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.

The story of Hutchins at the University of Chicago is therefore the story of the conflict of the representatives of two distinct missions for higher education. The first mission was collegiate education, self-contained, featuring a four-year first degree, a more or less prescribed curriculum, intense classroom discussion and round-the-clock argument on great themes. (The heavily, possibly one-sided intellectual dimension of American liberal arts education distinguishes it from the Oxford and Cambridge variety, where ‘gentlemanly’ concerns – that is to say, a more rounded view of education – were upheld.) The second mission was university education, knowledge-centred, featuring discovery and linkages to an international community of the learned. And this conflict, which has never really ceased to occupy the attention of American professors, was particularly intense at Chicago.

The polarities were not always as sharp as the dichotomy suggests. Many of Chicago’s famous specialists supported Hutchins’s ideas for a college and provided him with ideas and programmes requisite for its success. Indeed, improvements in undergraduate education were well under way when he first arrived. Although not greatly to his liking, he was forced by circumstances more or less to accept them.

Furthermore, some scholars co-operated with him or were receptive to yet another teaching structure which Hutchins used to outflank departments: the ‘Committees’ for which Chicago remains noted. These, like the best-known Committee on Social Thought (established with family money by the economic historian John Nef), are tiny departments cutting across disciplinary specialism and empowered in certain cases to award undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Hutchins’s Committee on the Liberal Arts was financed from the outside and was used by him to publicise his ideas about collegiate education. Hutchins also realised that to be academically successful, collegiate education had to be closely tied to secondary education, and he established a feeder school for Chicago which made the necessary connections. These innovations did not last, primarily because they went against the grain of larger and more compelling social changes in American life. And if today the Chicago ‘committees’ are possibly among the most successful interdisciplinary teaching arrangements in American higher education, successful because they build upon the realities of disciplinary and cross-disciplinary competence, they can only exist within private élite institutions. They cannot be significantly imitated within the structure of mass higher education.

But the realities of American social history were not in general fully understood by Hutchins, or by his long-standing friend and Socratic daemon, the philosopher Mortimer Adler, who never earned the respect of the Chicago baroni. Part of the admiration that exists for Hutchins is precisely because he dared to go against the American grain rather openly and flamboyantly. Hutchins himself regarded his two decades at Chicago as essentially a failure. His ‘College’ collapsed in the Fifties. It never had the whole-hearted support of the professors, but the principal reason was one of the stubborn facts of American educational history which has defeated college reformers more than once. The student consumers did not want the Hutchins College. The ‘old-time’ American college was not appealing in the big-city Chicago environment of post-war America, Undergraduates desired the same potpourri of courses and lectures, with high levels of choice, that was offered in other American institutions, with the same possibilities of shifting or transferring ‘credits’ to other institutions. Nor did they wish to work as hard as the collegiate curriculum demanded.

Throughout the Thirties and Forties graduate students outnumbered the undergraduates by a multiplier of two or three. Furthermore, the attractions of the Gothic buildings on the Midway were greatly reduced by the growth of inner-city ghettos surrounding the University, a development long in the making, but not easily averted, as McNeill carefully explains.

But there is a positive Hutchins legacy. He had always shown a flair for attracting public attention. His advocacy of Adler’s ‘great books’ education kept alive the idea of an educational canon based on the significant texts of Western civilisation, and his radio broadcasts and network of adult learning centres popularised important ideas and contributed to a high level of public discourse – conspicuously lacking in America today. Not least among his virtues was that he was an indefatigable defender of academic freedom in an era of red-baiting and witch-hunting, having also had to calm the nerves of Chicago trustees worried about student radicals and faculty socialists. For this alone, but also for his feisty advocacy of liberal learning, he earned the sometimes grudging but often outright admiration of the professors with whom he battled for 22 years.

There is no fundamental disagreement between the authors of these two interesting biographies. McNeill, a distinguished historian and past president of the American Historical Association, whose writings on broad historical themes show the best influences of the Hutchins spirit, was a student at Chicago from 1933-1939 and joined the faculty in 1947. He provides a view of the Hutchins years which is respectful and sober. The academic environment was divisive, the educational milieu was hothouse. Such a world would in the nature of things have to cool down. But at the time it was marvellous to have been young, says McNeill, echoing Wordsworth.

Hutchins was the man for the moment, or a moment. His personal defects were considerable. Hutchins took up educational or moral causes without the necessary attention to detail. He was impatient and often high-handed. His famous wit was used to injure or woo, and as an administrator he was occasionally slippery and invariably managed to anger friends and colleagues. His Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara was to be, intellectually, a successor to the ‘College’ at Chicago, but the same defects of personality were apparent on the Pacific as on Lake Michigan. The Centre was eventually absorbed into the University of California and after a short period was dissolved. Women were attracted to Hutchins, but his marriages were unsuccessful, particularly the first.

