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Robert Hutchins (1899–1977)

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A major voice for general education in American higher education, Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote, spoke about, and influenced public policy during his almost fifty years as teacher, educator, and administrator. Known in the educational world for his enthusiasm and dedication to liberal education with an emphasis on the Great Books and great ideas, he was also, during various times in his career, an ardent defender of academic freedom in the university and of democratic freedoms and principles in American society. He was known, too, for his style, wit, and sense of humor as he argued for what were often both iconoclastic and unpopular points of view.

Hutchins, born in Brooklyn, New York, moved at age eight to Oberlin, Ohio, where his father, a minister, taught at Oberlin College, an institution Hutchins attended from 1915 to 1917. He served in the ambulance service during World War I prior to attending and graduating from Yale University (1921) and the Yale Law School (1925). He was named dean of the Yale Law School in 1927 where he presided until 1930, when he became the youngest president ever of a major university, the University of Chicago. Upon leaving the University of Chicago in 1951, he spent four years with the Ford Foundation (1951–1954) and then the remainder of his career with the Ford Foundation-sponsored Fund for the Republic (1954–1977) and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (1959–1973, 1975–1977).

While president of the University of Chicago (1930–1951), Hutchins was an eloquent spokesperson for a particular view of higher education. A liberal education was a moral endeavor to discover what was good and how to act on it. He believed that the university should nurture the life of the mind and be a community of scholars rather than an organization without a core, with specialization in the disciplines, and with increased vocationalism framing the curriculum. An expression of his approach was the Hutchins College of the University of Chicago, where young students who had not yet finished high school were admitted to study and acquired a liberal education and where, for example, successful completion of a degree was based on passing comprehensive examinations rather than accumulating course credits. The pedagogical model of choice was small discussion classes and the Socratic method, and the content for discussions included interacting with the Great Books.

Hutchins was a controversial administrator and no area of the university escaped his scrutiny. He continually engaged members of the University of Chicago faculty in attempts to make the university, from his point of view, more just and equitable. In the extracurricular arena, despite the fact that the University of Chicago dominated football in the Western Conference (later to become the Big Ten) and one of its players was the first Heisman trophy winner, Hutchins in 1939 convinced the university that it should drop intercollegiate football. He purportedly claimed, as the reason for dropping it, that it was possible to win 12 letters before learning to write one.

During his presidency at Chicago, Hutchins defended the university and its faculty in academic freedom issues. A staunch defender of free speech in both the academy and in a democratic society, his principled defenses prevailed. When the case of one faculty member accused of teaching communism was to be discussed by the board of trustees, a faculty colleague confronted Hutchins and said: "If the trustees fire [the faculty member], you will receive the resignations of 20 full professors tomorrow morning. Hutchins replied, "Oh, no, I won't. My successor will" (Mayer, p. xii).

During his tenure at the university Hutchins was involved in the publication of the Great Books of the Western World and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These two enterprises both enhanced Chicago's reputation and brought additional monetary resources for use in the university. Despite his opposition to the pragmatists in the philosophy department, Hutchins was a consummately successful fundraiser who had no difficulty spending money (he always exceeded the yearly university budget).

During World War II Hutchins committed the university to complete support of the war effort. The university was the site, or more precisely and perhaps ironically, a squash court under the football stands in Stagg Field was the site, of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. This theoretical advance, a part of the Manhattan project, led, of course, to the first atomic bomb and the beginning of the nuclear age. After the war Hutchins tried but failed to get nuclear physicists to not disseminate their knowledge and techniques and to discontinue such work.

Hutchins' strong beliefs in democratic values and his defense of fundamental freedoms continued during his tenure with Fund for the Republic, a Ford Foundation-sponsored organization. He led a number of projects that directly opposed the political machinations of the now infamous Joseph McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and other groups that perceived communist threats to the United States. Among the most devastating projects of the Fund for the Republic was one that produced a two-volume report of blacklisting in industry with an emphasis on television and the movies. Hutchins, however, did not emerge unscathed from this work and was attacked by the press and popular media for his views.

During its first few years the Fund for the Republic concentrated on projects that produced information and knowledge that could be widely disseminated. The major activity of the fund from the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, however, was support for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. His last attempt to create a community of scholars, the Center in Santa Barbara, California, was a place for resident scholars and invited guests to discuss serious issues. Under Hutchins the Center hosted and supported numerous international conferences and a publishing enterprise that created an international presence for its deliberations.


ASHMORE, HARRY S. 1989. Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins. Boston: Little, Brown.

HUTCHINS, ROBERT MAYNARD. 1936. The Higher Learning in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

HUTCHINS, ROBERT MAYNARD. 1943. Education for Freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University.

HUTCHINS, ROBERT MAYNARD. 1968. The Learning Society. New York: Praeger.

MAYER, MILTON. 1993. Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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