Don't Just Do Something

Robert M. Hutchins

[This interview of Robert M. Hutchins by Keith Berwick first appeared in The Center Magazine and was later reprinted in a collection of articles from 1970-1972, published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara, California]

Between Two Worlds

Matthew Arnold once described himself as "wandering between two worlds -- one dead, the other powerless to be born."

I suggest that this is our situation today.

The old world is one in which the West has lived for three hundred years. The essential beliefs of that old world are: that we must seek knowledge which will give us mastery over nature; there is no use seeking wisdom; there is no way of transforming knowledge into wisdom; values are unknowable and indefensible; standards are matters of prejudice or inheritance; we are all strangers except as we happen to be united by our interests; there can be no community, there can only be pressure groups; what we call "community" is merely a precarious equilibrium of pressure groups or, on a world scale, of nations; politics is power. So Toqueville saw the American as essentially forlorn, the individual living for himself alone, afraid of his neighbors, afraid of foreigners, afraid of change.

The new world is one in which man is understood as a social and political, as well as rational being. It is a world united by a sense of common humanity, common destiny, common enterprise, and by the warmth of human feeling.

Admitting that we cannot solve human problems, we can work in common toward their solution. We can think, and think together, about how to transform knowledge into wisdom. The body politic then becomes an organic unity of sympathy and solidarity.



BERWICK: After eleven years there is still a great deal of confusion about what the Center is, and what you are doing there on Eucalyptus Hill.

HUTCHINS: That is odd because the name is completely descriptive. What the Center is doing is studying democratic institutions by taking a multidisciplinary look at the state of the democratic world -- and the undemocratic world as well, because one has to contrast the two and see how they are going to develop. After discovering what is going on, or trying to discover what is going on, the Center offers its observations for such public consideration as the public is willing to give them.

BERWICK: As you know, you have been called many things, both you and the Center, and there are those who regard the Fellows of the Center as a kind of powerless elite. Elite they are. How about power? Or I suppose the real question here is how can the influence of the Center be measured?

HUTCHINS: By the same measure that you would apply to any educational institution.

BERWICK: But that opens up a Pandora's box. After twenty-two years at the University of Chicago, you left that institution. Did that imply an abandonment of the formal institutions of higher education? Did you give up on the academy?

HUTCHINS: No, I simply thought the University of Chicago ought to have another chance, that was all. I haven't given up on the academy. I understand perfectly well of course that no educational institution is ever going to realize the ideals of those who originally conceived it. It is simply in the nature of human institutions that they become bureaucratized, diverted, ossified. Some way ought to be discovered of constantly injecting new life into good ideas. Anybody who discovers this deserves three Nobel Prizes.

BERWICK: In that case, you should have three Nobel Prizes. But I'm thinking now of the Center in Santa Barbara. In the last year or so it has undergone almost an institutional revolution under your guidance, has it not?

HUTCHINS: It might be called that, but we call it a kind of refounding of the enterprise. Of course we used to try this all the time at the University of Chicago. We used to try to keep an argument going which involved the whole population of the university, with the idea that this is what gives an educational institution its vitality. If you can keep this argument going on important subjects, you can avoid the ossification which is the bane of all educational institutions. The Center devoted several years to reconsidering its program; then it adopted a new and somewhat wider plan than it had operated on in the past; personnel changes were made. But this, though necessary, perhaps was a little drastic. I think the University of Chicago model was better, that is, it is better to keep the argument about fundamental purposes going in the institution and at as high a level as possible.

BERWICK: I wonder if there isn't a great deal of con-fusion about the role of the university in society, anyway.

HUTCHINS: Oh, yes, of course there is.

BERWICK: I'm still naive enough to imagine that one of the fundamental purposes of an institution of higher learning is to educate, yet it doesn't seem to me that that is the main thrust or even an important thrust in most of them.

