President Hutchins' Proposals To Remake Higher Education

John Dewey

Published in The Social Frontier, January, 1937. Vol. IIl, No. 22, pp. 103-104.


President Hutchins' book [The Higher Learning in America, by Robert Maynard Hutchins. The Yale Press, New Haven, 1936.] consists of two parts. One of them is a critical discussion of the plight of education in this country, with especial reference to colleges and universities. The other is a plan for the thorough remaking of education. This second part is again divided. It opens with an analysis of the meaning of general or liberal education, and is followed by an application of the conclusions reached to reconstruction of education in existing colleges and universites. The criticism of the present situation is trenchant. "The most striking fact about the higher learning in America is the confusion that besets it." The college of liberal arts is partly high school, partly university, partly general, partly special. The university consisting of graduate work for the master's and doctor's degree, and of a group of professional schools, is no better off. The universities are not only non-intellectual but they are anti-intellectual.

There then follows a diagnosis of the disease of "disunity, discord, and disorder." Fundamentally, the ailment proceeds from too ready response of universities to immediate demands of the American public. This public is moved by love of money, and the higher learning responds to anything that promises to bring money to the college and university whether from donors, student-fees, or state legislatures. The result is that these institutions become public service-stations; and as there is no special tide in public opinion and sentiment, but only a criss-cross of currents, the kind of service that is to be rendered shifts with every change in public whim and interest. Love of money results in demand for large numbers of students, and the presence of large numbers renders training even more indiscriminate in order to meet the demands of united heterogeneous groups.

Another symptom of our quick response to immediate and often passing public desires is seen in the effect upon higher education of the popular notion of democracy. This notion, although confused, encourages the belief that everybody should have the same chance of getting higher education, and everybody should have just the kind of education he happens to want. As against this view, President Hutchins holds that the responsibility of the public for providing education ends properly at the sophomore year of college, and after that point education should be given only to those who have demonstrated special capacity. (Incidentally, the author attributes to the false popular idea of democracy the existing perverse system of control of higher institutions by boards of trustees.)

The third major cause of our educational disorder is the erroneous notion of progress. Everything is supposed to be getting better, the future will be better yet. Why not then break with the past? Since in fact the "progress" that has taken place is mainly in material things and techniques, information, more and more and more data, become the demand; and higher learning is swamped by an empiricism that drowns the intellect. Somewhat strangely, the natural sciences are regarded by Mr. Hutchins as the cause and the mirror of this empiricism.


One may venture to summarize the evils in relation to their source by saying that they are an excessive regard for practicality, and practicality of a very immediate sort. The essence of the remedy accordingly, is emancipation of higher learning from this practicality, and its devotion to the cultivation of intellectuality for its own sake.

Many readers will share my opinion that Mr. Hutchins has shrewdly pointed out many evils attending the aimlessness of our present educational scheme, and will join in his desire that higher institutions become "centers of creative thought." So strong will be their sympathies that they may overlook the essence of the remedy, namely, his conception of the nature of intellectuality or rationality. This conception is characterized by two dominant traits. The first, as I pointed out in an article in the December number of this journal, is belief in the existence of fixed and eternal authoritative principles as truths that are not to be questioned. "Real unity can be achieved only by a hierarchy of truths which shows us which are fundamental and which are subsidiary." The hierarchy must be already there, or else it could not show us. The other point is not so explicitly stated. But it does not require much reading between the lines to see the remedy proposed rests upon a belief that since evils have come from surrender to shifting currents of public sentiment, the remedy is to be found in the greatest possible aloofness of higher learning from contemporary social life. This conception is explicitly seen in the constant divorce set up between intellect and practice, and between intellect and "experience."

