Hutchins, Dewey and Problems Left Unresolved
Edward J. Dodson
The philosopher John Dewey served as the honorary president of the
newly-formed Henry George School of Social Science in the early 1930s.
A few years earlier, he provided the introduction to a book of
significant passages from Henry George's writings, and in 1932 he
delivered what amounted to the Georgist case for bringing an end to
the Great Depression. Yet, Dewey's involvement in the Georgist
movement is not well-known outside Georgist circles.
What is well-known is Dewey's ongoing disagreement over the very
nature of education with another admirer of Henry George, Robert M.
Hutchins. Hutchins spent twenty years as President and Chancellor of
the University of Chicago, where he made a determined effort to
prevent the university from discarding the traditional liberal
education in favor of what Hutchins viewed as vocational training to
accommodate the needs of business and government. One of history's
great ironies is that his university became the primary research and
development facility for the Manhattan Project before this enterprise
moved to the New Mexico desert and the atmosphere of deep national
The point-counterpoint exchanges between Hutchins and Dewey were
carried on from the late 1930s on, following publication in 1936 of
the book by Hutchins,
The Higher Learning in America. John Dewey reacted:
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
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."
In the subsequent issue of The Social Frontier, Hutchins was
afforded an opportunity to respond:
Mr. John Dewey has devoted much of two recent articles in
The Social Frontier to my book, The Higher Learning in
America. The editors of The Social Frontier have asked
me to reply to Mr. Dewey. This I am unable to do, in any real sense,
for Mr. Dewey has stated my position in such a way as to lead me to
think that I cannot write, and has stated his own in such a way as
to make me suspect that I cannot read.
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
Here, we find two of modern history's most thoughtful individuals at
odds over questions of fundamental importance. Happily, despite their
disagreements, both recognized the truths revealed by Henry George in
his treatment of political economy. With New York City as a major
center of Georgist activism during and after Henry George's life,
Dewey certainly came to know many of the Georgist movement's leaders.
Chicago also had a substantial Georgist community, one that from time
to time included the author, lecturer and one-time Member of Britain's
Parliament, Francis Neilson. Neilson came to know Hutchins quite well
and delivered a series of lectures at the University of Chicago (as
well as at the Henry George School).
There is even more to the Chicago story that deserves a bit of
When Hutchins arrived in Chicago, the University's Department of
Economics was under the direction of Frank H. Knight, whose thinking
was strongly influenced by his association with an earlier critic of
Henry George, Alvin Johnson. Here and there in his writings, "Knight
claimed that there are no economically interesting distinctions among
factors of production, and he also strongly opposed Henry George's
proposal to implement a Single Tax on land value." Knight's
most well-known response to Henry George appeared in a 1953 article, "The
Fallacies in the Single Tax." Up until the arrival of Robert
Hutchins, the guiding influence on the University of Chicago had come
from men hired and paid with funds provided by John D. Rockefeller.
Knight, writes Mason Gaffney, "also argues that slave-owners had
just title to their slaves, because of society's sanction, and
because their was open competition for the capture of slaves."
Somewhat surprisingly, Knight also joined in the Hutchins-Dewey
debate, writing the following letter dated 2 January, 1949 to
'The difference between us and Mr. Dewey is that we can
defend Mr. Dewey's goals, we can argue for democracy and humane
ends, and Mr. Dewey cannot. All he can do is to say he is for them.
He cannot say why, because he can appeal only to science
I'd like very much to have a little explanation on this. Not
meaning to defend Dewey, in the least, as I hope I need not say. But
I just wonder how much difference there really is, if one had a
careful statement as to what Dewey means by Science, or Scientific
Method. My doubt or questioning is rather more on the other side, as
to just how you can argue for democracy or humane ends. Or, more
specifically, what the difference is, between you two. So, I'm
asking you, what form of argument is available to you that Dewey
would reject as invalid, even would not class as "pragmatic,"
perhaps "scientific." And which at the same time is
definitely more than saying you are in favor of the ideals or
principles in question.
I have not been able to locate any response to this letter by
Hutchins. His likely answers are expressed in the following excerpt
from The Great Conversation:
To put an end to the spirit of inquiry that has
characterized the West it is not necessary to burn the books. All we
have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations. On the
other hand, the revival of interest in these books from time to time
throughout history has provided the West with new drive and
creativeness. Great Books have salvaged, preserved, and transmitted
the tradition on many occasions similar to our own.
The books contain not merely the tradition, but also the great
exponents of the tradition. Their writings are models of the fine
and liberal arts. They hold before us what Whitehead called "'the
habitual vision of greatness." These books have endured because
men in every era have been lifted beyond themselves by the
inspiration of their example, Sir Richard Livingstone said: "We
are tied down, all our days and for the greater part of our days, to
the commonplace. That is where contact with great thinkers, great
literature helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary
world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through
the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our
Until very recently these books have been central in education in
the West. They were the principal instrument of liberal education,
the education that men acquired as an end in itself, for no other
purpose than that it would help them to be men, to lead human lives,
and better lives than they would otherwise be able to lead.
