New York Times Magazine, March 7, 1937, pp. 1-2, 25.


Hutchins calls for an Intellectual Discipline;
Neilson, Development of Whole Personality

With College registration again on the increase after the depression slump and with new youth problems created by the economic upheaval of the past seven years it is more and more evident that higher education in America is in for a period of change and experiment.

Although schools of educational thought are numerous there is a sharp line of cleavage between those who believe in an intellectual discipline which gives all qualified students certain fundamental subjects and those who emphasize the development of character and personality by what might be called prescriptions to suit the individual.

In the two articles which follow these opposed points of view are presented by two noted educators – Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, and Dr. William A. Neilson, president of Smith College.


By Robert M. Hutchins
President of the University of Chicago

To ask what is the job of the American college is not unlike asking what is the function of x in the equation, x equals y. We have to know how much and what kind of "y" we are talking about before we can make the words mean anything. The word college does not mean the same thing for all educators. I can discuss the subject intelligently only if I state what I think a college ought to be and then use this conception as a measuring stick to apply to the variety of Anerican educational institutions that call themselves colleges.

As we inspect the state of learning in America we discover that the higher it gets the more confused it becomes. From the beginning of high school to the award of the bachelor’s degree there is uncertainty of purposes; even at the Ph. D. level there is doubt concerning the true aims of the educational process. But the greatest confusion centers on the problem: What is a general education?

Now a general education ought to help us to understand the past and our own connection with the past. It ought to help us to understand our fellow men and our relationship to them. It may not enable us to predict the future – I am, in fact, a little skeptical of schemes of education which prepare the student to live in the kind of world which may exist two or twenty years from now – but it should put us in a frame of mind in which we can deal intelligently with the future.

All education should drive in this direction. To make the past perfectly clear let me say that I do not regard the accumulation of data or the acquisition of specialized skills, important as both these functions are, as education. I should exclude them as primary objectives from the college. They should be relegated to the trade school or to special institutes.

The college should be primarily intellectual. It is not concerned with making successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, investigators or business men. It is very much concerned with making successful citizens.

The best time to do this, I believe, is between the junior year in high school and the end of the sophomore year. This four year period is a logical educational unit. To make that statement is, of course, to say that the colleges are not at present properly organized. Except for a few experiments now under way those four years are now broken in two in the middle. They will have to be put together, by combining the last two years of high school either with, the junior college or with the four-year college, before we shall get far. The first solution seems to me preferable.

Of course, an administrative change like this will not of itself solve our problem, although it does enable us to concentrate on it. The present-day colleges are not doing their job because they are not clear as to what the job is. They have given a good deal of attention to working out fearful and wonderful ways of deciding who should be allowed to come to college and who should not; but it is manifest to every one who has ever dealt with a group of undergraduates that we have not succeeded in separating the sheep from the goats.

We have a great many hand-minded boys in the college and I should not be surprised if we had some book-minded boys in the CCC. Perhaps we might have an undergraduate population who really want the kind of education the college is prepared to give.

Selection is the heart of the problem. In the future we are probably going to have to provide some kind of training or education for all our young people up to the age of 20. We shall have to do this because industry will have no place for them. We shall be able to afford it because we have advanced technologically to a point where we no longer need the labor of children and adolescents. But who shall study what? Who shall go to college and shall receive other kinds of training demanding a less strictly intellectual equipment?

If we are to arrive at a satisfactory answer we must once and for all reject the notion that in a democracy everybody is entitled to the same amount and to the same kind of education. We must put to its place the idea that everybody is entitled to the amount and kind of education that he can demonstrably put to beneficial use. We should have free public education all the way to the Ph. D. degree. But we should admit to it beyond the sophomore year only those who can profit by it, regardless of their social or economic status. We should exclude all others regardless also of their social or economic status.

For that large proportion of the youthful population which can profit from the reading of books we should establish a new kind of college, primarily devoted to the cultivation of the intellect. For those less able to profit from reading we could create, for the parallel years, a series of technical institutions of subprofessional or homemaking nature. As we learn how to teach this group how to read, its course of study should approach more nearly that of those who are now able to read. It is even possible that we could then get along with only one type of educational unit at this level.

