Published: 30-06-2011, 07:12

Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899–1977) - American Education

American educator, educational innovator and champion of the traditional classical education based on careful study of the great books of the Western tradition.
Born in Brooklyn, Hutchins earned a law degree from Yale following service in the U.S. Army during World War I. By 1928, he had been named dean of the Yale Law School and, in 1929, at the age of 30, president of the UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO. Fervent in the belief that a university should inspire youthful passion for learning and independent thought, Hutchins opened Chicago to high school juniors, letting some graduate after only two years if they qualified. Hutchins abolished the course credit system and compulsory class attendance. Instead, each student, regardless of age, could progress whenever he thought he was ready and could successfully pass a comprehensive examination.
Although “radical,” in the sense of giving students independence to pursue knowledge at their own pace, Hutchins was nevertheless a conservative in that he believed strongly that all Americans should be schooled in the classic disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics and the great books of the Western world. He railed against so-called frontier thinkers who favored abandoning classical education in favor of utilitarian and humanitarian courses they deemed more relevant to modern life. “Education,” said Hutchins, “implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is truth. Truth is everywhere the same.” With the help of his friend and presidential assistant, philosophy professor Mortimer J. Adler, Hutchins reorganized the curriculum at the university, abolishing football and changing the curriculum to emphasize reading and discussion of the classics of Western tradition.
At the same time, he and Adler founded the Great Books Foundation to produce a series of books containing classical works of literature, poetry and essays. The series was designed to provide a fundamental education for adults who, because of the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II, might have been deprived of secondary school education and all exposure to the classics. The foundation also produced training guides for discussion leaders to organize subscribers into discussion groups.
Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899–1977)

Robert Maynard Hutchins (Library of Congress)

Scorned by the educational left as out-ofdate and by the right as an obsessive intellectual who did not appreciate the value of football, Hutchins and his philosophy of education fell into disfavor until after World War II, when evidence mounted that public school and college education had deteriorated badly. A growing “back-to-basics” movement led by Adler and based on the Hutchins philosophy gradually reintroduced many of the elements of the classical disciplines of grammar and mathematics into the curricula at almost every level of education.
Hutchins left Chicago in 1951 to become associate director of the Ford Foundation, and in 1952 he and Adler produced and edited the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World, which provided libraries, schools and individual families with what the two educators considered the collected wisdom of the ages. By the early 1960s, the Great Books Foundation had saturated the market with its encyclopedic collection and began to produce short series of paperbacks, with short stories, poetry, essays and other works designed for students—especially gifted students—from second grade through high school.
Hutchins also served as chairman of the board of editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1943 to 1946, and as president of the Fund for the Republic and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, both of them part of the Ford Foundation. He was the author of a number of classic works on education, including No Friendly Voice and The Higher Learning in America, both of which caused a stir in American education when published in 1936. His other important works include The Conflict in Education (1953), University of Utopia (1953), Great Books, The Foundation of a Liberal Education (1954), Some Observations on American Education (1956), Education for Freedom (1963), and Education: The Learning Society (1968). (See also Great Books Program.)