Knight raises in his letter the concern that a return to the
classical liberal education would open the door for the
re-introduction of religious doctrine - and revealed truth - to the
detriment of the scientific disciplines. Hutchins, on the other
hand, believed the serious study of the world's religions was
essential to the educational mission of the university. Years later,
in fact, Hutchins was criticized by Virgil C. Blum for supporting the
use of public revenue to fund the parochial schools:
Dr. Robert M. Hutchins sees no constitutional difficulty
in federal aid for the education of church-related school children
in secular subjects. The fact that such education 'is permeated by
religion' or that federal aid for such education is an 'aid to
religion,' he says 'is immaterial.' The benefit that accrues to
religion, Hutchins argues, is 'incidental to an overriding public
benefit.' Consequently, 'such incidental benefits,' he reasons 'do
not invalidate the legislation'.
Hutchins apparently did not foresee the intense polarization that has
occurred in the United States over the use of public funds in the
interest of religion. Nor, perhaps, did he foresee the resurgence of
interest in the liberal arts that has picked up momentum in our
colleges and universities since the 1980s.
For most people in our society, a course of study consistent with a
classical education is viewed as a luxury. We are culturally nurtured
to pursue technical proficiency in some field. The learning of Greek
and Latin - the study of the classics in their original language - is
restricted to a small number of specialists. Even the number of
people who achieve proficiency in a second language continues to
decline despite the large number of us who graduate from college and
go on to earn higher level degrees.
The extensive writings by Dewey, Hutchins and many others on these
subjects, as well as their exchanges, have resolved nothing. We
continue to struggle to provide constructive educational opportunities
for the young. We also continue to struggle to secure and protect the
civil liberties of those who seek "freedom from religion" as
well as the protection of those who seek "freedom of religion."
Some people are determined to use the political system and the
publicly-funded and administered school system to ensure our system of
law embraces their "revealed truth" - what some of us on the
other side of the issue view as superstition institutionalized into
religious dogma. And, of course, there as those (as did Frank Knight)
who find comfort in their study and teaching of the economics of
scarcity, ignoring the moral principle that the earth is
birthright of all persons, equally and defending existing
socio-political arrangements that convey monopolistic privileges to
the few, the most destructive being the private appropriation of rent.
In conclusion, we remain a people whose progress is thwarted by
deeply-entrenched privileges. Only the continuous study of political
economy by our young people over many years will position our society
to bring about a peaceful end to these privileges. Preparing for life
requires us to develop our skills, of course, but also requires that
we develop our capacity for objective, independent thought. Thus, it
seems to me that a greater life benefit accrues to the individual by
following the path advocated by Hutchins beginning early in life up to
and including the undergraduate college degree - for those interested
in pursuing this course of learning. This posits a corresponding
obligation upon a person's community (i.e., society) to create the
educational and societal infrastructure to ensure this opportunity is
broadly available. Dewey was certainly correct when he observed we "cannot
live without means of subsistence" and "the ways in which
these means are employed and consumed have a profound influence upon
all the relationships of persons to one another." He was
critical of higher education for failing to ensure that as the social
order evolved from "an oligarchical to a democratic society"
citizens would all need to be "trained in the right use of the
products of industry." A truly democratic society, he
believed, would no longer allow for the wasteful allocation of "economic
resources." So, indeed, we have a long way to travel before
Dewey's democratic vision is realized. In all likelihood, neither
Dewey nor Hutchins would be very pleased with where we have come.
The sad fact is that one of the most striking weaknesses of our
system of education is that too few people reach adulthood with even a
modicum of understanding of the key principles of what constitutes the
just society. And so, we have a good deal of work to do.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- John Dewey. "President
Hutchins' Proposals To Remake Higher Education," The Social
Frontier, Vol.III, No.22. January, 1937, pp.103-104.
- Robert M. Hutchins. "Grammar,
Rhetoric, and Mr. Dewey," The Social Frontier, Vol. III, No.
23, February, 1937, pp. 137-139.
- Florenz Plassmann and T.
Nicolaus Tideman. "Frank Knight's Proposal to End
Distinctions Among Factors of Production and His Objection to the
Single Tax," Journal of Economic Literature, January 2003.
- Mason Gaffney and Fred
Harrison. The Corruption of Economics (London: Shepheard-Walwyn
Ltd., 1994), p.118.
- Robert M. Hutchins. "The
- Knight writes to Hutchins: "One
thing I hope and suppose I do not need to mention: You will not
appeal to the authority of "God," unless you name the
human representative authorized to speak for "Him", and
I should believe that he is so authorized, any more than be given
acceptable evidence of superior wisdom or competence - of which,
unhappily I have to be the judge - or judge of the judge - in
making up my own mind."
- Virgil C. Blum. "Freedom
and Equality," The Commonweal, January 31, 1964, p. 513.
- For most of us, this option
has been unavailable to us as young students. Proficiency in any
language (even English) is not a high priority in our public
school system in the United States.
- John Dewey. Democracy and
Education (New York: The Free Press edition, 1966. Originally
published by Macmillan Company, 1916), p.119.