“The high-minded man must
care more for truth than for what people think.”


While being interviewed on William Buckley’s Firing Line, Harry Ashmore remarked that he had allowed the subject of his Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins to tell the story of his life and work through the numerous quotations that fill the pages of the book. Ashmore is too modest. To be sure, he constantly quotes Hutchins, whose prose was a model of candor and wit, but this biography is much more than a compilation of quotations held together by the thread of chronological events. Ashmore is not just an amanuensis, a Boswell noting the remarks of his mentor. Far from it, indeed. What we have here, in brief, is a splendid example of the biographer’s art—scholarly but never pedantic or dull, comprehensive in its details, temperate and objective in its conclusions, and beautifully written. It is an extraordinary book about an equally extraordinary man.

And yet for all Hutchins’ acclaim as the Boy Wonder of Academe, earned by his having been named dean of the Yale Law School at age 28 and president of the University of Chicago at 29, I cannot help believing that he was, like so many great men—that is great in the Socratic sense of being eminently rational and hence wise and good—a failure. At least a failure in that what he fought so hard for and dreamed of accomplishing has all come to nought. In his last chapter, entitled “Post Mortem,” Ashmore implies as much, albeit unwittingly, when he summarizes Hutchins’ views of education and the role of the university in effecting those aims. “Central to his thinking,” Ashmore notes, “was the proposition that human beings were not likely to act rationally until and unless they had been educated, or had educated themselves, in a fashion that enhanced their intellectual powers and opened their minds to ideas that might run counter to their instincts or conflict with those they had accepted as articles of faith. His concern was with the institutional means by which this might be accomplished.” And then, driving the point home: “Hutchins insisted that the only functions appropriate to the university were intellectual ones.”

All of which is doubtless true. But then what rational, or even semirational, being would argue today that those are the only, or even primary, functions of our universities? For fifty years Hutchins opposed the “specialization” of learning at the undergraduate level in our schools, of turning our educational institutions into training or trade schools. And in the end he knew that his efforts had been largely wasted. He wrote his old friend Thornton Wilder, with whom he had corresponded since their undergraduate days together at Oberlin, that it was astonishing how little had come from all the money he had raised over the years, particularly money that had been spent on the social sciences. By the time of his death, in May 1977, the work for which he was best known (at the University of Chicago) had been totally dismantled. “Its years of distinction,” Nicholas von Hoffman wrote in his eulogy to Hutchins, “are long behind it now so that it’s another Ivy-League-type training academy for the managerial classes of business and government as well as being a normal school for university professors.” Calling him “the last of the great and greatly individualistic American university presidents,” Von Hoffman predicted that he wouldn’t be missed, or even remembered.

And such, in fact, is the case—or almost so. The few people of my acquaintance who recall him at all remember him as the man who in 1940 got rid of football at Chicago. Which was no mean feat in itself and one that would, considering the obscene part played by college athletic programs, serve as a star in the crown of any university president. In all fairness though, I should point out that Hutchins had this advantage over most university presidents, many of whom doubtless agreed with his belief that football had “the same relation to education that bullfighting has to agriculture”: Hutchins headed a small private university that was badly strapped for money. Moreover, in the season before he recommended that football be discontinued, Chicago had defeated only two opponents, Oberlin and Wabash, and had been madly mauled by the rest, including, of all unlikely schools, Harvard. Thus the time was ripe for removal of the excrescence. And Hutchins’ logic was unanswerable:

Since we cannot hope to win against our present competition and since we cannot profitably change our competition, only two courses are open to us: to subsidize players or to discontinue intercollegiate football. We cannot subsidize players or encourage our alumni to do so without departing from our principles and losing our self-respect. We must therefore discontinue the game.

I was happy to learn that the president of the University of Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, wrote Hutchins to congratulate him for having done what other enlightened souls could only dream of doing.

Hutchins’ greatest years, it seems to me, were those he spent at Chicago (1929-1951) when he was constantly embroiled in battle over the aims of higher education. When his little book The Higher Learning in America appeared (1936), various critics thought they discerned fascist tendencies in its theses. For example, John Dewey wrote that though he “would not intimate that [Hutchins] has any sympathy with consequent appeal to some fixed authority that is now overrunning the world,” etc. Hutchins’ reply was typically (and devastatingly) serene:

Mr. Dewey’s dexterous intimation that I am a fascist in result if not intention (made more dexterous by his remark that he is making no such intimation) suggests the desirability of the education I have proposed. A graduate of my hypothetical university writing for his fellow alumni would know that such observations were rhetoric and would be received as such. As a matter of fact fascism is a consequence of the absence of philosophy. It is possible only in the context of the disorganization of analysis and the disruption of the intellectual tradition through the pressure of immediate practical concerns . . .


Mr. Dewey has suggested that only a defective education can account for some of my views. I am moved to inquire whether the explanation of some of his may not be that he thinks he is still fighting nineteenth-century German philosophy.

