In Search of the real University of Chicago

Robert Maynard Hutchins, Education For Freedom, 1943.

Chapter 1:
The Autobiography of an Uneducated Man

      I was born in the usual way forty-three years ago and brought up in a way that was not unusual for persons born at that time. We had morning prayers with a Bible reading every day. We went to church twice on Sunday. The result of the first is that I was amazed three weeks ago when in a class I was teaching I found a senior at the University of Chicago who had never heard of Joshua. The result of the second is that it is very hard for me to go to church now and that I find myself singing, humming, or moaning third-rate hymns like "Blest Be the Tie That Binds" while shaving, while waiting on the platform to make a speech, or in other moments of abstraction or crisis.

      We had at that time many advantages that have been denied to college students in recent years, but that may be restored to their successors. We had no radios, and for all practical purposes no automobiles, no movies, and no slick-paper magazines. We had to entertain ourselves. We could not by turning a small knob or paying a small fee get somebody else to do it for us. It never occurred to us that unless we could go somewhere or do something our lives were empty. We had nowhere to go, and no way to get there. Our recreations were limited to two: reading and physical exercise. The first meant reading anything you could lay your hands on. The second meant playing tennis.

      You will notice that the circumstances under which I was brought up gave me some knowledge of one great book, the Bible, and the habit of reading. The habit of physical exercise I was fortunately forced to abandon at an early date. You will notice, too, that the educational system had nothing to do with any of these accomplishments or habits. I do not remember that I ever thought about being educated at all. I thought of getting through school. This, as I recall it, was a business of passing examinations and meeting requirements, all of which were meaningless to me but presumably had some meaning to those who had me in their power. I have no doubt that the Latin and Greek I studied did me good. All I can say is that I was not aware of it at the time. Nor did I have any idea of the particular kind of good it was intended to do me. Since I had got the habit of reading at home, I was perfectly willing to read anything anybody gave me. Apart from a few plays of Shakespeare nobody gave me anything good to read until I was a sophomore in college. Then I was allowed to examine the grammar and philology of the Apology of Socrates in a Greek course. And since I had had an unusual amount of German, I was permitted to study Faust.

     My father once happened to remark to me that he had never liked mathematics. Since I admired my father very much, it became a point of honor with me not to like mathematics either. I finally squeezed through Solid Geometry. But when, at the age of sixteen, I entered Oberlin College, I found that the authorities felt that one hard course was all anybody ought to be asked to carry. You could take either mathematics or Greek. Of course if you took Greek you were allowed to drop Latin. I did not hesitate a moment. Languages were pie for me. It would have been unfilial to take mathematics. I took Greek, and have never seen a mathematics book since. I have been permitted to glory in the possession of an unmathematical mind.

      My scientific attainments were of the same order. I had a course in physics in prep school. Every Oberlin student had to take one course in science, because every Oberlin student had to take one course in everything--in everything, that is, except Greek and mathematics. After I had blown up all the retorts in the chemistry laboratory doing the Marsh test for arsenic, the chemistry teacher was glad to give me a passing grade and let me go.

      My philosophical attainments were such as may be derived from a ten weeks' course in the History of Philosophy. I do not remember anything about the course except that the book was green and that it contained pictures of Plato and Aristotle. I learned later that the pictures were wholly imaginary representations of these writers. I have some reason to believe that the contents of the books bore the same relation to their doctrines.

      So I arrived at the age of eighteen and the end of my sophomore year. My formal education had given me no understanding of science, mathematics, or philosophy. It had added almost nothing to my knowledge of literature. I had some facility with languages, but today I cannot read Greek or Latin except by guesswork. What is perhaps more important, I had no idea what I was doing or why. My father was a minister and a professor. The sons of ministers and the sons of professors were supposed to go to college. College was a lot of courses. You toiled your way through those which were required and for the rest wandered around taking those that seemed most entertaining. The days of the week and the hours of the day at which courses were offered were perhaps the most important factor in determining the student's course of study.

      I spent the next two years in the Army. Here I developed some knowledge of French and Italian. I learned to roll cigarettes, to blow rings, and to swear. I discovered that there was a world far from Oberlin, Ohio, devoted to wine, women, and song; but I was too well brought up even to sing.

