Robert Maynard Hutchins

The Higher Learning in America

(Yale University Press, 1936).

Preface to the Paperbound Edition (1961)

    This book was written twenty-five years ago, during the Great Depression, when Russia was a backward nation, when colonialism was in flower, and when people in the advanced industrial countries still believed that technology could menace neither their livelihood nor their lives.

    This was before television, before World War II, before the United Nations, before the Cold War, before the Affluent Society, before the Hydrogen Bomb, before the forty-hour week, and before the rise and fall of the labor unions. It was before oligopolistic arrangements among giant corporations superseded competition as the distinguishing characteristic of our economic system, and before American culture became bureaucratic. It was another world.

    In that world, education did not enjoy the standing or command the interest that it does today. The Horatio Algers of the nineteenth century used to boast that they had carved out their careers without benefit of book-learning. An early article by Walter Gifford, then a vice-president of A. T. and T., sought to show that the more education you have, the more money you make, and created a sensation. It may have started the turning of the tide. By 1936 the tide was running fast, but it had not yet overwhelmed the higher learning. All that it had done was to create strain, stress, and confusion.

    In 1936 research was having a hard time in the American university. People could understand the idea of teaching; they understood at least that young people had to be prepared to make a living. But the mystique of science had not yet covered the earth. That had to await the demonstration of the ability of scientists to blow up the world. Government and business were largely indifferent to education. They did not finance it, because they saw no reason why they should. Their only interest, expressed through the hit-and-run activities of minor demagogues on the fringes, was in keeping teachers from arousing the students to any desire for social change. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the rash of loyalty oaths and investigations were yet to come.

    Now, things are changed. Everybody wants an education, or at least a degree. The time will arrive shortly when no positions above manual labor will be open to those who are without the magic parchment. Vast sums, unheard of in my day, are sought and obtained in the name of education. An increasing fraction of this money comes from government and business. And most of it, of course, goes for what is called research. Today whatever is done in a university that cannot be called teaching is called research.

    The universities in fact are now engaged in three activities that are not very closely related to one another: research, vocational certification, and social accommodation. Research requires no further explanation, although it should be said that one who wants the universities to be centers of independent thought may well be alarmed at the conscious or unconscious lapses from independence that large-scale support from government and business may induce. The universities have demonstrated their willingness to do almost anything for money. Government and business are not wholly disinterested in their approaches to the universities: they are not seeking the truth, but are hiring universities to promote the ends they have in view. If the truth serves these ends, it is merely a coincidence. As every university president knows, the receipt of any money, even a tuition fee, creates or is assumed to create an obligation -- the larger the sum, the greater the obligation.

    All occupations want to raise their social standing and limit competition. An easy way to do this is to get a law passed providing that no one may enter the occupation unless he has a degree from a school that purports to train neophytes for the occupation. Many so-called professional programs exist in order to provide the certification that these laws require. The content is not important; the point is that the student must serve his time. Schools of education, which have developed no content but which are the indispensable avenues to teaching positions in the elementary and secondary schools, offer an obvious and notorious example.

    The young have to be accommodated until we are ready to have them go to work. That stage is being postponed to a later and later age, partly because we think they will be more successful as they have more education, partly because there are real pressures to keep people off the labor market by allowing them a shorter working life, and partly because it is now the fashion to go to college. If a young person goes to college because it is the thing to do or because there is nowhere else for him to go, the chances are not good that he will have any purpose in going there that is compatible with the purpose that a college ought to have. Nor, in the present state of curricula, is it at all likely that he will discover one in the course of his studies.

    One of the easiest things in the world is to assemble a list of hilarious courses offered in the colleges and universities of the United States. Such courses reflect the total lack of coherent, rational purpose in these institutions. If the colleges and universities ever gave intellectual leadership to the United States, or if they ever trained their students to give such leadership to their fellow citizens, all serious claims to either have now been abandoned. Higher learning has disintegrated because American educational standards have collapsed -- 70 per cent of the colleges in the country offer "Remedial English" -- and because specialism, vocationalism, and triviality have taken over. The question may now be solemnly asked whether, since these tendencies seem irreversible, it would not be better to forget about most of our existing colleges and universities and plan new institutions that would undertake the overwhelmingly important task that the colleges and universities have given up.

    About the only statement of the purpose of education on which our people seem to agree is that it must help us to "keep ahead of Russia." Since the strength of Russia appears to lie in science and technology, the thing to do is to build up these aspects of higher learning. We also hear occasionally that since the Russians are seducing foreigners, we should teach Americans other languages so that we can be as successful with foreigners as the Russians.

