Running Against The Wind

Robert M. Hutchins and the University of Chicago: Institutional Growth, Status-Seeking Research and the Struggle to Preserve Liberal Educational Values

Edward J. Dodson

[A paper written in partial completion of the course requirements, Knowledge in America, Temple University, Fall 1989, Prof. Morris J. Vogel]


By the 1930s an overwhelming majority of university administrators and faculty in the United States had inherited an institutional framework that emphasized scientific research at the expense of providing students with a well-rounded, liberal education. Tenured professors were devoting less and less attention to classroom teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level where students required exposure to fundamental principles and where the professors' specialized interests could not be pursued. From the standpoint of most faculty members, the opportunity to apply their talents and energies to scholarly research rather than to the teaching of fundamentals to undisciplined undergraduates represented progress and career enhancement.

Our assigned readings dealing with the professionalization of education (and science) have each contributed to a better understanding of how and why this metamorphosis occurred. This paper focuses on the treatment given by these same historians (and other writers, where additional sources add significant perspective) to the minority attempt to defend the tradition of liberal education, defined as a curriculum that centered on the writings viewed by nineteenth-century educators as essential to an appreciation for Western civilization and values. This core body of knowledge was seen by certain individuals as the thread by which individuals had been bound together and from which mutually-held values would be sustained.


By the end of the nineteenth century, higher education in the United States had, in effect, become a highly-developed industry. University training and the holding of an advanced degree in an area of specialized knowledge was the standard by which an individual's accomplishments were measured. The extent to which this occurred as a consequence of the deliberate desires and actions of individual educators rather than in response to the external demands of a changing socio-political environment is one of the questions each historian in this sequence touched on to a greater or lesser degree. Among the most important external influences dealt with are: the closing of the frontier; urbanization (fueled both by massive immigration and internal migrations); rising expectations of a large middle class; individual desires for status and recognition; the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; and, the expanding utilization of experts by government and industry.

Higher education, once limited primarily to the wealthy and the upwardly mobile middle class, was by the beginning of the twentieth century nearly universally accepted as the means by which not only material wealth might be obtained but also positions of status within society -- at least for white, adult males. Margaret Rossiter's detailed history of women scientists and educators confirms that not even outstanding research accomplishments, graduate work or doctoral degrees could overcome both institutionalized and informal sexual discrimination against women within and outside the academic community. The same obstacles stood in the way of members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities as well. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the reality of intellectual life in the United States was one limited by entrenched privilege and prejudice that only grudgingly gave way to the pressures by the disenfranchised for some semblance of the Jeffersonian concept of equality of opportunity.

As history makes clear, the push by some for greater equality of opportunity increased competition and brought on conflict between those individuals and groups involved. For example, while science welcomed and benefited from the infusion of European exiles and dissidents, the larger society struggled under nativist backlashes against immigration. Those who welcomed pluralism and advocated tolerance for those different from the Anglo-Saxon, protestant majority were in short supply in the early twentieth-century United States. Within the general population a strain of anti-intellectualism also lingered on despite the fact that as a modern industrial society the United States required a highly-educated and technically-trained workforce.

A new generation of educators had to somehow reconcile existing prejudices with the growing demand for a literate (but, particularly, a technically literate) citizenry. One of the first formal attempts to meet this challenge came at the University of Wisconsin in 1892, where (as described by Richard Hofstadter):

[T]he new School of Economics, Political Science, and History was set up . . . under the direction of the young economist, Richard T. Ely. Frederick Jackson Turner and President Thomas C. Chamberlain, the leaders of the movement, hoped to make Wisconsin a pioneer among Midwestern states in promoting social science, which they felt had immense potentialities for providing practical guidance to the complex industrial world.[1]

Also in the Midwest, the University of Chicago chased after similar recognition from its founding in 1891 and initial endowment by one of the nation's most powerful robber barons, John D. Rockefeller.