      The horrors of war are all that they are supposed to be. They are even worse; for the worst horror can never be written about or communicated. It is the frightful monotony and boredom which is the lot of the private with nothing to think about. Since my education had given me nothing to think about, I devoted myself, as the alternative to suicide, to the mastery of all the arts implied in the verb "to soldier." I learned to protract the performance of any task so that I would not be asked to do another. By the end of the war I could give the impression that I was busy digging a ditch without putting my pick into the ground all day. I have found this training very useful in my present capacity. But on the whole, aside from the physiological benefits conferred upon me by a regular, outdoor life, I write off my years in the Army as a complete blank. The arts of soldiering, at least at the buck-private level, are not liberal arts. The manual of arms is not a great book.

      When the war was over, I went to Yale. I thought I would study history, because I could not study mathematics, science, or philosophy; and history was about all there was left. I found that the Yale history department was on sabbatical leave. But I found, too, that you could take your senior year in the Law School with credit for the bachelor's degree. So I decided to stay two years in Yale College doing all of my last year's work in the Law School.

      Yale was dissatisfied with my year of blowing up retorts in the Oberlin chemistry laboratory. Yale said I had to take another science; any science would do. Discussion with my friends revealed the fact that the elementary course in biology was not considered difficult even for people like me. I took that and spent a good deal of time in the laboratory cutting up frogs. I don't know why. I can tell you nothing now about the inside of a frog. In addition to the laboratory we had lectures. All I remember about them is that the lecturer lectured with his eyes closed. He was the leading expert in the country on the paramecium. We all believed that he lectured with his eyes closed because he had to stay up all night watching the paramecia reproduce. Beyond this experience Yale imposed no requirements on me, and I wandered aimlessly round until senior year.

      In that year I did all my work in the Law School, except that I had to obey a regulation of obscure origin and purpose which compelled every Yale College student working in the Law School to take one two-hour course in the College. I took a two-hour course in American Literature because it was the only two-hour course in the College which came at twelve o'clock. A special advantage of this course was that the instructor, who was much in demand as a lecturer to popular audiences, often had to leave at 12:20 to make the 12:29 for New York.

      I see now that my formal education began in the Law School. My formal education began, that is, at the age of twenty-one. I do not mean to say that I knew then that I was getting an education. I am sure the professors did not know they were giving me one. They would have been shocked at such an insinuation. They thought they were teaching me law. They did not teach me any law. But they did something far more important: they introduced me to the liberal arts.

      It is sad but true that the only place in an American university where the student is taught to read, write, and speak is the law school. The principal, if not the sole, merit of the case method of instruction is that the student is compelled to read accurately and carefully, to state accurately and carefully the meaning of what he has read, to criticize the reasoning of opposing cases, and to write very extended examinations in which the same standards of accuracy, care, and criticism are imposed. It is too bad that this experience is limited to very few students and that those few arrive at the stage where they may avail themselves of it only at about age twenty-two. It is unfortunate that the teachers have no training in the liberal arts as such. The whole thing is on a rough-and-ready basis, but it is grammar, rhetoric, and logic just the same, and a good deal better than none at all.

      One may regret, too, that the materials upon which these disciplines are employed are no more significant than they are. No case book is a great book. Not more than two or three judges in the history of Anglo-American law have been great writers. One who is immersed long enough in the turgidities of some of the masters of the split infinitive who have graced the American bench may eventually come to write like them.

      One may regret as well that no serious attempt is made in the law schools to have the student learn anything about the intellectual history of the intellectual content of the law. At only one law school that I know of is it thought important to connect the law with ethics and politics. In most law schools there is a course in Jurisprudence. At Yale in my day it was an elective one-semester course in the last year, and was ordinarily taken by about ten students. Still, the Yale Law School did begin my formal education. Though it was too little and too late, it was something, and I shall always be grateful for it.

      After I graduated from college and ended my first year of law I took a year and a half off and taught English and History in a preparatory school. This continued my education in the liberal arts. I did not learn any history, because the school was solely interested in getting boys through the College Board Examinations. We taught from textbooks, usually the most compact we could find, for we were reasonably sure that if the boys had memorized what was in the textbook they could pass the examinations. We did not allow them to read anything except the textbook for fear of confusing their minds.

