ALMOST WISE: Robert Maynard Hutchins and the Reform of the Curriculum

James A. Patrick

 

Hutchins was one of those great American originals of whom the Midwest was so productive in the late nineteenth century. Born in 1885 to the family of a professor and minister, Hutchins became, after detours through an unsatisfactory secondary education, the Great War, law school, and prep school teaching, president of the University of Chicago. The formative partnership in his career as a teacher was his association with Mortimer Adler, who had moved to Chicago from Columbia in 1918, bringing with him the idea which, when located in the context of Hutchins’ experience and interest, and reinforced by his authority, produced the Great Books curriculum.

Hutchins had by 1929, when he wrote the autobiographical chapter in Education for Freedom, realized that the education offered in American colleges and universities did not educate, that it did not even pretend an interest in principles and causes, that it was the regime of what the eighteenth century would have called empirics, taking refuge in the obviousness of the empirical, a commitment which in turn tended to direct universities first to research and finally to a love of money.

Of Adler, Hutchins wrote: "He had discovered that merely reading was not enough. He had found that the usefulness of reading was in some way related to the excellence of what was read and the plan for reading it…. Mr. Adler further represented to me that the sole reading of university presidents was the telephone book. He intimated to me that unless I did something drastic, I would close my career as a wholly uneducated man."

Hutchins then spent the remainder of his career perfecting his own education, becoming an example of the very process from which teaching or leadership in any College derives its power and attacking all those sociological, institutional, and intellectual dragons who waited along the way. He denounced vocationalism. He asserted that the primary purpose of education was intellectual, thereby contradicting the contemporary wisdom that, as a midwestern university president wrote, "Education is not even primarily intellectual, certainly not chiefly intellectual. It is the process by which the emotions are socialized." Hutchins defended the proposition that truth exists and may be known, for which effort he was occasionally called an absolutist or, in the thirties, a Fascist. Above all, he insisted that wisdom and goodness are the aim of higher education.

To read Hutchins’ The Higher Learning in America (1936) or Education for Freedom (1943) is still, six decades later, water in the desert. The enemies of higher learning Hutchins identified as professionalism, the isolation of discipline from discipline which professionalism produces, and the anti-intellectualism which inevitably follows in the train of isolation. The healing of the university lay, so Hutchins wrote, in that general education which encouraged the development of the intellectual virtues. "Our erroneous notion of progress has thrown the classics and the liberal arts out of the curriculum, overemphasized the empirical sciences, and made education the servant of any particular movement in contemporary society, no matter how superficial." In fact liberal learning should draw out the common elements in human nature, teaching them in a curriculum arranged around what Hutchins called permanent studies. The end was to be a person of cultivated intellect capable of using and defending the freedom of a free society.

What Adler and Hutchins proposed, although they did not always write as if conscious of it, was in some ways a return to the formative principles of the collegiate curriculum as it had existed about 1820. That curriculum had indeed consisted of great books: Virgil, Homer, Euclid, Sallust, Terrence, Livy; the philosophers and poets anthologized in the Graeca Majora and the stalwarts of the Scottish Enlightenment, Thomas Reid and Dougald Stewart. The time when collegiate education had been genuinely liberal education, organized around great books and directed toward cultivation of the intellect, lay not in the distant past, but in the age of Madison and Castlereagh, in the reformed Oxford of the 1830’s, resistant to the utilitarian proposals of Sir Robert Peel and Lord Brougham that had chagrined Newman; and in the tiny colleges of the eastern seaboard as they were before the war of 1861 and before the influence of the Prussian model had married the vernacular utilitarianism of the American frontier.