The University of Chicago's first President, William R. Harper, had attempted to reconcile the declining attention given to liberal arts at the undergraduate level while still providing scientists the environment for research and publication they fought for during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. "Harper sought to meet the problem," writes Harry A. Ashmore (in a new biography of Robert M. Hutchins), "by making a clear division between the University, which would be dedicated to specialized inquiry into the unknown, and the College, where the faculty would be concerned with imparting existing knowledge."[2] To ensure that beginning students would receive quality instruction, he advocated recruitment of "a separate faculty in which recognition and promotion would depend upon the quality of teaching rather than upon the research and publication employed by the University as a measure of worth. "[3]

Harper and his faculty were, however, at the considerable mercy of the University's trustees, whose influence and concerns were described by Matthew Josephson as less than altruistic:

In the world of learning, the janissaries of oil or lard potentates, with a proper sense of taste and fitness, sought consistently to sustain the social structure, to resist change, to combat all current notions which might thereafter "reduce society to chaos" or "confound the order of nature." As a class, they shared with their patrons the belief that there was more to lose than to gain by drastic alterations of the existing institutions, and that it was wisest to "let well enough alone." . . . the managers of Rockefeller's Chicago University also championed the combinations year by year. One professor of economics, Dr. Gunton, especially distinguished himself on this score; and another, a teacher of literature ostensibly, declared Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Pullman "superior in creative genius to Shakespeare, Homer and Dante," a declaration which made a lively impression at the time. In the meanwhile, a third teacher, a Professor [Samuel] Bemis, who happened to criticize the action of the railroads during the Pullman strike in 1894 was after several warnings expelled from the university for "incompetence. "[4]

Despite the obvious constraints imposed on Harper by his financial dependence on the moguls of business, other historians recognize his success in bringing together "perhaps the most remarkable group of scholars to be found in America in the 1890's."[5] By the time of Robert M. Hutchins' arrival in 1929, the University of Chicago had largely abandoned Harper's separate but equal approach to liberal arts teaching and research, looking very much like other large universities. Under Harper's successors, the University cultivated status-seeking research at the expense of providing undergraduate students with a thorough liberal education. Hutchins announced to the faculty, students and the public that a primary focus of his administration would be to "secure men if possible who are both distinguished scholars and creative educators. If this is impossible, and it is on a large scale, let them be one or the other."[6] One of his earliest and most significant moves was to bring in Mortimer J. Adler, then a young law professor at Columbia University. With Adler's strong support, Hutchins then set about the implementation of Harper's long-ignored plan.

Together, Hutchins and Adler developed a seminar curriculum based on the "Great Books of the Western World."[7] Thirty-one years later, in 1961, their faith in this program remained undaunted:

While the great books do represent the outstanding literary achievements of our Western civilization over the last twenty-five centuries, they are as alive today as when they were written. That is the true mark of their greatness. The ideas they deal with -- and that is why they are the great ideas -- constitute the intellectual implements which thinking men in every century must employ in order to understand the changing world in which they live. It is precisely because they are timeless in this way that the great books and the great ideas are always so timely, always so relevant to the present. [8]

Hutchins' long-term objectives included the wholesale restructuring of the country's educational system; his work at the University of Chicago was to establish a model on which wider changes could be introduced. In a very real sense, he was running against the wind in his efforts to resurrect teaching and the providing of a general education as priority endeavors of the nation's universities. He faced, in part, a widespread self-satisfaction among educational professionals and the public with the existing system's enumerated accomplishments. Burton Bledstein also seems to share my conclusion on this point:

The university was a nineteenth-century creation and a twentieth-century success story, and the American public in this century generally has not required much convincing or threatening about the importance of higher education to its welfare and mobility. Perhaps this fact explains why few spokesmen have come forward in the twentieth century who were either as lucid or as concerned with the ideological weight of their remarks as the founding fathers of American university administration, …The founders set universities going in a distinct American direction. They demonstrated a skilled capacity both in interpreting the significance of their executive actions to their clientele and in explaining the legitimacy of their faith in American higher education -- a faith which today many persons have begun to question. [9]

In 1900, only a very few questioned the relentless quest for professionalization and the drift toward research within the universities. Where the so-called hard sciences -- those dealing in the realm of the physical universe outside of human behavior -- were concerned, this was certainly the case. Less formidable and subject, therefore, to external pressures were the era's newly-emerging social scientists. These individuals took up the challenge of applying the methods of scientific investigation to the study of human behavior and human institutions; and, as Matthew Josephson showed, the conclusions reach by social scientists were often colored by vested interest, prejudice and preconceived beliefs.