I believe such a plan would come closer to true democracy than the present system of opening the doors of higher education practically to all comers (for if one institution closes them by rigid entrance requirements there are always others who open them), and then adjusting the quality of education to the quality of the student. We do not create centers of learning in any such fashion. We come close in some instances to creating centers of anti-intellectuality.

Let us suppose that we have established our new type of college, probably by adding two years to existing junior colleges in hundreds of localities, and that we have selected students who are able to profit by a good general education. What sort of "good general education" are we to give them?

I should say that it could be briefly defined as the cultivation of the intellect. It should teach the student to act intelligently. To do so it must teach him to think independently and clearly. I do not maintain that he can think without information, any more than an automobile can run without gasoline. But the emphasis should be upon the way in which he uses his information rather than upon the information itself.

So I come to the conception of certain permanent studies which we shall teach in our new type of college, and which will not be expected to develop the body or the character, to give social grace or impart a utilitarian skill. These things can be learned as ancillaries or elesewhere.

We shall assume that our student can read and we shall give him access to books, some of them contemporary, some of them medieval or ancient, but all of them measured by a criterion of permanent significance. Plato may be as pertinent as today’s newspaper. We may have to approach Einstein by way of Newton. We shall try to understand the contemporary world by understanding how it grew. We shall profit by the mistakes and illusions of the past, and also by its everlasting wisdom. In this way we may be better protected against quack politics and I may add, quack education, in the world around us. We shall get at roots of things and be less likely to mistake parasitic vines for oaks.

To read intelligently we shall pay attention to grammar – that is, to the scientific analysis which a language can be made to yield up its full meaning. We shall study the rules of writing, speaking and reasoning, deducing them from the models before us. We shall try not only to think well but to express ourselves well. In order to train ourselves in precise thinking we shall study mathematics. Thus we shall approach the history and present status of the physical, natural and social sciences, and shall be prepared to find out our own places in them and to deal with them creatively.

I do not believe such a course of study would fail to attract students of sufficient mental caliber, that it would fail to interest them, or that they would find it too difficult. I do not know how many such students could be found, but I am inclined to think that they would not leave our existing colleges standing idle, or the expanded junior colleges with nothing to do. Many who do not go to college would do something else -- which would be a gain. Many who do not now find their way to college would have the doors opened to them -- another gain.

From the graduates of the new type of college would come many who would go into research, into teaching or into the specialized professions. None of these, I believe, would find their college years a waste of time. Others, perhaps the majority would terminate their formal education at the end of the college period -- that is, the present sophomore year -- and we could count on them as the nucleus of a thinking citizenship.

There is no serious obstacle that I know of in the way of this proposed advance in education, except the reluctance of professors to change their ways. A few experiments, however, either in new colleges or within the framework of the older ones, might produce an enthusiastic younger group who would lead the way to a renaissance in higher education.


By William A. Neilson
President of Smith College

Friends of American education are indebted to President Hutchins for the stimulus he has given to current thinking about our schools, colleges and universities. In education perhaps more than in most other activities there is a danger of falling into ruts of the crushing of progress by tradition, of the means getting in the way of the ends they were invented to further. Consequently, any one who by whatever violence of attack leads us to reconsider critically our objectives, our methods and our results is doing a service.

Of the violence of Dr. Hutchins's attack there is no question. In his recent public addresses he has told us that our system is hopelessly confused, that we do not know what we are aiming at, that we are bedeviled by love of money, and by false notions of progress and of the meaning of democracy in education. This result is, in his view, that our institutions of higher learning, instead of devoting themselves to the cultivation of the intellect, are in fact, definitely anti-intellectual. He therefore proposes a fresh start with a new allotment of time and a new organization of studies.

With the positive side of Dr. Hutchins's view of the objectives there is, I believe, much more agreement than he supposes among his fellow-educators.

Most of us believe in the central position of "the cultivation of the intellect." "To understand the past and our own connection with the past"; "to understand our fellow men and our relationship with them"; "to put us in a frame of mind in which we can deal intelligently with the future it gets here" -- most of these responsible for our liberal colleges would at once accept these as admirable statements of objectives at which they aim.

I think that Dr. Hutchins is mistaken in his view of a widespread confusion as to aims, and the evidence of this confusion which he elsewhere cites points rather to the multiplicity of methods and curricula forced upon school and college by the multiplicity of the demands made by the complex society in which we live and by the infinite variety of human nature.