HUTCHINS: There has been a reversal in the last few decades. I think it has been brought about by the atomic bomb. The scientists who built the bomb demonstrated that they could blow up the world, and that ultimate power was in their hands. After that, if a university wanted to be powerful, the thing for it to do was to develop scientific and technological research. This marked a complete reversal of what went on in the days when I first got into education.

I became an educational administrator on January 1, 1923. At that time nobody seemed to be interested in scientific investigation. Corporations were not interested; the government never thought of it. If it hadn't been for the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, there would have been no support for research in the United States. Universities were overgrown colleges or colleges with professional schools attached. What has happened since is that we have come to identify power and prestige as objects that can be served by the development of these vast institutions now called multiversities or multipurpose universities.

BERWICK: Which simply represents a kind of abdication from the traditional responsibility of higher education.

HUTCHINS; It is much worse than that. The academic community in the old days, whatever its defects, did have a certain control over its future. True, it sometimes had to propitiate the donors, but if it had enough donors it didn't have to worry about a small group's dominating them. But when the institution comes to depend on government, notably on the Pentagon, and when the mission of the university is determined by the mission of the agency that supports it, then you have a very drastic change in its character.

BERWICK: I am wondering too about the old proposition that the multiversity, as it has now come to be called, is just a kind of service station in which students are prolonged in their adolescence, pampered, and given the chance to exercise their democratic right to a higher degree.

HUTCHINS: Well, I don't think that is characteristic of the multiversity. The multiversity is a service station all right, but it is not a service station for the students, it is a service station for pressure groups or agencies with money, power, and influence, who either by bribery or pressure can get the university to undertake certain projects for them. These projects are then undertaken and the professors are, in effect, bought by these agencies -- though "bought" is a rather disagreeable word to use.

BERWICK: Subversion by the subvention.

HUTCHINS: Right. Then what happens is that the institution becomes a technical school; the students are trained, if they are trained at all, in technical skills. Education, which in our oldfashioned way we used to think of as the development of the mind for its own sake, is being neglected all over the world. This is the basis for many of the student disorders here and abroad.

BERWICK: Of course it is all of a piece with the general tendency to subsidize problems instead of solving them; the pressure you speak of is oriented toward solving problems as they are defined by governments or industry. I wonder if I am drawing the correct inference here; that you think that the student rebels are justified.

HUTCHINS: A generalization about the student rebels is bound to be too general. There are all kinds of student rebels. For example, Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, took a poll a year or so ago and found that only a very small percentage of students were formally allied with the highly publicized student radicals in Germany, but as many as seventy-five per cent of those enrolled in the universities were sympathetic to their aims.

Now, insofar as students object to the multiversity, their objections are justified. Insofar as they object to the economic, political, and social system of the West, I would think that those criticisms are also justified. On the other hand, the students don't seem to be very good revolutionaries. They are certainly very bright, but they are also very ignorant. This isn't their fault, but it is true. They have very little by way of program to offer, even though their criticisms of both the university and the system are largely justified.

BERWICK: How would you compare the thrust of student unrest to that of black unrest, Negro unrest? Which is more genuinely revolutionary?

HUTCHINS: I doubt if either is genuinely revolutionary, though here again one has to distinguish. There are groups among the students who are genuinely revolutionary, but if you take the students as a whole and the blacks as a whole I should say that neither was really revolutionary. What they are trying to do, rather, is to get some decency into our society and to get this decency extended to other societies around the world.

BERWICK: Scott Buchanan used to say that the greatest challenge confronting mankind today is somehow to realize the constructive possibilities of revolution, and the permanent possibility of revolution, and to institutionalize these possibilities. I found that a profound insight, one that I don't pretend yet fully to understand.

HUTCHINS: No, because it leaves the question of violence ambiguous, the extent to which violence can be justified even if a revolution is justified.

BERWICK: Yes, and then you have the complex problem as to what comprises revolution. But it raises in my mind the question of what you, Mr. Hutchins, regard as the most compelling problems confronting us. You have been thinking on this global scale so it is not an inappropriate question.