Another example of the defensiveness of social scientists is provided in the same generation by the new professional economists, who became incensed by attacks on their integrity from the self-educated political economist and journalist/reformer, Henry George. When George challenged the findings and consistency in the then accepted principles of economic theory, the professional economists closed ranks against him. [10] John L. Thomas, Professor of American History at Brown University, writes that George "resented and feared the American university's dependence on big money and its tendency to teach dominant business values."[11] Moreover, adds Thomas, George's "latent anti-intellectualism betrayed him most obviously in his distrust of the concept of disinterested learning as it was being enthusiastically pressed into service by a younger generation of Progressive intellectuals."[12]

To be sure, Henry George and others who shared his concerns had given voice to a serious problem facing the nation's educational system even then, one that is yet to be resolved; namely, how to foster objectivity in the pursuit of knowledge while catering to the needs and vested interests of those who provide the funds for research. If, as Robert Bruce notes, the earlier generation of scientists sought "self-rule for science, support without strings, [and] the time and money to do research without having to account to laymen for its direction or consequences,"[13] their very successes as research scientists moved them along a path of ultimate dependency. This was certainly the case for agricultural science, where state and federal funding represented nearly all the financial support received -- a conclusion strongly supported by Charles Rosenberg:

Experiment station research had to be shaped in response to the equally categorical, yet only partially consistent, demands of the scientific discipline on the one hand and, on the other hand, those of an imperious lay constituency. This implied sharing (if not surrender) of institutional autonomy bequeathed an ambiguous heritage to even the best agricultural research laboratories, as in the twentieth century they sought to become contexts for high-level research in the biological sciences.[14]

John Dewey, who seems to have played for Harper a role at the University of Chicago in some ways similar to that of Adler for Hutchins, suggested that this loss in autonomy was not only appropriate but necessary. In an essay published in 1929, he wrote:

It is for education to bring the light of science and the power of work to the aid of every soul that it may discover its quality. . . . Culture would then be for the first time in human history an individual achievement and not a class possession. [15]

And, although Dewey and Hutchins would later tangle over Dewey's "anti-intellectualism" and the question of whether philosophy was subject to scientific investigation, (16] Dewey was initially supportive of Hutchins' efforts to revive the liberal arts and teaching in the University. Perhaps of equal importance, Harper and Dewey had been instrumental in bringing women into both the faculty and student body. Yet, despite their generally strong support of equality of opportunity for women, there were limits even Harper could or would not cross; the case of zoologist Libbie Hyman suggests what those limits were:

Though she received many honors for her acclaimed works, no university, not even the University of Chicago, would hire her, since she was Jewish, a woman, and reportedly tart and abrasive.[17]

Hutchins did inherit a faculty where "women were well represented in all departments and were a majority in some. "[18] Harper had broken the sexual barrier right at the start, hiring Marion Talbot as assistant professor of sanitary science; [19] however, in 1902, he had the opportunity to bring aboard Ellen Semple as a professor of geography but did not, even though she was considered highly qualified for the position. [20] Nevertheless, another aspect of Harper's legacy was that of "full coeducation" and a strong female presence at the graduate and faculty levels. "Undergraduate women at Chicago," notes Rossiter, "had become so numerous that by 1902 they constituted one-half the student body...[21]" Perhaps Harper recognized, as Jesse Bernard observed in Academic Women (1966), that academic women "[make] time for students, [and] do not think of them as natural enemies robbing them of time they need for their own research."[22] Following Harper's death in 1906, however, the new President, Henry Pratt Judson, took several steps backward by "organizing a separate college for [women] within the university."[23] Putting these actions into perspective, one must understand that equality of opportunity was not a bedrock element of the Progressive era; those who ventured into its domain were at best a vanguard. They were certainly running against the wind.

Progressivism -- in many ways a conservative response to social and economic problems traced by the wealthier, native-born citizens to urbanization of the immigrant poor -- played an important role in the direction taken by universities. As already noted, university trustees tended not to be scholars or teachers; rather, they were individuals possessed by inherited wealth or business people of some means. Their impact on many universities was profound. As H.G. Wells observed in 1931:

Nowadays the intelligent rich are becoming more circumspect in their endowments and more careful with their sons. They endow special research institutions, and they begin to think out special courses of training for their own boys and girls. In many matters the fashion set by the rich to-day is taken up by the ordinarily prosperous classes to-morrow and becomes the general usage of the day after. This may be the case in education. The break-up of the universities may be at hand in their very phase of maximum expansion. The undergraduate body may melt away quite suddenly, dispersing to forms of work and training of a more specialized and continuous sort, and with that the university properly speaking, that immense obsolescent educational gesture, that miscellaneous great gathering of students and teachers, will achieve a culminating gala of sport and splendour -- and cease. [24]

