Running Against The Wind
Robert M. Hutchins and the University of Chicago: Institutional
Growth, Status-Seeking Research and the Struggle to Preserve Liberal
Edward J. Dodson
[A paper written in partial completion of the course
requirements, Knowledge in America, Temple University, Fall 1989,
Prof. Morris J. Vogel]
By the 1930s an overwhelming
majority of university administrators and faculty in the United
States had inherited an institutional framework that emphasized
scientific research at the expense of providing students with a
well-rounded, liberal education. Tenured professors were
devoting less and less attention to classroom teaching,
particularly at the undergraduate level where students required
exposure to fundamental principles and where the professors'
specialized interests could not be pursued. From the standpoint
of most faculty members, the opportunity to apply their talents
and energies to scholarly research rather than to the teaching
of fundamentals to undisciplined undergraduates represented
progress and career enhancement.
Our assigned readings dealing with the professionalization of
education (and science) have each contributed to a better
understanding of how and why this metamorphosis occurred. This
paper focuses on the treatment given by these same historians
(and other writers, where additional sources add significant
perspective) to the minority attempt to defend the tradition of
liberal education, defined as a curriculum that centered on the
writings viewed by nineteenth-century educators as essential to
an appreciation for Western civilization and values. This core
body of knowledge was seen by certain individuals as the thread
by which individuals had been bound together and from which
mutually-held values would be sustained.
By the end of the nineteenth century, higher education in the United
States had, in effect, become a highly-developed industry. University
training and the holding of an advanced degree in an area of
specialized knowledge was the standard by which an individual's
accomplishments were measured. The extent to which this occurred as a
consequence of the deliberate desires and actions of individual
educators rather than in response to the external demands of a
changing socio-political environment is one of the questions each
historian in this sequence touched on to a greater or lesser degree.
Among the most important external influences dealt with are: the
closing of the frontier; urbanization (fueled both by massive
immigration and internal migrations); rising expectations of a large
middle class; individual desires for status and recognition; the
pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; and, the expanding utilization
of experts by government and industry.
Higher education, once limited primarily to the wealthy and the
upwardly mobile middle class, was by the beginning of the twentieth
century nearly universally accepted as the means by which not only
material wealth might be obtained but also positions of status within
society -- at least for white, adult males. Margaret Rossiter's
detailed history of women scientists and educators confirms that not
even outstanding research accomplishments, graduate work or doctoral
degrees could overcome both institutionalized and informal sexual
discrimination against women within and outside the academic
community. The same obstacles stood in the way of members of racial,
ethnic and religious minorities as well. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the
reality of intellectual life in the United States was one limited by
entrenched privilege and prejudice that only grudgingly gave way to
the pressures by the disenfranchised for some semblance of the
Jeffersonian concept of equality of opportunity.
As history makes clear, the push by some for greater equality of
opportunity increased competition and brought on conflict between
those individuals and groups involved. For example, while science
welcomed and benefited from the infusion of European exiles and
dissidents, the larger society struggled under nativist backlashes
against immigration. Those who welcomed pluralism and advocated
tolerance for those different from the Anglo-Saxon, protestant
majority were in short supply in the early twentieth-century United
States. Within the general population a strain of anti-intellectualism
also lingered on despite the fact that as a modern industrial society
the United States required a highly-educated and technically-trained
A new generation of educators had to somehow reconcile existing
prejudices with the growing demand for a literate (but, particularly,
a technically literate) citizenry. One of the first formal attempts to
meet this challenge came at the University of Wisconsin in 1892, where
(as described by Richard Hofstadter):
[T]he new School of Economics, Political Science, and
History was set up . . . under the direction of the young economist,
Richard T. Ely. Frederick Jackson Turner and President Thomas C.
Chamberlain, the leaders of the movement, hoped to make Wisconsin a
pioneer among Midwestern states in promoting social science, which
they felt had immense potentialities for providing practical
guidance to the complex industrial world.
Also in the Midwest, the University of Chicago chased after similar
recognition from its founding in 1891 and initial endowment by one of
the nation's most powerful robber barons, John D. Rockefeller.