There was, however, one very pronounced difference between the Hutchins-Adler proposal and the classical learning of the early nineteenth century which it in part imitated. With relentless consistency, the colleges founded in the United States before 1840 had proclaimed their academic purpose to be inseparable from a moral purpose, with the moral purpose understood not as some vague interest in humanitarian goodness, not even as instruction in such knowledge of God as reason might discover, but rather as the integration of the curriculum around the truths of Christianity and the direction of the vision of every student to Jesus Christ. That at least was the rhetoric, and if students were not touched deeply by it-- and some were--they were at least presented with an idea, represented by their College as the highest and best of ideas.

And this academic interest in knowledge of God was more than an idea. This Christian purpose had of course been the implicit purpose at the heart of every College or University founded in Christendom since the Cathedral schools, and the sixteenth century had not changed it. The highest discipline had always been theology, the highest profession the priesthood, the highest goal of life the will of God; and though Hooker and Paley, Wollebius and Edwards were substituted for Thomas, and the protestant ministry for the priesthood of the Catholic Church, the Christian classicism of the schools remained in place. Hutchins observed correctly that "the medieval university had a principle of unity. It was theology." He failed to note that in 1830, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, as well as fledgling Catholic schools like Georgetown and Spring Hill had the same principle.

But theology as a discipline and God as an ultimate purpose were, Hutchins believed, unavailable to the modern college or university. "These are other times," he wrote. "Theology is banned by law from some universities. It might as well be from the rest. Theology is based on revealed truth and on articles of faith. We are a faithless generation and take no stock in revelation.… To look to theology to unify the modern university is futile and vain."

Odd arguments from one who believed that truth cannot be impugned historically, insisting, as Hutchins did, that Thomas Aquinas ought not be read because he was medieval. Odd also from the pen of one who had defended the great books, unless one is willing to claim that the Bible is not a great book. But there were many reasons for this position. Like so many academics of his day, Hutchins was reared in a household in which morning prayers and Bible reading were routine, but in maturity he found it "very hard...to go to Church." And on one practical point, Hutchins was right. Theology could not be taught in most modern universities.

But a solution, or what seemed to be a solution, was at hand. In the modern university metaphysics would unify the curriculum. Philosophy, sola ratione, uncursed by the appeal to faith and revelation, would do what theology, which would simply be omitted, could not. And thus began the perfervid attempt to reconstruct learning without the discipline which had for fifteen hundred years crowned the curriculum, from the fourth century to the Harvard of Dr. Willard and even later in the South, by leaving out the only study which, if man is God’s creature, is quite obviously most important and by omitting the study of that one reality who is above all other realities because He is their gracious source.

It did not go well from the beginning because Hutchins violated his own rules. The enemy of pragmatism, he succumbed to it on the most important point. The advocate of great books, he omitted the greatest. Newman had warned of what would follow. If theology were omitted from the circle of the sciences, its place would be taken by a lesser discipline. Hutchins’ scheme suggested that, since theology was unavailable to the modern university, metaphysics would be used to supply the curriculum its first principles. The proposal moved the curriculum into the mainstream of Enlightenment thought, onto the intellectual terrain of Kant, Leibnitz, and Hume, the same terrain Al1an Bloom had recommended in The Closing of the American Mind. The thought that some guiding discipline should be established at the top of the curriculum was intelligible and well intentioned, but the consequence of making philosophy that discipline is the perpetual instability and regrettable partiality of the great books curriculum.

The most obvious reason why this accommodating tack must fail Newman gave in 1852. The university, indeed any place in which the liberal arts are taught, must accept responsibility for teaching everything that is true. The curriculum of any school that undertakes the task of educating its students liberally advertises the convictions those who teach hold regarding truth. If theology is not taught, the reasonable conclusion is that nothing true is known about God and his revelation. That this is the case even in faculties of the liberal arts is a major influence in the privatizing of religion in modernity. If theology is not truth but a passion, or feeling, or object of some need, then it need not be represented in the curriculum. But if God is not only truth but the foundation of every other truth, theology must not only be represented, but must be given the place the nobility of its object and the certainty of revelation require.