      But in teaching, and especially in teaching English Composition, I discovered that there were rules of reading, writing, and speaking, and that it was worthwhile to learn them, and even to try to teach them. I came to suspect, for the first time, that my teachers in school had had something in mind. I began to fall into a dangerous heresy, the heresy that since the best way to learn something is to teach it, the only way to learn anything is to teach it. I am sure that in what is called "the curriculum" of the conventional school, college, or university the only people who are getting an education are the teachers. They work in more or less coherent, if somewhat narrow, fields, and they work in more or less intelligible ways. The student, on the other hand, works through a multifarious collection of disconnected courses in such a way that the realms of knowledge are likely to become less and less intelligible as he proceeds. In such an institution the only way to learn anything is to teach it. The difficulty with this procedure is that in the teacher's early years, at least, it is likely to make the education of his students even worse than it would otherwise have been.

      After continuing my education in the liberal arts in this rather unpleasant and inefficient way, I returned to Yale at the age of twenty-three, became an officer of the University, and finished my law work out of hours. Just before I was about to graduate from the Law School at the age of twenty-six, a man who was scheduled to teach in the School that summer got appendicitis, and a substitute had to be found. Since I was already on the pay roll and everybody else was out of town, I became a member of the faculty of the Law School.

      Here I continued my education in the liberal arts, this time unconsciously, for I was no more aware than the rest of the faculty that the liberal arts were what we were teaching. At the end of my first year of this the man who was teaching the law of Evidence resigned, and, because of my unusual qualifications, I was put in his place. My qualifications were that I had never studied the subject, in or out of law school, and that I knew nothing of the disciplines on which the law of Evidence is founded, namely psychology and logic.

      The law of Evidence bothered me. I couldn't understand what made it go. There is a rule, for example, that evidence of flight from the scene of a crime is admissible as tending to show guilt. After painful research the only foundation I could find for this was the statement, emanating, I grant, from the very highest source, that the wicked flee when no man pursueth, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.

      There is a rule which admits, as worthy the attention of the jury, utterances made immediately after a blow on the head, or after any sudden shock, such as having somebody say "boo" to you. As far as I could discover, this doctrine rested on the psychological principle, long held incontrovertible, that a blow on the head or having somebody say "boo" to him prevents even the habitual liar, momentarily but effectually, from indulging in the practice of his art. Since I was supposed to lead my students to the knowledge of what the rules ought to be, and not merely of what they were, I wanted to find out whether the wicked really do flee when no man pursueth, whether the righteous really are as bold as a lion, and whether you really can startle a liar out of his disregard for the truth.

      It was obviously impossible to conduct controlled experiments on these interesting questions. I could not think about them, because I had had no education. The psychologists and logicians I met could not think about them, because they had had no education either. I could think about legal problems as legal. They could think about psychological problems as psychological. I didn't know how to think about legal problems as psychological; they didn't know how to think about psychological problems as legal. Finally I heard that there was a young psychologist, logician, and philosopher at Columbia by the name of Mortimer Adler who was actually examining the bible of all Evidence teachers, the seven volumes of Wigmore on Evidence. A man who was willing to make such sacrifices deserved investigation, and I got in touch with Mr. Adler right away.

      I found that Mr. Adler was just as uneducated as I was, but that he had begun to get over it, and to do so in a way that struck me as very odd. He had been teaching for several years in John Erskine's Honors Course in the Great Books at Columbia. I paid no attention and went on trying to find out how I could put a stopwatch on the return of power to lie after a blow on the head.

      I now transport you forward four years, from 1925 to 1929. I am President of the University of Chicago [at age 29]. Mr. Adler is a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago. We had fled from New Haven and New York, and we must have been guilty, for we had fled when I assure you no man had any idea of pursuing us. By this time Mr. Adler had had four more years with the Great Books at Columbia. He looked on me, my work, my education, and my prospects and found us not good. He had discovered that merely reading was not enough. He had found out that the usefulness of reading was some way related to the excellence of what was read and the plan for reading it. I knew that reading was a good thing, but had hitherto been under the impression that it didn't make any difference what you read or how it was related to anything else you read. I had arrived at the age of thirty, you will remember, with some knowledge of the Bible, of Shakespeare, of Faust, of one dialogue of Plato, and of the opinions of many semi-literate and a few literate judges, and that was about all. Mr. Adler further represented to me that the sole reading matter of university presidents was the telephone book. He intimated that unless I did something drastic I would close my educational career a wholly uneducated man. He broadly hinted that the president of an educational institution ought to have some education. For two years we discussed these matters, and then, at the age of thirty-two, my education began in earnest.