THE CHICAGO EXPERIMENT
The University of Chicago's first President, William R. Harper, had
attempted to reconcile the declining attention given to liberal arts
at the undergraduate level while still providing scientists the
environment for research and publication they fought for during the
last quarter of the nineteenth century. "Harper sought to meet
the problem," writes Harry A. Ashmore (in a new biography of
Robert M. Hutchins), "by making a clear division between the
University, which would be dedicated to specialized inquiry into the
unknown, and the College, where the faculty would be concerned with
imparting existing knowledge." To ensure that beginning
students would receive quality instruction, he advocated recruitment
of "a separate faculty in which recognition and promotion would
depend upon the quality of teaching rather than upon the research and
publication employed by the University as a measure of worth. "
Harper and his faculty were, however, at the considerable mercy of
the University's trustees, whose influence and concerns were described
by Matthew Josephson as less than altruistic:
In the world of learning, the janissaries of oil or lard
potentates, with a proper sense of taste and fitness, sought
consistently to sustain the social structure, to resist change, to
combat all current notions which might thereafter "reduce
society to chaos" or "confound the order of nature."
As a class, they shared with their patrons the belief that there was
more to lose than to gain by drastic alterations of the existing
institutions, and that it was wisest to "let well enough alone."
. . . the managers of Rockefeller's Chicago University also
championed the combinations year by year. One professor of
economics, Dr. Gunton, especially distinguished himself on this
score; and another, a teacher of literature ostensibly, declared Mr.
Rockefeller and Mr. Pullman "superior in creative genius to
Shakespeare, Homer and Dante," a declaration which made a
lively impression at the time. In the meanwhile, a third teacher, a
Professor [Samuel] Bemis, who happened to criticize the action of
the railroads during the Pullman strike in 1894 was after several
warnings expelled from the university for "incompetence. "
Despite the obvious constraints imposed on Harper by his financial
dependence on the moguls of business, other historians recognize his
success in bringing together "perhaps the most remarkable group
of scholars to be found in America in the 1890's." By the time
of Robert M. Hutchins' arrival in 1929, the University of Chicago had
largely abandoned Harper's separate but equal approach to liberal arts
teaching and research, looking very much like other large
universities. Under Harper's successors, the University cultivated
status-seeking research at the expense of providing undergraduate
students with a thorough liberal education. Hutchins announced to the
faculty, students and the public that a primary focus of his
administration would be to "secure men if possible who are both
distinguished scholars and creative educators. If this is impossible,
and it is on a large scale, let them be one or the other." One
of his earliest and most significant moves was to bring in Mortimer J.
Adler, then a young law professor at Columbia University. With Adler's
strong support, Hutchins then set about the implementation of Harper's
Together, Hutchins and Adler developed a seminar curriculum based on
the "Great Books of the Western World." Thirty-one years
later, in 1961, their faith in this program remained undaunted:
While the great books do represent the outstanding
literary achievements of our Western civilization over the last
twenty-five centuries, they are as alive today as when they were
written. That is the true mark of their greatness. The ideas they
deal with -- and that is why they are the great ideas -- constitute
the intellectual implements which thinking men in every century must
employ in order to understand the changing world in which they live.
It is precisely because they are timeless in this way that the great
books and the great ideas are always so timely, always so relevant
to the present. 
Hutchins' long-term objectives included the wholesale restructuring
of the country's educational system; his work at the University of
Chicago was to establish a model on which wider changes could be
introduced. In a very real sense, he was running against the wind in
his efforts to resurrect teaching and the providing of a general
education as priority endeavors of the nation's universities. He
faced, in part, a widespread self-satisfaction among educational
professionals and the public with the existing system's enumerated
accomplishments. Burton Bledstein also seems to share my conclusion on
The university was a nineteenth-century creation and a
twentieth-century success story, and the American public in this
century generally has not required much convincing or threatening
about the importance of higher education to its welfare and
mobility. Perhaps this fact explains why few spokesmen have come
forward in the twentieth century who were either as lucid or as
concerned with the ideological weight of their remarks as the
founding fathers of American university administration,
founders set universities going in a distinct American direction.
They demonstrated a skilled capacity both in interpreting the
significance of their executive actions to their clientele and in
explaining the legitimacy of their faith in American higher
education -- a faith which today many persons have begun to
In 1900, only a very few questioned the relentless quest for
professionalization and the drift toward research within the
universities. Where the so-called hard sciences -- those dealing in
the realm of the physical universe outside of human behavior -- were
concerned, this was certainly the case. Less formidable and subject,
therefore, to external pressures were the era's newly-emerging social
scientists. These individuals took up the challenge of applying the
methods of scientific investigation to the study of human behavior and
human institutions; and, as Matthew Josephson showed, the conclusions
reach by social scientists were often colored by vested interest,
prejudice and preconceived beliefs.