Though not in disagreement with Wells on this point, Bledstein cautions that the demise was largely voluntary, that "university presidents such as … Harper at the University of Chicago introduced businessmen to techniques of corporate promotion and exploitation unfamiliar even in the commercial world."[25] He goes even further, concluding that from their earliest years, the university presidents of the late nineteenth century saw the undergraduate program largely as a means to creating a well-endowed haven for status-seeking research. Thus, while seeking to establish the University of Chicago as a center of excellence and liberal education, Harper himself had fallen victim to the trappings of institution building. One way he went after excellence, writes Ashmore, was "by assembling the most distinguished faculty money could buy. "[26] Bledstein cites the cases of Turner and Dewey as but two examples of Harper's talent acquisitions.


An important theme arising out of both Bledstein and Rosenberg, in particular, but which is also illuminated by Hughes, Rossiter and even Bruce, is that in the pursuit of status and recognition the knowledge seekers traded the virtue of purity of purpose for professionalization of their chosen fields. In the process, what occurred was the deterioration of liberal education as a serious priority of the universities. Milton Mayer (who contributed his talents to Hutchins' Center For The Study of Democratic Institutions -- a now dissolved effort to create an environment for interdisciplinary dialogue) describes what happened to higher education in the twentieth century as "the Sellout." Mayer's criticisms are direct and penetrating:

The modern idolization of scientific method was the idolization of a procedure that in its application placed sophisticated tools in the hands of unsophisticated men. How they used the tools was a consideration wholly alien to the very nature of the procedure that in its application produced the tools. Scientific investigation is experimental. Humanistic investigation is not. Empirical research on man as man is inaccessible to science because the conditions under which we study man are not controlled conditions. ...

What the modern pedagogues were doing, and what government bought them up to do more of and to do it faster, was abjure the human crisis for the tool crisis and the moral predicament for the military. Education --including college education -- had long since degenerated into real or pretended preparation for making money. [27]

In the end, even Hutchins understood that his had been a losing battle against the momentum of conservative interests that pervaded not only higher education but the nation as a whole. In 1964, he wrote to F. Champion Ward, "My mistake was that I thought I was a successful evangelist, when I was actually the stopper in the bath tub. I thought I had convinced everybody, when all I had done was block a return to normalcy."[28] One aspect of normalcy, the relentless drive toward the university-government-industrial research complex, brought Robert Bruce to conclude his book with a warning:

Most ominous of all was the darker side of the public's identification of science with technology. To the public mind, science begat technology. Technology begat power. and power begat both hope and fear.[29]

Rosenberg, whose essays have a much more focused explanatory objective, nonetheless acknowledges the complex nature of relationships and motivations underlying the "historical interaction between scientific ideas and institutions and . . . society."[30] Bledstein, on the other hand, leaves the reader with the distinct feeling that we have traveled far along a path of professionalization in education at the end of which we will find ourselves corrupted by the "shameless exploitation of [knowledge] for profit."[31] Yet, perhaps what Robert Hutchins had to fight against most was the pragmatic desires of his fellow citizens. Thus, an appropriate ending to this paper is, I suggest, a bit of wisdom handed to us (and which was there for Hutchins to ponder in 1931) by H.L. Mencken:

Only a small minority of boys and girls go to college for the purpose of stuffing their heads with knowledge, whether real or false; the majority go there simply because it has come to be the prudent thing to do. What they get out of it is mainly what they will get, later on, out of joining country clubs, Rotary, the Nobles of the Mystic Shine, and other such fraternities -- a feeling that they have somehow plunged into the main current of correct American thought, that they have emerged from the undifferentiated mass and gained admittance into an organized and privileged class, that they have ceased to be nobodies and come to be somebodies. …

It I had a son I should send him to Harvard, for more is to be had for the money there than anywhere else -- more that is real, and will last. I don't think he'd learn more at Cambridge than he could learn at Siwash (given any desire to learn at all), but I believe a Harvard diploma would help him a great deal more in his later life, American ideas being what they are, whether God cast him for the role of metaphysician or for that of investment securities broker.[32]

By the 1960s, if not earlier, Hutchins had apparently come to his own recognition of the sanctimonious pretense of many academics, and particularly that of scientists. In response to C.P. Snow's suggestion that scientists be entrusted with the world because they are a little bit better than other people, Hutchins offered this:

