The Mind Is Its Own Place

Robert M. Hutchins

[Reprinted from The Center Magazine (The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions), November-December 1984. Date originally published not provided]

I used to say of the University of Chicago that it was not a very good university; it was just the best there was. The truth about the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions is that it is not a very good center, but it is the only one there is.

The essential facts may be briefly stated. A meeting proceeds through the discussion of a statement by a Center staff member or by a visitor. All of the discussions are recorded. About a sixth of the papers presented and the tapes of the meetings are made available to the public. Some seven million copies of documents and records from the Center are now moving about the world. The Center Magazine made its appearance in October, 1967.

The Center is supported by its members. It is not a think tank hired to do the thinking that public agencies or private businesses cannot or will not do for themselves. Neither is it a refuge for scholars who want to get away from it all to do their research and write their books. It is a community, and, since its members are trying to think together, it may be called, at least in potentiality, an intellectual community.

This description may be a little high-flown. An eminent philosopher was asked what people would do with themselves when automation had thrown them all out of work. Mortimer Adler replied, "They could talk with one another."

The Center may be regarded as a happy augury of this bright future, as a prefiguring of those activities in which human beings may engage when the curse of Adam is at last repealed. In this light the staff of the Center, having received prematurely, as it were, the gift of leisure, may be seen as proposing a model for the behavior of all of us when we have, as we surely shall, a guaranteed annual income and nothing to do.

But the Center is still hypnotized by the Protestant ethic, however anachronistic that may be. It could not think of justifying itself by a program so imprecise or so suspiciously egocentric. Its talk is oriented to action. It talks about what ought to be done. The dialogue participants come to the conference table in their capacity as citizens. The talk is about the common good.

Since the Center is chartered as an educational corporation, it does not engage in political activity. It does not take positions about what ought to be done. It asserts only that the issues it is discussing deserve the attention of citizens. It attempts to show what the positions are that may be taken and what the consequences of taking one or another are likely to be. The Center tries to think about the things it thinks its fellow citizens ought to be thinking about. It tries to bring the issues into focus so that they may be clearly seen and intelligently debated. As in any self-respecting institution, dialogue participants are free to take individually any public positions they like. They all avail themselves of this privilege, sometimes in violent opposition to one another. Where the staff is unanimous on any subject, it earnestly tries to lure into its meetings representatives of a different point of view.

This is harder than you might think. Though "dialogue" has become a tired word in the American vocabulary, a candid exchange of ideas and a willingness to learn from one another seem to be harder to obtain in our country than in any other in the West. We don't really want to talk about our differences: the process is unsettling and can lead God knows where. The safest thing is to look, act, and speak like everybody else.

Those who disagree with you will not join in discussions with you because, they say, you are not impartial. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for if all those who disagree with you will not join in your discussions, their point of view will not be represented - the charge of partiality will be proved. The prophecy, is not merely self-fulfilling; it is self- perpetuating.

Yet it is evident that at all times in all countries questions have to be raised, if only because change is always occurring everywhere. In a country that aspires to be democratic, the questions have to be discussed by as many of the citizens as possible. When change is going on at the present rate, discussion is a matter of life and death. We are now in the position of the little boy who asked Santa Claus for a volcano - and got it.

For it is altogether likely that universal suffrage has strengthened the hands of ruling oligarchies throughout the world. It is possible that universal education has debased culture, for it has created a vast semi-literate market for debased cultural products. As a result of the successful demand for the reduction of working hours, great barren stretches have been opened in our lives. Because of our wealth, combined with our leisure, we are beginning to show those signs of juvenile and adult delinquency which the leisure class has exhibited throughout history. For the problem of disease we have substituted that of population. The conquest of nature has turned out to be in every sense explosive, for it has put every city in the world within shooting distance of every other and given us at the same time the means of destroying them all at one shot. Self-determination, the goal we announced for Europeans during the First World War, has led, when taken over by Asians and Africans, to a global revolution that is just beginning and is certain to result in profound and continuous disorders for years to come.