HUTCHINS: I think I should try to confine myself to subjects that I know something about. I should say that what the world needs now is citizens, though this is a rather broad statement. We have education that purports to prepare us to be successful in everything but citizenship, including marriage. I would not favor courses in elementary, intermediate, and advanced citizenship. But I would ask, "What educational program is likely to help most in preparing citizens for citizenship?" This leads to the question of world citizenship, which is what the world needs now, because our problems are world problems.

For example, the tremendous new fad is ecology. We even get opposition to pollution endorsed by Presidential messages and appropriations. But pollution is not just an American problem. It is not a local problem anywhere. The Swedes are being contaminated by pollutants that come soaring over from Britain, and the Swedes themselves are probably doing the same thing to their neighbors in Europe and Asia.

BERWICK: You are saying that there is no such thing as a local problem any more.

HUTCHINS: I am. I am saying that all problems are world problems. This explains the evolution of our work at the Center. We began by confining ourselves to American problems but now we understand that our problems are not exclusively American. Whatever needs to be done here needs to be done elsewhere.

BERWICK: You are associated in many people's minds with the Great Books program, and the kinds of reforms that one associates with the University of Chicago during your tenure there. Would it be fair to say that you still regard the Great Books as the most relevant study within the framework of education, that you still look upon them as the great repository of wisdom, understanding, and insight?

HUTCHINS: I would never deny that there may be other ways of achieving the objects that those who put forward the Great Books program had in mind. Maybe you can begin with The New York Times, maybe you can begin with the Los Angeles Times, maybe you can take off from any number of starting points. But it seemed to me that the Great Books were the most promising avenue to liberal education if only because they are teacher-proof. If there were a Socrates behind every teacher's desk, you would not need to worry about the curriculum.

I remember one Dialogue which Socrates began by examining old men's dances; he ended up with a discussion of justice and truth. Socrates could do that, but there was only one Socrates and he is not now available. So let us suppose you have, as you must expect to have, just average teachers, good people to be sure, well-meaning people, but just average people. What teacher-proof material can you use? The Great Books themselves are great teachers. If the student will read them, it doesn't make very much difference what the teacher has to say about them. They represent the great ideas that men have had in the past and we cannot assume that the past is totally irrelevant. And the dialogue method, which goes along with the use of the Great Books, is also important.

I am sorry to repeat that the striking thing about young people today is that they are frightfully ignorant of the past. I don't see how this can ever be an advantage. I understand the advantages of innocence but I do not understand the advantages of ignorance.

BERWICK: It does seem to me that your generalization concerning young people requires some examination. Certainly they are ignorant. At least in my experience, they are astonishingly ignorant of the Great Books and the near-great books, the works of Dickens and Smollett, for example. On the other hand, they are extremely knowledgeable about many things, through the mass media, television particularly.

HUTCHINS: That's right.

BERWICK: Now, isn't the real root of the problem that they have a different conception of what is relevant? Isn't this really the point, that they are dismissing what you regard as the promising avenue to a liberal education as irrelevant?

HUTCHINS: No, I don't think so. I don't think that at St. John's College in Annapolis, or St. John's College in Santa Fe, both of which have a Great Books program, you would hear suggestions that the Great Books are irrelevant. It is the absence of anything relevant in the current program of the multiversity that has produced this demand for relevance on the part of the young. When young people are asked, "What are you interested in?" they answer that they are interested in justice, they want justice for the Negro, they want justice for the Third World. If you say, "Well, what is justice?" they haven't any idea except that, well, it is letting the Africans have more money or something of that sort. They are ignorant of the fact that there is a Great Conversation echoing back through hist9ry on the subject of justice. You are quite right that they are not ignorant in the sense that they do not lack information. They have more information than any previous generation, but having a great deal of information has little to do with knowledge. Knowledge is organized information, and an institution pursuing knowledge is not simply trying to hand out the latest dope on everything; it is trying to put this current information into a context of ideas that can be useful for analyzing the problems of daily life.