I shall not stop to inquire whether such a divorce, if it is established, will be conducive to creative intellectual work, inviting as is the topic. I content myself with pointing out that -- admitting that many present ills come from surrender of educational institutions to immediate social pressures -- the facts are open to another interpretation with respect to educational policy. The policy of aloofness amounts fundamentally to acceptance of a popular American slogan, "Safety first." It would seem, on the other hand, as if the facts stated about the evil effects of our love of money should invite attention on the part of institutions devoted to love of truth for its own sake to the economic institutions that have produced this overweening love, and to their social consequences in other matters than the temper of educational institutions; and attention to the means available for changing this state of things. The immediate effect of such attention would probably be withdrawal of donations of money. But for an institution supposedly devoted to truth, a policy of complete withdrawal, however safe, hardly seems the way out. I have given but one illustration. I hope it may suggest a principle widely applicable. Escape from present evil contemporary social tendencies may require something more than escape. It may demand study of social needs and social potentialities of enduring time span. President Hutchins' discussion is noteworthy for complete absence of any reference to this alternative method of educational reconstruction. It is conceivable that educational reconstruction cannot be accomplished without a social reconstruction in which higher education has a part to play.


There are indications that Mr. Hutchins would not take kindly to labelling the other phase of this remedial plan "authoritarian." But any scheme based on the existence of ultimate first principles, with their dependent hierarchy of subsidiary principles, does not escape authoritarianism by calling the principles "truths." I would not intimate that the author has any sympathy with fascism. But basically his idea as to the proper course to be taken is akin to the distrust of freedom and the consequent appeal to some fixed authority that is now overrunning the world. There is implicit in every assertion of fixed and eternal first truths the necessity for some human authority to decide, in this world of conflicts, just what these truths are and how they shall be taught. This problem is conveniently ignored. Doubtless much may be said for selecting Aristotle and St. Thomas as competent promulgators of first truths. But it took the authority of a powerful ecclesiastic organization to secure their wide recognition. Others may prefer Hegel, or Karl Marx, or even Mussolini as the seers of first truths; and there are those who prefer Nazism. As far as I can see, President Hutchins has completely evaded the problem of who is to determine the definite truths that constitute the hierarchy.

In view of the emphasis given by our author to the subject of logic, it is pertinent to raise the question oft how far institutions can become centers of creative thought, if in their management it is assumed that fundamental truths and the hierarchy of truth are already known. The assumption that merely by learning pre-existent truths, students will become even students, much less capable of independent creative thought, is one that demands considerable logical inquiry. President Hutchins' contempt for science as merely empirical perhaps accounts for his complete acceptance of the doctrine of formal discipline. But it is difficult to account for complete neglect of the place of the natural sciences in his educational scheme (apart from possible limitations of his own education) save on the score of a feeling, perhaps subconscious, that their recognition is so hostile to the whole scheme of prescribed antecedent first truths that it would be fatal to the educational plan he proposes to give them an important place. Considering, however, that their rise has already created a revolution in the old logic, and that they now afford the best existing patterns of controlled inquiry in search for truth, there will be others besides myself who will conclude that President Hutchins' policy of reform by withdrawal from everything that smacks of modernity and contemporaneousness is not after all the road to the kind of intellectuality that will remedy the evils he so vividly depicts.

The constant appeal of President Hutchins to Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas urgently calls for a very different interpretation from that which is given it. Their work is significant precisely because it does not represent withdrawal from the science and social affairs of their own times. On the contrary, each of them represents a genuine and profound attempt to discover and present in organized form the meaning of the science and the institutions that existed in their historic periods. The real conclusion to be drawn is that the task of higher learning at present is to accomplish a similar work for the confused and disordered conditions of our own day. The sciences have changed enormously since these men performed their task, both in logical method and in results. We live in a different social medium. It is astounding that anyone should suppose that a return to the conceptions and methods of these writers would do for the present situation what they did for the Greek and Medieval eras. The cure for surrender of higher learning to immediate and transitory pressures is not monastic seclusion. Higher learning can become intellectually vital only by coming to that close grip with our contemporary science and contemporary social affairs which Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas exemplify in their respective ways.