The two men differed, of course, in that Dewey believed “Reason and Intellect in the classic tradition” should play an auxiliary role in higher education, whereas Hutchins believed they were primary, and all else auxiliary. Within a few years after going to Chicago, Hutchins admitted to intimates that he wished to move on to something else, and with the strong backing of such friends as William O. Douglas, Harold Ickes, and Harry Hopkins he seemed destined for a place on the Supreme Court. In fact, according to Ickes, then Secretary of the Interior, Roosevelt promised that he would appoint him to the Court. Instead, he offered Hutchins his choice of the chairmanships of the SEC and the FCC—and then professed surprise, according to Ickes, when Hutchins declined. Roosevelt also let it be known that he might name Hutchins as his running mate in 1940, but by then Europe was at war and Roosevelt was intent on joining the fray, though in view of the pacifist temper of the populace at large he had to conceal his intentions until after being elected. Moreover, he had to know that Hutchins was strongly opposed to our intervention, and was in fact an outspoken opponent of our repeating the error of Woodrow Wilson. Ashmore states that Hutchins “was appalled by the presidential campaign. Both candidates seemed to him to be joined in an exercise in hypocrisy intended to disguise the fact that the country was actually being prepared for direct military intervention in a foreign war.”

Once we were in the war, the Japanese having committed their almost unparalleled act of imbecility at Pearl Harbor, Hutchins nevertheless informed the faculty at Chicago that their educational concerns must be set aside, at least in large part, for “the short-run activity of winning the war. Education and research, as we have understood them at the University of Chicago, are long-run activities. We have stood for liberal education and pure research. What the country must have we must try to supply.” Hutchins believed that the war would be won in the laboratories. The most important of those laboratories, as it turned out, would be located at his university.

As a striking example of Hutchins’ lifelong habit of “speaking the truth unseasonably,” and thereby causing the nearsighted to grumble, I point to his university convocation address of—note the date—June 15, 1945. There he spoke of the moral confusion into which the victors had fallen. As Ashmore notes, it would be “difficult to imagine any other university president, then or now, delivering a public address comparable to the one he made on ‘The New Realism’ at a University convocation while the country was still celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany.” In reading the lengthy quotation from the speech, a part of which I shall reproduce, I recalled Matthew 7:3: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”:

So we call Japanese soldiers fanatics when they died rather than surrender, whereas American soldiers who do the same thing are heroes. We prove that all Germans are murderers and all Japanese apes, and at the same time insist that we are going to have one world in which all men are brothers. We say we are going to reeducate the Germans, and adopt a policy of nonfraternization. We hate slavery and propose forced labor. We want Europe rebuilt, but will have no heavy industry in Germany. We want order in Europe, but not if we have to sacrifice to prevent starvation. We are against dictatorship, but the dictatorship of the proletariat is an exception. And the new day dawns by the light of the burning homes of Tokyo and Yokohama. . . .


The conquest of the United States by Hitler is revealed by our adoption of the Nazi doctrine that certain races or nations are superior and fit to rule, whereas others are vicious and fit only to be exterminated or enslaved. We are now talking about guilty races. We are saying about the Germans and Japanese what Hitler said about the Jews. And we are saying about ourselves—or at least we are strongly hinting it—what Hitler said about the blond teutonic “Aryans.”

Hutchins accepted a position with the Ford Foundation in 1951, and was thereafter the leading figure with various of the tributary “funds” that sprang from the foundation’s source—most of them now utterly forgotten. When heading up the Fund for the Republic he came under fire from both the right and left—from the born-again Marxists or the American Committee for Cultural Freedom and from the far-right loonies of the Hearst press, columnists like Fulton Lewis, and simpleminded “patriots” on the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1959 he established the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, housed on an estate in the hills around Santa Barbara. Looking back, one may wonder what, if anything, the center accomplished by bringing intellectuals from all over the world to hear and read papers on the various and sundry topics then fevering their high brows. Someone once defined “committee” as a group of men who keep minutes and waste hours. Not much more can be said for most conferences. Still, even if we assume that- Hutchins’ efforts were in large part wasted, we must admire the efforts for their good intentions. Nor can we doubt Ashmore’s assessment of him as “the most celebrated, and contentious, educator of his generation.”

For that matter, we have had no university president of comparable heft and beam since Hutchins left his Chicago post. With the transformation, now blatantly acknowledged and widely advertised, of education into a business concern, the celebrity attained by our educational leaders is more often than not derisory in nature. With the possible exception of John Silber, the cantankerous president of Boston University, our educational leaders today adhere to the eminently safe policy of giving the populace what it wants, of subscribing, in other words, to the myth that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Hutchins was the most persuasive opponent of that doctrine we have to show. And for that we must honor him.


[Unseasonable Truths: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins, by Worry S. Ashmore (Boston and New York: Little, Brown & Company) 616 pp., $27.00]