BERWICK: Dialogue is a very central theme to your thinking. I think it would be useful to have you talk about the promise of the dialogue, the sort of discipline that the dialogue represents. I think that the Center, which has been irreverently called the longest-running talk show in existence, is the one exemplar that I know of dialogue in the world today.

HUTCHINS: All we can say is that we are trying. You know, it is a very difficult enterprise. In a place like the Center you have to have men who have first-class ability in their fields. This means that you need specialists. Each specialist has to be sufficiently interested in the work of other specialists, including visiting specialists, to be willing to exchange ideas with them about their interests. The business of developing a common vocabulary is enormously complicated and is getting to be more so as we become more and more specialized and the place of liberal education is taken by the accumulation of miscellaneous information.

BERWICK: It is symbolized, I suppose, by mass communications, which actually cut down the possibility for communication.

HUTCHINS: That is correct. Real dialogue is a very difficult thing and requires certain moral qualities. You cannot participate in the dialogue if you are a show-off; you cannot participate in the dialogue unless you really want to learn. The program of the Center is based on probing into the inner connections among the important issues facing the world. To do that requires a certain fortitude on the part of those who may not be specifically interested, for example, in electoral reform but are very much interested in problems of ecology. They have to listen to one another and see how these things connect. But by what other method could you really obtain a clear and rounded view of the phenomenon? I was brought up as a lawyer, for example. I see things in a legal context. I spent a lot of my life in education and I also see things in that context. I am quite unused to the approach of the biological scientist to either law or education. Yet if I try to sell my view of humanity or any part of its activities solely on the strength of my legal or educational experience, I am not doing right by the community I am trying to serve.

BERWICK: Would you say that the problems of communication among specialists are greater than those familiar ones between people who speak different languages?

HUTCHINS: I think they are, because they are complicated by careerism. You know, an American may not be in competition with a German or he may even be trying eagerly to learn from the German, or vice versa; but in the specialties the multiversity has organized, the German is not merely one who speaks a foreign language, he is an enemy, because he is after the money, the appropriations, the students, the research facilities you want for yourself.

Take Karl Jasper's proposal that there should be a faculty of technology in every university -- I suppose we would say a school of technology. This is not at all the going thing in Europe and never has been. Now Jasper's motive was not to produce more technicians, nor was it to get ahead of the Russians. He arrived at his conclusion on strictly metaphysical grounds. He said the development of technology and the question of how we can survive with technology are the greatest problems confronting modern man. Therefore you have to put the series of disciplines called technology up against the other disciplines; the specialists in these other disciplines have to understand technology and the views of the technologists have to be modified and affected by them. This is the ideal of an educational institution. You accept this as something worth trying. Then how would you organize it in order to make sure that the kind of result that Jaspers wanted will occur? Well, dialogue seems to me an obvious answer, though it is not the only one.

BERWICK: And yet, to come back to a point you were making at the outset, you seem to imply a kind of fatalism about institutions; you say they ossify, become moribund, become bureaucratized. I suppose that applies equally well to institutions based on the dialogue.

HUTCHINS: Yes, I'm sure it does. You may make mistakes about the selection of the people. You may make mistakes about the selection of the topics you choose to consider and find yourself going down side alleys. I would think, however, that an institution dedicated to this kind of learning by this method would be less subject to ossification than the usual type of bureaucratic institution.

BERWICK: Well, perhaps it would be more likely to see what was happening, to stand back and observe itself. I was thinking also of two of the most prominent, certainly two of the most widely publicized, products of the Center dialogue, namely, the two Pacem in Terris conferences. Those were efforts to project the dialogue onto the international stage in an effort to bring peace.

