Reform-minded educator Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977) aroused controversy over his views on liberal education in America. Critical of overspecialization, he fought for a balance between college curriculum and Western intellectual tradition at the University of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. Until his retirement in 1974, three years before his death in 1977, Hutchins was chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Robert M. Hutchins was born in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 17, 1899, but grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, where his father was professor of theology at Oberlin College. Hutchins himself entered Oberlin at the age of 16, only to have his academic career interrupted by World War I. He enlisted in the army and served as an ambulance driver in Italy, earning the Italian medal, Croce di Guerra, in 1918. Home once more, he completed his education at Yale University, where he graduated with honors in 1921.
Hutchins was on a fast career track for the next seven years. He taught at Lake Placid School in New York from 1921 to 1923, while attending Yale Law School, where he graduated with honors in 1925. He was secretary of Yale from 1923 to 1927, named a full professor of the law school in 1927 and dean the following year.
The University of Chicago Years
Hutchins was just 29 years old when he took over Yale Law School, but he was already making his views known concerning American education. His plan to raise entrance requirements and set higher scholastic standards was regarded as "refreshing" in one so young. However, when he became president of the University of Chicago in 1929, at the age of 30, he began to be regarded as controversial.
In Chicago, Hutchins became the era's most exciting and discussed figure in education. He asserted that universities should be centers of independent thought and criticism, operating to change things from the way they are to the way they ought to be. "We have confused science with information, ideas with facts, and knowledge with miscellaneous data," he said. He decried the tendency toward specialization and vocationalism.
In the late 1930s, Hutchins introduced his Chicago Plan for liberal education, based on his belief that the last two years of high school in America duplicated the first two years of college. Its main element was a drastic reorganization that began collegiate education in the third year of high school and ended after the second year of college. The curriculum consisted of 14 year-long comprehensive courses, each integrating a basic field—the physical, biological, and social sciences and the humanities. Students demonstrated mastery of a subject by passing a comprehensive examination that could be administered at any time, whether they attended classes or not. Instruction was primarily by discussion. Hutchins believed that "dialogue" rather than lecturing was the best means of learning.
The controversial Hutchins also introduced a Great Books course at the university to encourage a wider breath of knowledge. Also, his belief that colleges placed undue emphasis on extracurricular activities brought an end to intercollegiate football at Chicago in 1939.
By 1942, the University of Chicago was awarding the bachelor's degree for those who completed the new program. Students were admitted to the college on the basis of placement tests rather than high school records.
Most educators reacted to the Chicago Plan with outrage. Many universities refused to recognize the "two-year degree." Nevertheless, Hutchins had stirred up a hornet's nest in liberal education. Even those who opposed his ideas introduced some of his general courses into their own institutions.
In 1935, the state legislature investigated the University of Chicago on charges of "communistic influences" in the school. Hutchins eloquently defended the freedom to teach, which set the tone in the wave of similar investigations that swept educational institutions during this era.
Hutchins was against U.S. participation in World War II for which he said the country was "morally unprepared." Ironically, his university had a large part in the development of the atomic bomb. A government grant of $2 billion led to the first "controlled" chain reaction experiment just five days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, and brought the United States into the war.
The Later Years
Leaving the university in 1951, after serving the last six years as chancellor, Hutchins became the associate director of the Ford Foundation, whose purpose is to further the cause of peace. In 1954, he was named president of the Fund for the Republic, which advocated no restrictions on freedom of thought and expression in the United States. In 1959, he founded the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which approached his ideal of a community of scholars, in Santa Barbara, CA. Besides his own published works on education, Hutchins was chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1943 until his retirement in 1974.
Hutchins's first marriage, to sculptress Maude Phelps McVeigh in 1921, ended in divorce in 1948. The couple had three daughters, Mary Frances, Joanna, and Clarissa. In 1949, he married Vesta Sutton Orlick. The controversial educator died in Santa Barbara, CA, on May 17, 1977.
Further Reading on Robert Maynard Hutchins
Hutchins wrote of his Chicago experience in The Higher Learning in America (1936), No Friendly Voice (1937), and The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education (1952). There is no full-scale biography; Thomas C. Reeves, Freedom and the Foundation: The Fund for the Republic in the Era of McCarthyism (1969), is the fullest interpretation. Good secondary accounts of the Hutchins years at Chicago are Chauncey S. Boucher, The Chicago College Plan (1935), and Reuben Frodin and others, The Idea and Practice of General Education: An Account of the College of the University of Chicago by Present and Former Members of the Faculty (1950). Arthur A. Cohen, ed., Humanistic Education and Western Civilization: Essays for Robert M. Hutchins (1964), has a chapter on Hutchins.