Thomas Jefferson based his hopes for American democracy on the proposition that we would not live in cities, that we would all be self-employed, that we would be so well-educated that we could meet any new difficulties, and that we would be trained in civic virtue through local government. Now we live in cities, we are all employed by others, our educational system is partly custodial and partly technical, thus unfitting us to meet new difficulties, and anybody who connected civic virtue with local government would be sent to a psychiatrist.

Few, if any, of the subjects that concern us most today are even referred to in the Constitution of the United States. Its remarks about the common defense, the power of the President to make war, and the relationship of church and state are primitive in the extreme. On the other hand, the problem with which the Constitution does deal, that of the organization of territory, has by virtue of urban development and technological change taken a shape of which the founding fathers could not have dreamed.

I will venture the broad generalization that no existing theory of politics, economics, society, or international relations can explain or account for the facts of contemporary life. Our situation has changed too fast for our ideas. And so our ideas have degenerated into slogans - forms of words that pass through the mind without putting any strain on it and that cause only imperceptible mental disturbance, if any, in those who hear them.

Most of us retain individualistic ideals, but we live in a bureaucratic culture. It remains to be seen whether our ideals can be made applicable to our culture or whether we can make our culture eon- form to our ideals. Most of us retain an economic theory of the mindless mechanism of the market and a political theory of the night-watchman state. No body has yet shown how either theory can work hi an advanced industrial society. Most of us retain the conviction that economic freedom is maintained by the sovereignty of the consumer and that truth is arrived at through competition in the marketplace of ideas. Yet monopoly and advertising make the consumer sovereign in the way the Queen is sovereign in England - she is forced to accept what is offered her - and the state of the mass media is such that ideas can seldom clash, for they seldom appear.

; Most of us retain the notion that all technical change is progress, is necessarily good, and i? in any event not subject to control. Yet uncontrolled technological development may lead to our being blown up, poisoned, suffocated, or trampled to death at any moment. If our enemies don't get us, our neighbors will. Most of us retain the belief that the individual is politically active, economically independent, and personally creative. But we have a society in which he is a consumer, job-holder, object of propaganda, and statistical unit. He no longer acts-he behaves. As Hannah Arendt said, "The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong, but that they might become true."

Although the view that education has something to do with the mind still lingers in small academic enclaves scattered here and there, we have built an educational system suitable to the production of consumers, job-holders, objects of propaganda, and statistical units, who will keep the industrial machine going.

Under the leadership of a strange coalition of politicians and intellectuals, most of us have believed and still believe in a monolithic Communist conspiracy that must at all costs be combated, even at the cost of justice and freedom. We still make this theme central to our foreign policy, though the conspirators seem to think as little of one another as they do of us and though their destruction will involve our own.

If our situation has changed too fast for our ideas, what we need is a new appraisal of our situation and our ideas. Perhaps we do not understand our situation. Perhaps we ought to revitalize our ideas. Perhaps we ought to get some new ones. We are not now in a very good position to make the appraisal.

When standards of criticism are lacking, the practice of criticism must decline. The professions become pressure groups; the press becomes a medium of propaganda and entertainment; the university becomes the multiversity; and the church becomes an engine of togetherness.

This atmosphere is not unfavorable to the pursuit of knowledge, which we now see as the path to power and prosperity, but it is hostile to the pursuit of understanding and wisdom. Wisdom requires knowledge, but is not synonymous with it and does not flow automatically from it.

Knowledge is a great thing. Nobody should depreciate it. But knowledge is neutral. It may be used for good or evil purposes. It is men who have the purposes, and they may be just or unjust.

The specialized pursuit of knowledge, as we know it today, must abort all efforts to bring an intellectual community to birth, and it must disrupt any that exists. I am inclined to think that over the long term this will have an unfortunate effect upon the pursuit of knowledge; for I believe understanding is indispensable to continuing scientific advances and that understanding cannot be obtained except in an intellectual community in which the circle of knowledge can be drawn and everything can be seen in the light of everything else.

It cannot be denied, however, that the specialized pursuit of knowledge as we know it today can produce the most dazzling short-term results. The society that does the best work of this kind will become, unless it makes some sad mistakes, the richest and most powerful in the world.