HUTCHINS: Pope John XXIII wrote the encyclical Pacem in Terris. We thought it was one of the greatest documents to come out of the contemporary world. One of the points which struck us particularly was the Pope's insistence on a proposition then novel in the West, namely, that people could talk to one another and work together on their common problems even though they were afflicted with differing ideologies. In planning the first Pacem in Terris convocation, we said, "Well, let's see if the Pope is right."

BERWICK: That was when?

HUTCHINS: That was almost six years ago. Well, after a couple of thousand people of divergent views from all over the world met successfully in New York, we thought that we had shown that the Pope was right on this point.

The next Pacem in Terris convocation, two years later, was held in Geneva. It attempted to address itself to more practical problems. "Now, if we can talk together, let's see if we can get somewhere," we said. At that meeting the West Germans and East Germans publicly confronted one another for the first time and publicly exchanged views about the future of that divided country. Representatives of six Southeast Asian states said, "Let us see if it isn't possible for us to get together, at least as soon as the war in Vietnam is over." So things did happen on an international scale as a result of the meeting.

We think the conference we sponsored last summer at the invitation of the government of Malta combined the features of the first two. This last one we called Pacem in Maribus because it dealt with the seas and the whole question of who, if anybody, is going to control what had been formerly the common property of mankind, namely the seabed. It now appears that the seabed is a tremendous new hunting ground for the enrichment of those who can get in there first with the best technology, and it may turn out to be the real location of Armageddon because you could have a nuclear collision at the bottom of the ocean that, to put it mildly, would be most unfortunate. The Center worked for almost two years on the development of an ocean regime, trying to figure out how people can work together on the formulation of a system of government for the seabeds that will preserve them for all humanity.

BERWICK: This certainly has distinct analogies to the kinds of problems represented in outer space.

HUTCHINS: In fact, the outer-space developments are very suggestive as to what is possible in the ocean.

BERWICK: This third international conference then did not represent, as some people suggested, an abandonment of your concern for peace and for such problems as the war in Vietnam.

HUTCHINS: No, no, no, no. We think, and here of course we may be wrong, that the disposition of the only common property of mankind is going to prove critical to the maintenance of peace. If we can come forward with an equitable scheme for the governance of the oceans before decisive steps are taken by the technologically advanced nations to stake out claims to the bottom of the ocean, then this will be an important contribution to the maintenance of peace.

Now, you understand of course that the Center does not take an institutional position on any of the issues it deals with. What it does is try to formulate the problems, and what comes out of the conference at Malta will not be what the Center has done, or what the private citizens who attended the conference do, but what the nations finally do.

BERWICK: Of course this raises an interesting question of understanding, or misunderstanding, of the Center's involvement in international affairs. You have been widely accused of being amateur peacemakers. The implication is that matters of peace and war are much better left to professionals. But you are suggesting that there is a kind of strength and validity to this amateur enterprise that transcends the professional.

HUTCHINS: First I should say that the Center has never ventured beyond the continental boundaries of the United States without notifying the State Department or the White House or both, so we are not operating without the knowledge of the duly accredited representatives of the American people. Second, I am convinced that there is a role for private peacemaking, though if you go into it, you have to be prepared to be disowned by your own government even after it has encouraged you to proceed. But when everything is said and done, there is still a role for private diplomacy even though it may fail or seem at the time to have failed. Time and time again the official accredited representatives of a nation have said to us, "We cannot get anywhere through governmental channels. All our public positions are frozen. Now, if a private institution like the Center could get together a group of people who can speak as individuals, they could come back to influence the formal positions taken by our government."

Private peacemaking, then, is not an occupation that one should enter upon if one has a weak heart or is liable to nervous breakdown. I do not recommend it for such people and certainly I would never undertake it as a day-to-day occupation. I want to emphasize that these are very special situations. Even our own government officers agree that private intervention can sometimes be helpful, whatever they may say before or after. I thing the American Friends Service Committee has shown this time and time again.

Of course I am not sure how to measure success in diplomacy, private or public. I sometimes think that it is one of the occupations in which success is impossible.