Dzuback, a younger scholar educated at Columbia University, provides more detail than a memoir can, but likewise conveys a sense of the combative, unsettled yet stimulating environment of Chicago in the Thirties and Forties. Hutchins could not create that excitement single-handedly. It existed well before him. It was characteristically ‘Chicago’ and represented that unique city’s energy, competition, boldness, and defiance of the gentility associated with Ivy League colleges and universities. There was nothing ‘provincial’ about Chicago, but perhaps it took his talent for popularising to make ‘Chicago’ into a national theme in relation to higher education.

In its day, and to a certain extent, Chicago also took the national lead in what now passes under the umbrella label of ‘affirmative action’. It was probably first among the great American research institutions in appointing women, and for many years now has had a woman as president. Chicago also attracted a high proportion of Jewish students, as much as 29 per cent of the entering class by the mid-Thirties, and McNeill claims that nowhere else in the United States, not even in New York City, could the children of Jewish immigrants find as ready an upward path as at Chicago. However, nervous about its open-door policy because of outside complaints, the college admissions office reduced the numbers of Jews and ‘possibly African-Americans’ in the final years before the outbreak of war. Did Hutchins realise or approve of this policy?

Just at the moment American university communities are obsessed by questions of pluralism and diversity. Campus ‘hate’ crimes attract newspaper attention, as well they should. Access, quotas, near-quotas, proportional representation are bitterly argued. The existence of overt or structural discrimination in hirings and promotions is among the nation’s most controversial issues. But these are also signs of a much more sensitive and responsive academic environment. No one today can really prove that ethnic, racial or religious discrimination is anywhere near the levels experienced in American colleges and universities some thirty-five years ago. The University of Chicago’s own past record of housing, medical treatment and other services for African-American students was dreadful.

Jewish undergraduates – and now, in States like California, undergraduates of Asian descent – have been such a strong and important proportion of the total numbers passing through universities that a younger generation of scholars and scientists cannot remember how much outright or disguised prejudice existed in American academic life before the Second World War, especially with respect to faculty appointments. For would-be professors of Jewish background, the breakthrough came late – in the humanities and the older social sciences, not until roughly the Fifties. Klingenstein and others have suggested that newcomers had a better chance in the sciences, or at least in developing fields like anthropology. However, wherever ‘genteel’ considerations still operated, notably in departments of English and History, the disciplines remained relatively Judenrein. And even if hiring restrictions could be overcome, tenure was still an impassable barrier.

A continent-sized nation, with distinct regions, a large population of mixed and diverse origins, plural in religion and ethnicity, is bound to spend much of its cultural capital on deciding how to define the quintessential ‘American’. The confusion is likely to be greater if that nation officially proclaims the ideals of merit and opportunity while drawing lines of social distinction in everyday life. In such circumstances, those who are in a position to offer opportunities for advancement, as well as those who yearn for such opportunities, are likely to display hesitation and ambivalence in their actions and relationships.

Klingenstein’s interest is in this process. Because departments of English literature were the most resistant to hiring academics of Jewish background, she concentrates on these. And to keep her analysis manageable, she confines herself to the first group of Jews to enter the teaching departments at Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton – foundations with ‘college’ traditions. It is precisely in departments labelled ‘humanities’ and particularly those concerned with the ‘English’ heritage of tolerance and liberty that we would expect to find men (it was always men) of large views and compassion. There were indeed some. They educated the generation of Jews that eventually replaced them as professors. But the stress must rest on ‘eventually’, for few of the academics possessed Hutchins’s out-spoken passion for fairness. Harvard virtually refused to accept refugees from Nazi Germany on its teaching staff, New York University was pure, Princeton employed a Jewish professor but probably without knowing his parentage, and Yale was busy in the Thirties applying quotas on undergraduate admissions, as did Columbia.

Klingenstein is less interested in the reasons why exclusion was practised than in how Jewish arrivals coped psychologically with the rituals of acceptance. Hers is hardly the first study of the social psychology of Jewish emancipation. In the Seventies John Murray Cuddihy wrote on the burdens of ‘civility’ and the ordeal of becoming a gentleman. Numerous biographies of German or English Jews have examined the identity problems arising from first-generation assimilation of minority into majority cultures. It is also clear from the Hutchins biographies that Adler’s personal (New York?) manner did not appeal to many of the Chicagoans, despite the relative social freedom of the Midway. While teaching he slapped his desk and badgered students. But Klingenstein’s emphasis is on the relationship between assimilation and the resulting intellectual styles, what she calls the ‘intellectual grammar’, the mode of thought which Jews inherited from their ‘descent’ culture and took with them into their ‘consent culture’.

That consent culture was talmudic or rabbinic and was transmitted over the centuries by academies or yeshivot. Intellectually, the culture was a highly rational system of theological, ethical and legal reasoning based on precise textual material. Jewish reasoning, as she points out, involved a dialectical, lexical way of analysing both the fact and the meaning of a central event in Jewish history, the exodus from Egypt. Was this ‘freedom’ or ‘bondage’? The question arose because freedom did not automatically result in piety, and for the rabbis the absence of piety was tantamount to self-imposed bondage. The paradoxes were enhanced by the similarity of the two words in Hebrew, since both shared the same root.