Another example of the defensiveness of social scientists is provided
in the same generation by the new professional economists, who became
incensed by attacks on their integrity from the self-educated
political economist and journalist/reformer, Henry George. When George
challenged the findings and consistency in the then accepted
principles of economic theory, the professional economists closed
ranks against him.  John L. Thomas, Professor of American History
at Brown University, writes that George "resented and feared the
American university's dependence on big money and its tendency to
teach dominant business values." Moreover, adds Thomas,
George's "latent anti-intellectualism betrayed him most obviously
in his distrust of the concept of disinterested learning as it was
being enthusiastically pressed into service by a younger generation of
To be sure, Henry George and others who shared his concerns had given
voice to a serious problem facing the nation's educational system even
then, one that is yet to be resolved; namely, how to foster
objectivity in the pursuit of knowledge while catering to the needs
and vested interests of those who provide the funds for research. If,
as Robert Bruce notes, the earlier generation of scientists sought "self-rule
for science, support without strings, [and] the time and money to do
research without having to account to laymen for its direction or
consequences," their very successes as research scientists
moved them along a path of ultimate dependency. This was certainly the
case for agricultural science, where state and federal funding
represented nearly all the financial support received -- a conclusion
strongly supported by Charles Rosenberg:
Experiment station research had to be shaped in response
to the equally categorical, yet only partially consistent, demands
of the scientific discipline on the one hand and, on the other hand,
those of an imperious lay constituency. This implied sharing (if not
surrender) of institutional autonomy bequeathed an ambiguous
heritage to even the best agricultural research laboratories, as in
the twentieth century they sought to become contexts for high-level
research in the biological sciences.
John Dewey, who seems to have played for Harper a role at the
University of Chicago in some ways similar to that of Adler for
Hutchins, suggested that this loss in autonomy was not only
appropriate but necessary. In an essay published in 1929, he wrote:
It is for education to bring the light of science and the
power of work to the aid of every soul that it may discover its
quality. . . . Culture would then be for the first time in human
history an individual achievement and not a class possession. 
And, although Dewey and Hutchins would later tangle over Dewey's "anti-intellectualism"
and the question of whether philosophy was subject to scientific
investigation, (16] Dewey was initially supportive of Hutchins'
efforts to revive the liberal arts and teaching in the University.
Perhaps of equal importance, Harper and Dewey had been instrumental in
bringing women into both the faculty and student body. Yet, despite
their generally strong support of equality of opportunity for women,
there were limits even Harper could or would not cross; the case of
zoologist Libbie Hyman suggests what those limits were:
Though she received many honors for her acclaimed works,
no university, not even the University of Chicago, would hire her,
since she was Jewish, a woman, and reportedly tart and abrasive.
Hutchins did inherit a faculty where "women were well
represented in all departments and were a majority in some. "
Harper had broken the sexual barrier right at the start, hiring Marion
Talbot as assistant professor of sanitary science;  however, in
1902, he had the opportunity to bring aboard Ellen Semple as a
professor of geography but did not, even though she was considered
highly qualified for the position.  Nevertheless, another aspect
of Harper's legacy was that of "full coeducation" and a
strong female presence at the graduate and faculty levels. "Undergraduate
women at Chicago," notes Rossiter, "had become so numerous
that by 1902 they constituted one-half the student body..."
Perhaps Harper recognized, as Jesse Bernard observed in Academic
Women (1966), that academic women "[make] time for students,
[and] do not think of them as natural enemies robbing them of time
they need for their own research." Following Harper's death
in 1906, however, the new President, Henry Pratt Judson, took several
steps backward by "organizing a separate college for [women]
within the university." Putting these actions into
perspective, one must understand that equality of opportunity was not
a bedrock element of the Progressive era; those who ventured into its
domain were at best a vanguard. They were certainly running against
Progressivism -- in many ways a conservative response to social and
economic problems traced by the wealthier, native-born citizens to
urbanization of the immigrant poor -- played an important role in the
direction taken by universities. As already noted, university trustees
tended not to be scholars or teachers; rather, they were individuals
possessed by inherited wealth or business people of some means. Their
impact on many universities was profound. As H.G. Wells observed in
Nowadays the intelligent rich are becoming more
circumspect in their endowments and more careful with their sons.
They endow special research institutions, and they begin to think
out special courses of training for their own boys and girls. In
many matters the fashion set by the rich to-day is taken up by the
ordinarily prosperous classes to-morrow and becomes the general
usage of the day after. This may be the case in education. The
break-up of the universities may be at hand in their very phase of
maximum expansion. The undergraduate body may melt away quite
suddenly, dispersing to forms of work and training of a more
specialized and continuous sort, and with that the university
properly speaking, that immense obsolescent educational gesture,
that miscellaneous great gathering of students and teachers, will
achieve a culminating gala of sport and splendour -- and cease. 