In the countries and periods in which only a tiny minority of the population was concerned with the higher learning, it was easy to have a simple and unified educational policy. But where a high proportion of normal persons attend secondary schools and about a million students are enrolled in institutions of a still higher grade, a great variety of educational program is demanded. It is true that many of the problems involved in the demand are still unsolved, but they have come upon us with comparative suddenness, we are working hard upon them, and the fact that various schemes and methods are being experimented with should not be dismissed as evidence of mere confusion.

The unity and simplicity of the curriculum Dr. Hutchins proposes for American youth between the ages of 16 and 20 are largely deceptive. The cultivation of the intellect cannot be provided for on the assumption that all intellects can be cultivated in the same way. Successful stimulus to thinking is dependent on discovering subject-matters that interest the prospective thinker.

Mere access to the great classics from Plato to Adam Smith will leave thousands untouched. The student must be taught methods of approach, supplied with relevant data, given aid in the interpretation of the ways of expression of earlier ages. By the time the great classics have been arranged for those pedagogical services into groups dealing with philosophy, history, literature, science, economics and the rest, we are back again at the multiplicity of courses and subjects against which Dr. Hutchins is revolting.

In his choice of specific subjects to be retained in the curriculum of a general education President Hutchins is obviously resurrecting the medieval program. The ancient "trivium," prescribed for the candidate for Bachelors of Arts a thousand years ago, consisted of grammar, rhetoric and logic. The "quadrivium," for the Masters of Arts, consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

In the new program we are to have the first five. English grammar we have long relegated to the pre-college years, where for some time less than justice has been done to it. Rhetoric, relieved of much of its ancient pedantry, is still taught in our courses on English writing. Logic is in the hands of the philosophers, most of whom are doubtful of the efficacy of the learning of its rules to insure sound thinking. As to the restoration of mathematics as a compulsory college subject, I need hardly take space for evidence that any educational administrator can supply.

With the rigor and bleakness of this curriculum, with its restriction to purely intellectual aims and its absence of concession to individual tastes or capacities, let us contrast the aims of and methods of a good liberal college in America today.

These aims, I repeat, give intellectual discipline a central but not an exclusive place. They are directed to the goal of the development of the whole personality, and being so directed cannot reject much that Dr. Hutchins finds irrelevant to a general education.

Whereas he excludes development of the body, they seek to teach the laws of health and to encourage their application in the practice of proper diet and exercise. Whereas he excludes the development of character, they seek to create an atmosphere in the class room, the dormitory and on the playing field that will favor the growth of worthy personal and social conduct.

Dr. Hutchins ignores the music of the ancient curriculum. The modern college more and more is affording opportunities for the development of insight and capacity for enjoyment or art, not only by departments of music and the fine arts, literature and the drama, but by the increasing beauty of its landscape and architecture. Those colleges that are free from State control for the most part seek to stimulate interest in in religion; and all of them see in the varied activities of the campus the opportunity for training in citizenship and life in a civilized community.

The training of the intelligence goes on in these fields as well as in others excluded by President Hutchins, such as foreign languages, and it is more, not less, effective because it is approached through a variety of avenues. If, as we agree, the student is to be trained to understand the past and his fellow-men and to deal intelligently with the future, his development on the physical, moral, spiritual, esthetic and social sides as well as the intellectual is an essential part of this training. And this development is the common and well understood aim of scores of American colleges of liberal arts today.

It will, I think, be the judgment of most leaders in these colleges that for such a training the present undergraduate is none too mature. To push the whole process back into an age period two years earlier would be to reduce its efficacy enormously.

In describing the aims of the better colleges today, I am not professing that these aims are completely achieved. No educational system ever was or ever will be 100 per cent successful. The selection of "college material," as it is called, will always be defective, though our methods are improving. The family and social support for our liberal aims will often be lacking.

Devices planned for perfectly good ends will at times run wild, as intercollegiate athletics have done in the men's colleges. There will be stupid administrators. There will always be a shortage of really good teachers. But the cure for these and other defects is in frank criticism, in patient experiment, in persitent devotion to the ideal we have conceived. It is not in pouring out the baby with the bath.