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If you are a lover of knowledge, you probably have encountered a set of encyclopedia-like books with the names of famous thinkers and writers across their bindings. These books, The Great Books of the Western World, contain a wealth of knowledge, including the most important ideas, stories, and discoveries produced by Western thinkers and writers from Homer to Freud.

They are also the legacy of one of the greatest leaders in the history of U.S. education: Robert Maynard Hutchins (17 January 1899–17 May 1977). The Great Books remain the most visible symbol of his broad liberal educational philosophy.
Hutchins led a prolific yet tumultuous career as the President of the University of Chicago by never shying away from vocalizing his often unpopular opinions on liberal education. His beliefs and executive actions include some of the most innovative yet controversial events in modern education: abolishment of the football program, downsizing overspecialized and vocational education, granting two-year degrees, permitting students to determine when they were ready to be tested over subject matter, and defending academic freedom by condemning loyalty oaths by professors during the 1950s. From his roots as the son of a teacher and evangelical minister in Brooklyn, throughout his years as a student at Oberlin College, a soldier in World War I, and into his career as Dean of Yale’s Law school and President of the University of Chicago, Hutchins’s educational service placed his life story in the company of Dewey, Adler, and Whitehead.

Hutchins was the son of William James Hutchins, an evangelical minister with deep roots in education and religion. In his sermons—famous for their zeal and persuasive power—he preached to his congregation the need to take responsibility for issues like graft in city government, abuses inflicted on children, urban poverty, and the plight of poor blacks, whom he said were God’s children.
His father also impacted Hutchins and his brothers on a cerebral level. As a young man, the elder Hutchins was intellectually driven, graduating second in his class from Yale. In 1907, when Hutchins was eight years old, the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, when his father accepted a post as Professor of Homiletics. As the son of a college professor, Hutchins was exposed early to university life, often socializing or eating with the students and professors.

After he graduated from Oberlin Prep Academy in 1915, Hutchins attended Oberlin College.
Persuaded by the fervor of nationalism, Hutchins left Oberlin in 1917 to fight in World War I. He and his older brother joined the Oberlin unit of the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps. Upon his return, Hutchins’ transferred from Oberlin College to Yale University, where he finished his undergraduate degree. At Yale, he became more successful as a student, fulfilling his degree requirements during his junior year and participating in a number of extracurricular activities. He edited the campus page of the Yale Alumni Weekly, was a member of the debating fraternity, was elected class orator by his peers, and won the DeForest Prize for best speech, which focused on education. In this speech, he argued against educational opportunity based solely on intellectual merit. He declared that all people should have the opportunity to be educated.

In 1921, after his graduation from Yale, Hutchins moved to Lake Placid, where he worked as a History and English teacher at the private Lake Placid School. The school was a college-preparatory institution designed for sons of wealthy families who had dropped out of other schools but still needed to pass the College Board Examination to secure entrance to a university. Hutchins thought that most of his efforts were spent on disciplining rather than teaching. Consequently, Hutchins accepted Yale President James Rowland Angell’s offer to become his secretary.

In his new post, Hutchins continued his studies in law, graduated at the top of his class, and was awarded the position of lecturer in the school. Later, he attained the rank of Associate Professor and, finally, was named the Dean of Yale Law School.
At this time in his life, he began to formulate his philosophy of education. He felt that law school was the only place at which he learned the liberal arts because the curriculum included reading, writing, thinking, and speaking effectively—all essential skills of a liberal artist. These skills, along with the great works of Western thought were not taught thoroughly at Oberlin. Hutchins later claimed that he did not learn anything at Oberlin and considered himself uneducated upon graduation. Before he attended law school, Hutchins reported that he had read only three good books: the Bible, part I of Faust, and one dialogue of Plato. He recognized the importance of the great books and the liberal arts, and began his crusade to make both central to an undergraduate education.

Hutchins became the President of the University of Chicago in 1929 at the age of 30. Although young and inexperienced, he ultimately changed the roles of the presidency and the university. At the time of his inauguration, the University of Chicago was known as a leading research institution, with the undergraduate and graduate programs taking a back seat to professional writing, research, and publication. Hutchins, with his vision that the university graduate individuals liberally educated in the great works of the Western World, moved the undergraduate program to the forefront.

A report by Dean Chauncey S. Boucher suggested that the university should offer one program with the first two years focused on general introductory courses, instead of having four separate undergraduate programs. Students later would be allowed elective choices of studies. Hutchins incorporated this experimental program at Chicago. He also persuaded the faculty and trustees to permit high school juniors to begin their college experience instead having to wait until they graduated from high school. He established a four-year general education curriculum alongside the two-year general college. Additionally, he slowly wrenched the focus of the university from research, vocational studies, and extracurricular activities to a liberal education by which students of all ages could receive a degree in general courses across the curriculum, in which critical inquiry was the central ethos.

While Hutchins was battling his liberal arts crusade at the university, he and Mortimer Adler, a notable philosopher from Columbia University, began to edit The Great Books of the Western World. This series was created to make it financially possible for adults to educate themselves in the classics. Hutchins and Adler also created the Great Books Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to educate teachers, adults, and adolescents in the Great Books. Throughout the nation, area chapters sprang up and gave people a vehicle for continuing to educate themselves after college. To Hutchins’s credit, the Foundation functions today, with several chapters thriving in cities across the nation and in several countries.

Hutchins accomplished these achievements against a backdrop of turmoil. His relationships with the faculty and trustees became strained because many did not agree with his innovations; enrollment declined; many prestigious faculty members left the university; and the neighborhood surrounding the university became a slum. Many of these tragedies were directly linked to the war and the Depression, but they were also linked to Hutchins’ obduracy. Hutchins left Chicago under a cloud of controversy and negativity.

He was disappointed that the modern university was not designed solely to train individuals in the classical sense, and he continued for many years to channel this still unquenched frustration into organizations that promoted education according to his ideals. His post-presidency positions included director of the Ford Foundation (1951), president of the Fund for the Republic (1954), creator of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (1959), and chairman of the board of editors for Encyclopedia Britannica (1949–74).

Despite evidence to the contrary, Hutchins’s crusade for a liberally trained populace was more than a partial victory. Most universities require two years of general course work in a common body of knowledge in their schools of liberal arts. Moreover, reading, writing, thinking, and speaking are still the foremost skills parents want their children to learn, teachers want their students to master, businesses want their employees to use, and above all what Hutchins and Great Books would say are prerequisites to individuals knowing their world and their place in it.

Contributed by Jamin Carson, The University of Texas at Austin


Dzuback, M. A. 1991. Robert M. Hutchins: Portrait of an educator. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hutchins, R. M. 1936. The higher learning in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Hutchins, R. M. 1943. Education for freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Hutchins, R. M. 1952. The great conversation: The substance of a liberal education. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
Hutchins, R. M. 1953a. The conflict in education in a democratic society. New York: Harper.
Hutchins, R. M. 1953b. The university of utopia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hutchins, R. M. 1968. The learning society. New York: F. A. Praeger, Inc..
Mayer, M. 1993. Robert Maynard Hutchins: A memoir. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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