Failure to include that teaching which lies beyond philosophy because it comes from God renders the other disciplines incomplete, half-blind. Philosophy without theology, natural wisdom without that supernatural wisdom which perfects it, rapidly becomes a rationalism, which in turn gives way to skepticism. Philosophy does have a wonderful formality and a splendid method which is its own. But it is the nature of philosophy that it leads the student to a borderland beyond which lie the greatest questions of life. Does the God whom philosophy discerns surely but obscurely care for you and me? Is there any help for my unrighteousness? Is reality personal and specific or merely ideal? Does evil have any redemptive meaning? Christianity answers these questions with its great dogmatic assertion of the Trinity, the Incarnation, creation, original sin, the sacraments, and the entire body of theological truth. It dares to name Jesus Christ the Son of the Eternal Father and the center of reality. Philosophy refreshed by this intellectual vision can return to its task secure in the knowledge of a fruition and a stability which without Christ it must always lack, and which, absent, must drive philosophy either into the hubris which makes it usurp the place of revelation, or into a relativism that makes it sterile.

The truth that sacred doctrine teaches gives learning its necessary character, for learning can only flourish in an atmosphere in which there is a disposition of humility based upon the awareness that we are given knowledge which is not our own, that is, an intellectual climate in which revelation is methodologically available and reverently received in an intellectual way. Great ideas are always engaging, but learning is located in a living soul, and the disposition of that soul toward what is learned is as important as the text or idea. The way to truth is a disposition to humility.

The reform of the curriculum which Hutchins foresaw and for which he labored was a great and generous idea destined always to go wrong because Hutchins lacked the courage to follow truth where it must lead. How understandable this is. When Hutchins wrote that in modernity theology cannot be the crown of the liberal arts curriculum, he clearly meant that in the institutions created in America and Europe since the Enlightenment, giving theology, hence revelation, hence God, the intellectual due that belongs to the highest reality is politically impossible. The eighth century is upon us again, the world in which the barbarians rule just beyond the frontiers of our mind, in which learning is a flickering light in a dark and disorganized world. We have been there before.

Two final disclaimers: by taking Hutchins to task it has not been my intention to suggest that the study of theology should occupy the major portion of the undergraduate’s time or usurp the place of philosophy or any other discipline. Theology is a discipline in the curriculum like other disciplines. Some students will find it more engaging than others, but all will find the fact of its existence a testimony to the importance of the subject. And it ought also be remembered that in a place which professes to teach the liberal arts, the method is ever intellectual. Love of truth may lead to faith, and the representation of truth which comes from God will certainly tend to restrain that religion of reason—to use Newman’s term—toward which philosophy always tends, but still and all, the liberal arts curriculum works upon the intellect, and upon the heart through the intellect.

Newman thought the school in which philosophy was the highest discipline, the Hutchins project fulfilled, would produce gentlemen. We now know Newman was wrong. The classical curriculum, shorn of reference to God, produced gentlemen only while the idea of God lurked effectively in the corners of our culture. But when the curriculum that made man’s mind unaided the source of truth had done its work, when the corners were swept clean, the rationalist demons entered and the university was more likely to produce Calibans than gentlemen. For just as courtesy is the result of charity, a gentle world is the result of something more than reason. The gentleman whom Newman described so bitingly is become the narcissus of modernity. His concern is no longer "to make everyone at ease and at home" for there is not likely to be much involvement with individuals or society when these do not fulfill immediate needs. He is no longer "patient, forbearing, and resigned," but is become an impatient and restless victim. Newman’s unbelieving gentleman is no longer "too clearheaded to be unjust" or "too large minded to ridicule religion." He has become a vulgar scoffer. But truth is a whole. We cannot appropriate it in parts and pieces as may suit our present dispositions and interests, and there are personal and cultural penalties, some of everlasting significance, for forgetting the most important truths.


Taken from:
The Institute Papers
The College of Saint Thomas More
May 1998, Volume XVIII, Number 1

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