My view, based on long and painful observation, is that professors are somewhat worse than other people, and that scientists are somewhat worse than other professors. …The narrower the field in which a man must tell the truth, the wider is the area in which he is free to lie. This is one of the advantages of specialization.[33]


[1] Richard Hofstadter. Anti-Intellectualism In American Life [New York: Random House, 1963], pp.199-200.
[2] Harry A. Ashmore. Unseasonable Truths, The Life Of Robert Maynard Hutchins [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989], p.70.
[3] Ibid., p.72.
[4] Matthew Josephson. The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalistsm 1861-1901 [New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1962], p.324.
[5] Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and William E. Leuchtenburg. The Growth Of The American Republic, Vol.11 [London: Oxford University Press, 1969], p.224.
[6] Ashmore, p.83.
[7] Ibid., p.100.
[8] Forward to The Great Ideas Today [Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1961], p.vii.
[9] Burton J. Bledstein. The Culture Of Professionalism [New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976], p.290.
[10] Bledstein (p.226) quotes George as having advised his son: "Going to college, you will make life friendships, but you will come out filled with much that will have to be unlearned. Going to newspaper work, you will come in touch with the practical world, will be getting a profession and learning to make yourself useful." (Source: Charles A. Barker. Henry George [New York: Oxford University Press, 1955], p.339.)
[11] John L. Thomas. Alternative America [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983], pp.201-202.
[12] Ibid., p.202.
[13] Robert Bruce. The Launching Of Modern American Science, 1946-1876 [Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987], p.225.
[14] Charles E. Rosenberg. No Other Gods: On Science And American Social Thought [Baltimore: Johns-Hopkins University Press, 1976], p.150.
[15] John Dewey, "Education and American Culture," Characters And Events [New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1929], p. 503. A collection of essays edited by Joseph Ratner, 2 volumes.
[16] Ashmore, pp.165-166.
[17] Margaret W. Rossiter. Women Scientists In America: Struggles And Strategies, To 1940 [Baltimore: Johns-Hopkins University Press, 1982], p.210.
[18] Ashmore, p.77.
[19] Rossiter, p.71.
[20] Ibid., p.90. The tone of Margaret Rossiter 's comment regarding Ellen Semple strongly suggests that the decision was based on the fact that Semple was female. She writes: "...the Association of American Geographers had forty-eight original members, only two of whom were women . …One of these was Martha Krug Genthe, the only original member to hold a doctorate in the subject (from Heidelberg; two men held doctorates in economics); the other was Ellen Semple, who had studied with Friedrich Ratzel at Leipzig in 1891 and 1892 but had not been allowed to take a degree. Neither woman ever held a regular appointment in any of the new American departments that were spring up at the time (Chicago should have hired Semple in 1902) , …
[21] Ibid., p.109.
[22] Jesse Bernard. Academic Women [Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing, Meridian Books, 1966]. The above quote appears in Page Smith. Daughters Of the Promised Land [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970], p.297.
[23] Rossiter, p.109.
[24] H.G. Wells. The Work, Wealth And Happiness Of Mankind, Vol.11 [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1931], pp.814-815.
[25] Bledstein, p.289.
[26] Ashmore, p.69.
[27] Milton Mayer. If Men Were Angels [New York: Atheneum, 1972], p.323.
[28] Ashmore, p.310.
[29] Bruce, p.356.
[30] Rosenberg, p.209.
[31] Bledstein, p.334.
[32] H.L. Mencken, "The Boon of Culture." A Mencken Chrestomathy, edited and annoted by the author [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949], pp.313-315. Reprinted from the American Mercury, September 1931, pp.36-48.
[33] Robert M. Hutchins, "Science, Scientists, and Politics," a 1963 paper presented at a conference on the role and responsibilities of science executives in the service of government, sponsored by the Center for The Study of Democratic Institutions. Reprinted in The Center Magazine, Nov/Dec 1987, pp.29-44.

Professor Vogel: This is a thoughtful and perceptive presentation. My problem with your work remains its wandering quality. The body of the paper particularly wanders -- in time and subject. Your ideas will stand out more clearly in a tightly focused presentation. And when you do bring in something from left/right field, it will be more likely to leave an impression. Feel free to take another whack at this -- by cutting it to 10-12 pages.