      For eleven years we have taught the Great Books in various parts of the University: in University High School, in the College, in the Humanities Division, in the Law School, in the Department of Education, in University College, the extension division, four hours a week three quarters of the year. All this and the preparation for it has had to be carried on between board meetings, faculty meetings, committee meetings, conferences, trips, speeches, money-raising efforts, and attempts to abolish football, to award the B.A. at the end of the sophomore year, and otherwise to wreck the educational system. Thanks to the kind co-operation of the students, I have made some progress with my education. In my more optimistic moments I flatter myself that I have arrived at about the stage which I think the American sophomore should have reached. But this is an exaggeration. The American sophomore, to qualify for the bachelor's degree, should not be ignorant of mathematics and science.

      Now what I want to know is why I should have had to wait until age forty-three to get an education somewhat worse than that which any sophomore ought to have. The liberal arts are the arts of freedom. To be free a man must understand the tradition in which he lives. A great book is one which yields up through the liberal arts a clear and important understanding of our tradition. An education which consisted of the liberal arts as understood through great books and of great books understood through the liberal arts would be one and the only one which would enable us to comprehend the tradition in which we live. It must follow that if we want to educate our students for freedom, we must educate them in the liberal arts and in the great books. And this education we must give them, not by the age of forty-three, but by the time they are eighteen, or at the latest twenty.

      We have been so preoccupied with trying to find out how to teach everybody to read anything that we have forgotten the importance of what is read. Yet it is obvious that if we succeeded in teaching everybody to read, and everybody read nothing but pulp magazines, obscene literature, and Mein Kampf, the last state of the nation would be worse than the first. Literacy is not enough.

      The common answer is that the great books are too difficult for the modern pupil. All I can say is that it is amazing how the number of too difficult books has increased in recent years. The books that are now too difficult for candidates for the doctorate were the regular fare of grammar-school boys in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Most of the great books of the world were written for ordinary people. Mr. Adler and I have found that the books are more rather than less effective the younger the students are. Students in University High School have never heard that these books are too hard for them and that they shouldn't read them. They have not had time to get as miseducated as their elders. They read the books and like them because they think they are good books about important matters. The experience at St. John's College, in the Humanities General Course at Columbia, in the General Courses of the College of the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago College course known as Reading, Writing, and Criticism is the same.

      Ask any foreign scholar you meet what he thinks about American students. He will tell you that they are eager and able to learn, that they will respond to the best that is offered them, but that they are miserably trained and dreadfully unenlightened. If you put these two statements together you can come to only one conclusion, and that is that it is not the inadequacy of the students but the inadequacy of the environment and the irresolution of teachers that is responsible for the shortcomings of American education.

      So Quintilian said: "For there is absolutely no foundation for the complaint that but few men have the power to take in the knowledge that is imparted to them, and that the majority are so slow of understanding that education is a waste of time and labor. On the contrary you will find that most are quick to reason and ready to learn. Reasoning comes as naturally to man as flying to birds, speed to horses and ferocity to beasts of prey: our minds are endowed by nature with such activity and sagacity that the soul is believed to proceed from heaven. Those who are dull and unteachable are as abnormal as prodigious births and monstrosities, and are but few in number. A proof of what I say is to be found in the fact that students commonly show promise of many accomplishments, and when such promise dies away as they grow up, this is plainly due not to the failure of natural gifts, but to lack of the requisite care. But, it will be urged, there are degrees of talent. Undoubtedly, I reply, and there will be a corresponding variation in actual accomplishment: but that there are any who gain nothing from education, I absolutely deny."

      When we remember that only a little more than 1500 years ago the ancestors of most of us, many of them painted blue, were roaming the trackless forests of Caledonia, Britain, Germany, and transalpine Gaul, despised by the civilized citizens of Rome and Antioch, interested, in the intervals of rapine, only in deep drinking and high gaming; savage, barbarous, cruel, and illiterate, we may reflect with awe and expectation on the potentialities of our race. When we remember, too, that it is only a little more than fifty years ago that the "average man" began to have the chance to get an education, we must recognize that it is too early to despair of him.

      The President of Dalhousie has correctly said, "Over most of Europe the books and monuments have been destroyed and bombed. To destroy European civilization in America you do not need to burn its records in a single fire. Leave those records unread for a few generations and the effect will be the same."

      The alternatives before us are clear. Either we must abandon the ideal of freedom or we must educate our people for freedom. If an education in the liberal arts and in the great books is the education for freedom, then we must make the attempt to give this education to all our citizens. And since it is a long job, and one upon which the fate of our country in war and peace may depend, we shall have to start now.


Courtesy of Mortmimer Adler's Center for the Study of Great Ideas