BERWICK: Several weeks ago I was looking through the diaries of Harold Ickes and came again upon a passage in which Ickes, in the nineteen4hirties, talked about Robert Maynard Hutchins as a potential Vice-Presidential candidate with Franklin Roosevelt. This prompts me to ask whether you ever had aspiration to high political office. Do you think that you might have had more influence than you have been able to exercise had you entered the political arena?

HUTCHINS: I never could have entered politics because I would not have been elected. Had I ever been elected, I certainly would not have been re-elected.

BERWICK: Why do you say that? I think I can guess, but I am curious.

HUTCHINS: I think your guess is probably better than mine, but it is a conviction that I have always had. I do not know how I could function without the independence to which I have been accustomed. A politician after all is supposed to be re-elected to higher and higher office all his life long. I have never been able to see how I could make the necessary adjustments that would make that possible.

BERWICK: I am wondering whether your implied criticism here of our existing political structure or any political structure is sound. Are you not coming very close to saying that it is impossible for the political man to maintain any kind of intellectual integrity or independence?

HUTCHINS: I would not go that far. The question, after all, was directed to me, it concerned what I thought of myself as a political possibility. That is a subject that I have not thought about for a long time and it is very difficult to answer to such a question without seeming to be afflicted with some kind of intellectual disease.

I do not want to imply that there have not been men who have been able to do what has to be done in political life and at the same time have maintained a kind of intellectual integrity. As for me, I think it would be extremely difficult. Since, through no fault of my own, I have from my earliest years been in positions of some public importance where I could exercise a certain influence, moving into politics seemed to be a dubious trade.

BERWICK: There is a tendency to equate the kind of celebrity you have had with political availability, and this I think is a most serious thing.

HUTCHINS: I think it is unfortunate but again it is inevitable. I do not see how it can be avoided.

BERWICK: On the other hand, by your own testimony, the extent of influence available to you in the sphere of higher education and that available to your father and your grandfather, who were Presbyterian ministers, were more or less comparable. You are plying the same trade as your father, are you not? As a kind of evangel?

HUTCHINS: I suppose that is true; it is a sort of continuum. My father, after he had been a minister for ten or a dozen years, became a college professor and then became a college president.

BERWICK: Nobody is perfect, you see. ...

HUTCHINS: I am afraid I would have to say that these missionary impulses have descended in a somewhat attenuated form to me and that they have led me to feel that one must do what one can to alleviate the lot of one's fellow man. But I do not mean to blame my peculiarities on my ancestors.

BERWICK: There is another thing I am curious about. The enormous publicity that attached a few years ago to a statement on the Triple Revolution -- in cybernation, human rights, weaponry. Was that statement, so to speak, an officially sanctioned outgrowth of the Center dialogue?

HUTCHINS: No, it was not. I think it was affected by the Center dialogue and some Center people were involved in the publication of the Triple Revolution Manifesto, but the Center as such had nothing to do with it.

BERWICK: Were you yourself impressed with the concept of the Triple Revolution as a reasonable statement about the nature of our problems?

HUTCHINS: I think the Manifesto provided a reasonable statement about some of the problems, yes. But I would not have signed it. I do not think I was asked to, but in any event, totally apart from the content of it, it was contrary to the operating spirit of the Center. The Center does not take positions, does not recommend action, and, again, does not engage in political activities. This therefore was not a Center action.

BERWICK: This the point I really wanted to get to and to have you underscore because I think that much of the misunderstanding about the Center has to do with certain ambiguities on that point.

HUTCHINS: There is, I think, almost every shade of political opinion represented at the Center. There is every shade of economic attitude represented, either in the resident staff or in our visitors. For example, Neil Jacoby, who is one of our Associates, is a neoclassical economist. Last week and the week before we invited in other economists who are on the other side in order to make sure, or at least try to make sure, that we understood the economic situation by examining various respectable points of view about it.