The rabbis or mitnagdim of the great Eastern European academies were hermeneutical scholars whose methods of analysis and understanding were fiercely opposed to those of the new mystical Hasidic sects springing up in 18th-century Poland and spreading rapidly through the Ashkenazi communities. The mitnagdim, it is fair to say, were mainstream intellectuals who distrusted the ecstasies that led to the well-known disasters associated with the false messiahs of the Medieval period.

Jewish rationalism – text-based, scholastic, interpretative, exegetical, linguistic, word-splitting – was, according to Klingenstein, in all reasoning essentials parallel to the type of literary criticism developing in Britain and America since the end of the 19th century. Where that criticism was ‘historical’ – that is, characterological, designed to praise the singular national features of English or American literature – it was correspondingly less congenial to Jewish rationalism. Consequently the difference between Jewish and Anglo-Saxon culture, rather than the similarities, stood out.

Klingenstein’s story of the emotional and intellectual dimensions of freedom – that is to say, of Jewish emancipation – is told through a series of portraits intended to be case-studies. This familiar method of intellectual history works very well here. The result is a well-presented and comprehensive view of the varieties of assimilation in the first half of the 20th century. Klingenstein is a learned, subtle observer of the conflict of cultures, having herself made the transition from German into American Jewish life. She is also judicious, distinguishing between the types of prejudice and the exact circumstances in which prejudices were and are manifested.

She is especially good in recognising self-deception. She is not, for example, afraid to say ‘nonsense’ when commenting upon Lionel Trilling’s attempts to think about Jews as just another ‘class’. She more than hints at the rationalisations connected with statements by him to the effect that Judaism and ‘the novel’ are ‘identical in their observance of the ordinary’ (from another point of view the comparison is, however, interesting). Self-deception occurs when Kultur is substituted for religion on the grounds that the core of religious belief is really only a universalised ethical culture that the enlightened share.

Rabbinic rationalism, the philosophical methods of the mitnagdim, the ‘intellectual grammar’ of the Oral Tradition, were put to new use in an alien environment by the children of Jewish immigrants, many of whom were also born abroad. The story is told of Rabbi Akiba and his disciples who spent a night discussing the Exodus and had to be reminded at dawn that the hour for morning prayers had come. For morning prayers substitute Morningside Heights. When the process of assimilation described by Klingenstein was completed with Trilling’s tenured appointment at Columbia, prayers were no longer required. Literary critics of Jewish origins no longer thought is necessary to debate the root differences or root obligations of bondage and freedom. The binary thinking which lay at the heart of Judaism had outlived its usefulness.

Not that Jewish mysticism in Western romantic costume played no part in the process of enculturation. In the case of Ludwig Lewisohn it became increasingly intense, but Klingenstein attributes his rebirths and transformations to rejection by the academy. His travagances were the mechanisms he used to cope with exclusion. By the Sixties, with Trilling now a central figure in American academic letters, newer generations of Jewish scholars would look upon the world with completely different eyes. Born and raised in the United States, they were indeed free to go a-whoring after the strange gods of Freudianism and Deconstruction, attacking in harsh ways that academic establishment their predecessors had struggled to enter.

It is interesting to follow Klingenstein’s well-argued account of the dynamics of assimilation, which provides one model for examining how minority cultures adapt to dominant cultures through the institution of the university. But of course the really central changes lay outside the academy, although some members of the academy contributed to them. By the Sixties America itself had changed. Genteel anti-semitism was no longer as acceptable. The civil rights movement was pushing the nation rapidly towards desegregation, to be followed in the late Seventies and Eighties by affirmative action, and in the Nineties by a fundamental questioning of whether the nation had, or was entitled to have, a dominant or majority culture which newcomers must acquire as a condition of their emancipation. The ‘celebration’ of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America, expected to inspire pride and thanksgiving, is not having quite the desired effect.

The appropriate educational institution for a nation of immigrants or a land without a majority culture would appear to be the multiversity. In the multiversity pluralism flourishes, and there is a place for everyone irrespective of origins. Tolerant, inconsistent, unsnobbish, promising to civilise no one (and therefore imposing no burdens of civility), the multiversity, said Kerr, is unloved. There are no pious founders, no portraits in hall, little campus lore or tales of unworldly professors. The very mention of the neologism instantly conjures up the hateful association ‘bureaucracy’. No one can love the multiversity even with its satellite ‘colleges of letters and science’ as Americans have customarily loved their socially superior, clubbish, intellectually high-minded ‘college’. See Allan Bloom, who from the safety of the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago mocks mass education in The Closing of the American Mind. That is, no one would love the multiversity in and for itself were it not for intercollegiate football, which heresiarchs like Hutchins banish from new churches much as Plato suggested be done with poets.