Though not in disagreement with Wells on this point, Bledstein
cautions that the demise was largely voluntary, that "university
presidents such as
Harper at the University of Chicago
introduced businessmen to techniques of corporate promotion and
exploitation unfamiliar even in the commercial world." He
goes even further, concluding that from their earliest years, the
university presidents of the late nineteenth century saw the
undergraduate program largely as a means to creating a well-endowed
haven for status-seeking research. Thus, while seeking to establish
the University of Chicago as a center of excellence and liberal
education, Harper himself had fallen victim to the trappings of
institution building. One way he went after excellence, writes
Ashmore, was "by assembling the most distinguished faculty money
could buy. " Bledstein cites the cases of Turner and Dewey as
but two examples of Harper's talent acquisitions.
An important theme arising out of both Bledstein and Rosenberg, in
particular, but which is also illuminated by Hughes, Rossiter and even
Bruce, is that in the pursuit of status and recognition the knowledge
seekers traded the virtue of purity of purpose for professionalization
of their chosen fields. In the process, what occurred was the
deterioration of liberal education as a serious priority of the
universities. Milton Mayer (who contributed his talents to Hutchins'
Center For The Study of Democratic Institutions -- a now dissolved
effort to create an environment for interdisciplinary dialogue)
describes what happened to higher education in the twentieth century
as "the Sellout." Mayer's criticisms are direct and
The modern idolization of scientific method was the
idolization of a procedure that in its application placed
sophisticated tools in the hands of unsophisticated men. How they
used the tools was a consideration wholly alien to the very nature
of the procedure that in its application produced the tools.
Scientific investigation is experimental. Humanistic investigation
is not. Empirical research on man as man is inaccessible to science
because the conditions under which we study man are not controlled
What the modern pedagogues were doing, and what government bought
them up to do more of and to do it faster, was abjure the human
crisis for the tool crisis and the moral predicament for the
military. Education --including college education -- had long since
degenerated into real or pretended preparation for making money.
In the end, even Hutchins understood that his had been a losing
battle against the momentum of conservative interests that pervaded
not only higher education but the nation as a whole. In 1964, he wrote
to F. Champion Ward, "My mistake was that I thought I was a
successful evangelist, when I was actually the stopper in the bath
tub. I thought I had convinced everybody, when all I had done was
block a return to normalcy." One aspect of normalcy,
the relentless drive toward the university-government-industrial
research complex, brought Robert Bruce to conclude his book with a
Most ominous of all was the darker side of the public's
identification of science with technology. To the public mind,
science begat technology. Technology begat power. and power begat
both hope and fear.
Rosenberg, whose essays have a much more focused explanatory
objective, nonetheless acknowledges the complex nature of
relationships and motivations underlying the "historical
interaction between scientific ideas and institutions and . . .
society." Bledstein, on the other hand, leaves the reader
with the distinct feeling that we have traveled far along a path of
professionalization in education at the end of which we will find
ourselves corrupted by the "shameless exploitation of [knowledge]
for profit." Yet, perhaps what Robert Hutchins had to fight
against most was the pragmatic desires of his fellow citizens. Thus,
an appropriate ending to this paper is, I suggest, a bit of wisdom
handed to us (and which was there for Hutchins to ponder in 1931) by
Only a small minority of boys and girls go to college for
the purpose of stuffing their heads with knowledge, whether real or
false; the majority go there simply because it has come to be the
prudent thing to do. What they get out of it is mainly what they
will get, later on, out of joining country clubs, Rotary, the Nobles
of the Mystic Shine, and other such fraternities -- a feeling that
they have somehow plunged into the main current of correct American
thought, that they have emerged from the undifferentiated mass and
gained admittance into an organized and privileged class, that they
have ceased to be nobodies and come to be somebodies.
It I had a son I should send him to Harvard, for more is to be had
for the money there than anywhere else -- more that is real, and
will last. I don't think he'd learn more at Cambridge than he could
learn at Siwash (given any desire to learn at all), but I believe a
Harvard diploma would help him a great deal more in his later life,
American ideas being what they are, whether God cast him for the
role of metaphysician or for that of investment securities
By the 1960s, if not earlier, Hutchins had apparently come to his own
recognition of the sanctimonious pretense of many academics, and
particularly that of scientists. In response to C.P. Snow's suggestion
that scientists be entrusted with the world because they are a little
bit better than other people, Hutchins offered this:
My view, based on long and painful observation, is that
professors are somewhat worse than other people, and that scientists
are somewhat worse than other professors.