My point is that unless a society can develop and maintain intellectual communities devoted to understanding and wisdom, unless it has centers of independent thought and criticism, it is bound to make some sad mistakes. A country with great knowledge factories, but without independent thought, systematic criticism, understanding, and wisdom, may be the richest and most powerful, but it will also be the most dangerous in the world. Or it will disintegrate, for justice is the cement that holds a political community together.

Against this background it is easy to see why the Center is the only one there is and perhaps also why it is not very good. Uniqueness does not necessarily imply excellence; it may signify nothing but foolhardiness. Other people may simply have too much sense to attempt similar efforts. This may well be the verdict of history on the Center.

When philosophy is in disrepute, the Center is committed to it. When standards of moral and political conduct are thought of as personal idiosyncrasies, the Center is struggling to find those which may be universal norms. When the pursuit of knowledge is in the ascendant, the Center has no more interest in it than is necessary to the pursuit of understanding. When the dialogue is a joke, the Center takes it seriously. When questions about American policies and American culture are regarded as disruptive, if not unpatriotic, the Center insists on asking them.

I underestimated the number of people in this country who share the concern of the staff of the Center, and I underestimated the depth of their concern. They are certainly a tiny minority of the population - but in absolute terms there are a great many of them. They are aware of the gap between American ideals and American policy and performance. They want to narrow it. They want to join the search for justice and understanding, and they do not believe they can look for much light from traditional sources, such as the church, the press, and the university. Inadequate as they must feel the Center is, they nevertheless appear grateful for the illumination that issues from it.

This illumination, such as it is, has now been cast on the corporation, the labor union, church and state, the political process, free speech, bureaucracy, the multiversity, federalism, the city, technology, race, and peace.

Determined though it is not to duplicate what others are doing and not to study questions dealt with sufficiently elsewhere, the Center, perhaps because of a touch of megalomania, has been able to avoid few subjects that agitate our contemporaries. We decided to stay away from population and conservation on the ground that we had nothing to add to what others were doing. But I notice that every once in a while we yield to earnest friends who want to talk about these matters with us. The general rule is that we try to abstain unless we have some special contribution that we think we alone can make.

The three questions that are always asked are: What do you do? Why do you do it? And what are the practical effects of it?

The first two questions I have answered as best I can. Let me speak briefly to the third, the question of practical results. The question usually means, can you claim that the conduct of public affairs has in any way changed because of the Center?

The question is improperly addressed to an educational institution. The sole object of the Center is to shed light on what ought to be done. No meter has yet been devised to measure the intensity or range of this kind of illumination. And one man's light can be another man's darkness. In the past, some value has been attached to the voice crying in the wilderness. The same value attaches, on a modest scale, to any center of independent thought. Over the years the Center has suggested a good many topics that ought to be thought about. It pioneered in getting attention paid to the rate and significance of technological change. It began the dialogue among the churches. Many ideas now current about the economy, the corporation, the labor union, bureaucracy, race, and the developing countries got into circulation through its efforts.

The Center must ask to be judged in terms of its purpose. That purpose is educational. It is not to influence the day-to-day actions of those who run, or are supposed to run, our society. If those actions are affected, then the Center may permit itself a certain measure of gratification. But it ought not to be carried away and fancy itself as a behind-the-scenes formulator of governmental policy, a think tank for public or corporate officials. Its object is to understand and to promote understanding of the basic issues that underlie the formulation of public policy.

The Center's program is now under review. It is unlikely that the purpose will be changed. It is probable that in the coming years the Center will try to clarify issues of world development, multinational corporations, conglomerate mergers, philanthropic foundations, the control of science and technology, the role of the professions, the meaning of modern federalism, and the future of the city. As you can see, the tinge of megalomania is still present.

What does it all add up to? Some frustration, a good deal of waste motion, a few false starts, several pleasant surprises, and a sense, after all, of a high calling to a great and necessary task.

I began by repeating an ancient remark of mine. I will end with another. Some years ago I pro posed to the University of Chicago that it change its motto, which is translated to mean, "Let knowledge grow that life may be enriched." I thought that the words "knowledge" and "enriched" were narrow and misleading. I recommended a new motto. Since the University of Chicago has been cool toward it, I may claim it for the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. It is a line from Walt Whit man: "Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a new world."