties, tried to base itself on the collegiate organisation of Cambridge.

Hutchins’s affection always lay with the college. His father, an evangelical minister, was professor of theology at the ‘serious’ Ohio liberal arts college, Oberlin, until 1920. The college idea was therefore intertwined in his mind with his father’s devoted and austere religious moralism and associated notions of proper and upstanding conduct. The college represented a generalised education, broad and sweeping, aimed at the production of worthy citizens dedicated to America’s welfare and traditional belief in progress and democracy.

To these aims, shared by American educational leaders elsewhere, Hutchins added concerns of his own. For one thing – one can hear the voice of Matthew Arnold, who has always had an uncommon influence on the rhetoric of American liberal education – there was the ‘flat mediocrity, crass commercialism, narrow politics, irreligion of commonplace affairs’. But in the Thirties new and strange horrors appeared which needed combating. Totalitarian governments had been established in Russia and Germany – Germany, of all places, the source of so much inspiring Humboldtian language about the spiritual and higher ends of education! After the Second World War, Hutchins’s emotional energy was directed towards warnings about the dangers of nuclear research. Ironically, he was President at Chicago when the nation’s first atomic reactor was constructed in secret beneath the west stands of Stagg Field as part of the initial phase of the Manhattan Project. How much he knew about what was going on is an open question.

The American postgraduate school was not, in his view, a place where young minds were likely to receive the instruction essential to America’s moral health. The University of Chicago was a case in point. Founded in 1892 and heavily endowed by gifts from the Rockefeller family, Chicago was home to another kind of Humboldtian education – that of academic specialism and research. The departmental organisation, based on scholarly and scientific disciplines, was well entrenched.

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