The narrower the
field in which a man must tell the truth, the wider is the area in
which he is free to lie. This is one of the advantages of
 Richard Hofstadter. Anti-Intellectualism
In American Life [New York: Random House, 1963], pp.199-200.
 Harry A. Ashmore. Unseasonable Truths, The Life Of Robert
Maynard Hutchins [Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989], p.70.
 Ibid., p.72.
 Matthew Josephson. The Robber Barons: The Great American
Capitalistsm 1861-1901 [New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich,
 Samuel Eliot Morison, Henry Steele Commager and William E.
Leuchtenburg. The Growth Of The American Republic, Vol.11
[London: Oxford University Press, 1969], p.224.
 Ashmore, p.83.
 Ibid., p.100.
 Forward to The Great Ideas Today [Chicago: Encyclopaedia
Britannica, Inc., 1961], p.vii.
 Burton J. Bledstein. The Culture Of Professionalism [New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976], p.290.
 Bledstein (p.226) quotes George as having advised his son: "Going
to college, you will make life friendships, but you will come out
filled with much that will have to be unlearned. Going to newspaper
work, you will come in touch with the practical world, will be getting
a profession and learning to make yourself useful." (Source:
Charles A. Barker. Henry George [New York: Oxford University
Press, 1955], p.339.)
 John L. Thomas. Alternative America [Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983], pp.201-202.
 Ibid., p.202.
 Robert Bruce. The Launching Of Modern American Science,
1946-1876 [Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1987],
 Charles E. Rosenberg. No Other Gods: On Science And American
Social Thought [Baltimore: Johns-Hopkins University Press, 1976],
 John Dewey, "Education and American Culture," Characters
And Events [New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1929], p. 503.
A collection of essays edited by Joseph Ratner, 2 volumes.
 Ashmore, pp.165-166.
 Margaret W. Rossiter. Women Scientists In America: Struggles
And Strategies, To 1940 [Baltimore: Johns-Hopkins University
Press, 1982], p.210.
 Ashmore, p.77.
 Rossiter, p.71.
 Ibid., p.90. The tone of Margaret Rossiter 's comment regarding
Ellen Semple strongly suggests that the decision was based on the fact
that Semple was female. She writes: "...the Association of
American Geographers had forty-eight original members, only two of
whom were women .
One of these was Martha Krug Genthe, the only
original member to hold a doctorate in the subject (from Heidelberg;
two men held doctorates in economics); the other was Ellen Semple, who
had studied with Friedrich Ratzel at Leipzig in 1891 and 1892 but had
not been allowed to take a degree. Neither woman ever held a regular
appointment in any of the new American departments that were spring up
at the time (Chicago should have hired Semple in 1902) ,
 Ibid., p.109.
 Jesse Bernard. Academic Women [Cleveland, Ohio: World
Publishing, Meridian Books, 1966]. The above quote appears in Page
Smith. Daughters Of the Promised Land [Boston: Little, Brown
and Company, 1970], p.297.
 Rossiter, p.109.
 H.G. Wells. The Work, Wealth And Happiness Of Mankind,
Vol.11 [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1931],
 Bledstein, p.289.
 Ashmore, p.69.
 Milton Mayer. If Men Were Angels [New York: Atheneum,
 Ashmore, p.310.
 Bruce, p.356.
 Rosenberg, p.209.
 Bledstein, p.334.
 H.L. Mencken, "The Boon of Culture." A Mencken
Chrestomathy, edited and annoted by the author [New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1949], pp.313-315. Reprinted from the American Mercury,
September 1931, pp.36-48.
 Robert M. Hutchins, "Science, Scientists, and Politics,"
a 1963 paper presented at a conference on the role and
responsibilities of science executives in the service of government,
sponsored by the Center for The Study of Democratic Institutions.
Reprinted in The Center Magazine, Nov/Dec 1987, pp.29-44.
Professor Vogel: This is a
thoughtful and perceptive presentation. My problem with your
work remains its wandering quality. The body of the paper
particularly wanders -- in time and subject. Your ideas will
stand out more clearly in a tightly focused presentation. And
when you do bring in something from left/right field, it will be
more likely to leave an impression. Feel free to take another
whack at this -- by cutting it to 10-12 pages.