    But the object of the American educational system should be to help the American people become as intelligent as they can. Science should be a part of the education of every American, not because we can't otherwise compete with Russia but because we can't otherwise educate an intelligent man. And on one point the young author of this book was certainly wrong: he had a wholly inadequate view of the purpose of instruction in foreign languages. Every American should receive such instruction because without it he cannot understand what a language is. If he can never get outside his mother tongue, which he has unconsciously absorbed, he cannot grasp the structure of any language, including his own.

    It is altogether likely that if the American people are as intelligent as they can be, they will be ahead of Russia. But if they base their educational program on the desire to stay or get ahead of Russia, they are surrendering their educational destiny to Russia and putting in her hands the determination of the kind of people Americans are to be.

    Lest these animadversions on the loss of leadership and purpose seem the embittered reflections of a battle-scarred veteran of the academic wars, I quote from the current issue (summer 1961) of New University Thought. First, from an article by Gabriel Breton, Assistant Professor at Monteith College: p

We have . . . witnessed the disappearance of the university as the locus of thought and universalism and its replacement by the fragmented academic underworld and the birth of a new class, the academic menials, which is on the way to becoming the most conservative force in the society . . . Devotion to technique and technology per se has become, for many academicians, a form of commitment in itself. Technique, in the academic sub-universe, is a ritual. I believe that the reason for this state of affairs lies at the heart of the present madness and apathy. It is the all-consuming fear of the intellectuals to define ends and goals . . . The furor for impartiality and objectivity -- or that sort of conservatism of the liberals -- is also nothing other than the refusal to formulate precise ends, because the consequences will be . . . a confrontation with the necessity of a total conversion of our cultural mystique. This implies, first of all, the acceptance in principle of the necessity for the transcultural morality. It also implies that academic mores be placed under scrutiny. We would thus see that the academic world is incapable of working in the direction of a total conversion of the cultural mystique, since this institution is intimately involved in the basic structure of the culture.

Or listen to Ralph Nicholas, a graduate student in anthropology, writing in the same issue of the same publication:

To refer to these students who have come to college merely because they can afford it as "time-wasters" is not totally accurate. They have come in order to acquire certain skills which they will find essential in later life. Some of these skills are acquired in "academic" classes. Technical abilities are frankly secondary, however, to those acquired in the fraternity house, formal balls, stags, and other social occasions in which the "student" learns how to talk business with those who have undergone a similar "education." It is not facetious to say that more than 50 per cent of what such "students" need to learn could as well be taught by a few months in a good country club. The rest is admittedly appropriate to classroom teaching, but it is not fit fare for a university.

Mr. Nicholas goes on:

The business community is the major beneficiary of the education of the middle- and upper-class students. The liberal arts and business administration graduates staff its offices and sales forces; the science graduates run its laboratories. Of the four principal varieties of professional schools -- business, law, education, and medicine -- two, law and business, are feeding personnel at a growing rate into "middle management" and junior chambers of commerce . . . The business community is prepared to pay for the kind of training it needs with substantial endowments and subsidies for special programs . . . Like the community of rich students, the business community is able to get what it wants from American colleges and universities because it can pay for it . . . "The needs of the community," as seen by university public relations men, include the needs of just about every community except the one which, presumably, cares most about education -- the academic community. Through sheer demoralization, this community lost one of its essential characteristics, its sense of unity. . . . The institutions of higher education in the United States ought to represent aspect of an integrated community. A community of teachers, researchers, students, and others whose work involves the proposition that knowledge is a value, is socially useful and, in order to flourish, must have an independent social basis.

    What of the future? In a country from which the advance of technology is slowly driving work as we have understood it, in a world in which we may find -- if we survive -- that we do not know what to do with our goods or with ourselves, in an age in which only intelligence and character of an unusual sort can prevent the final catastrophe, "we must as a people," says J. D. Williams, the mathematician of the RAND Corporation, "achieve a new level of intellectual competence." Yet, he continues, "we have recently placed most of our school systems in the hands of people preoccupied with physical culture, togetherness, and intellectually trivial curricula."

    The old writer of this new preface agrees with the young author of this book, when he says in his last sentence, "Upon education our country must pin its hopes of true progress, which involves scientific and technological advance, but under the direction of reason; of true prosperity, which includes external goods but does not overlook those of the soul; and of true liberty, which can exist only in society, and in a society rationally ordered." Let us hope that we can muster the imagination and courage to get education for our country before it is too late.

R. M. H.

August 1961