The Higher Learning in America
reviewed by Arthur G. Wirth - 1970
One who has faith that man is in some degree rational, though in greater degree animal, must believe that sooner or later the light will shine through the murk.
Robert M. Hutchins
University of Utopia (1964, p. IX)
Ours is a tortured time. In education, as in other aspects of our lives, we hunger for a clear sense of direction, for a firm knowledge of what ought to be done.
Some thirty years ago the clear and insistent voice of Robert M-Hutchins announced that the content of the true education was available. If we would but recognize and adopt it, we would have a rock upon which to build, no matter how fiercely the winds of change and doubt might blow. His book, The Higher Learning In America, was published first in the crisis-ridden Thirties and then re-issued in paperback in the still troubled Sixties. In 1953 Mr. Hutchins delivered the Charles R. Walgreen Lectures published under the title, The University of Utopia. Here he returned to the subject of the hazards to education in the U.S.A. and the methods for overcoming them. This, too, was re-issued in paperback in the Sixties. In introductory remarks for the second editions the author affirms his confidence in the correctness of each of his earlier views. It would appear, then, that we have been presented with an alternative to ill-tempered controversy or faddist tinkering about where education is concerned. Robert Hutchins, in a forthright fashion, tried in each instance to speak sense to us. After careful reflection he decided to make available, once again in this decade, the prescriptions which, if heeded, might have helped us earlier.
The case for reviewing such writings is obvious. With all of our gropings, if a time-proven formula to end the chaos is available, we would be remiss, indeed, in failing to seize hold of it.
There is the peculiar fact, however, that with the exception of St. Johns College, one looks in vain in higher education, or at lower levels, for acceptance of the Hutchins master plan. We may be a nation of fools—misguided, intractable, so victimized by our own mis-education that we cannot recognize the truth when it is offered.
There is another possibility: that a flaw lies in the Philosopher's Stone itself. That will be the contention of this paper. To be blunt, Mr. Hutchins falters on the point which he argues is basic to attaining his primary objective—defining the features of true education. His thesis is that to get clear thinking about true education it is indispensable to begin with clear philosophical presuppositions. In the two books in question he takes conflicting and confused positions on the philosophical question. He then adds to the disarray, when the books are re-issued, by endorsing his earlier statements as if they proceeded from the same assumptions when, in fact, they do not. It becomes, then, a fair question to ask whether Mr. Hutchins makes a contribution to light or obscurity.
We shall forego a review, in detail, of Mr. Hutchins' general recommendations for education: the need for all children to be taught the basic skills of language and mathematics as indispensable for thinking; the case for a knowledge of the great books of our intellectual heritage. Nor shall we make this program the subject of argument. It would be hard to find an educator who would take exception to the first, and this writer is sympathetic to the need for judicious inclusion of the latter, although the questions of when and for whom are a bit more complex than Mr. Hutchins admits.
We shall concentrate on a point at the center of his argument: a return to true education is needed to combat the chaos of our time; such education must be grounded in true philosophical first principles. Hutchins' most widely quoted words sum it up, "Education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same" (The Higher Learning in America, p. 66). The argument assumes the availability of an unshakable truth. In a footnote to the famous quotation, Hutchins cites St. Thomas to assure us, "It is therefore evident that, as regards the general principles whether of speculative or practical reason, truth or rectitude is the same for all, and is generally known by all." (Summa Theologica, Part II, Q. 94, Art. 4.)
Since the point is crucial, we need to know more about the source of the precious truth teachers should teach. In the chapters following the definition of true education we are led closer and closer to the answer. Mr. Hutchins deplores the debasement of higher education by an overemphasis on science and empirical research, and by the teaching of practical skills in professional schools. What, on the contrary, should be the major responsibility of the university? Its basic function should be to pursue and produce the true knowledge which is needed to unify the entire educational system at all levels. It cannot be, however, the source of unity and harmony unless its own house is in order. The university lacks order in the twentieth century because there is no ordering principle in it.
Mr. Hutchins emphasizes that a present emphasis on the freedom to pursue truth is not sufficient to deliver it. "In the current use of freedom it is an end in itself. But it must be clear that if each person has the right to make and achieve his own choices the result is anarchy and the dissolution of the whole" (p. 94).
The pursuit of truth for its own sake is also unsatisfactory as a unifier of the higher learning. For Mr. Hutchins reminds us, "Philistines still ask, what is truth? And all truths cannot be equally important" (p. 95). More is needed if the university is to be held together. "Real unity can be achieved only by a hierarchy of truths which shows us which are fundamental and which subsidiary, which significant and which not."
Clearly the way out of the dilemma can be found only if we have access to truth of an abiding order, free of an imperfect, tentative quality. Where may such Truth be found? Mr. Hutchins mentions only two sources. The first is theology, which furnishes a principle of unity to the Medieval University. The eloquence which Hutchins brings to describing the role which theology performed indicates it is the ideal instrument for producing the desired hierarchy of truths:
The medieval theologians had worked out an elaborate statement in due proportion and emphasis of the truths relating to man and God, man and man, and man and nature. It was an orderly progression from truth to truth. As man's relations to God were the highest of which he could conceive, as all his knowledge came from God and all his truths, the truths concerning God and man were those which gave meaning and sequence to his knowledge. Theology ordered the truths concerning man and man; humanism was theocentric; man loved his brothers in God. Theology ordered the truths of man and nature, for God created the world; he created man to live in it, and placed him in definite relation to other creatures. The insight that governed the system of the medieval theologians was that as first principles order all truths in the speculative order, so last ends order all means and actions in the practical order. God is the first truth and the last end. The medieval university was rationally ordered, and, for its time, it was practically ordered, too (p. 96).
Beautiful as was this ordering, it unfortunately is not for us. "We are a faithless generation and take no stock in revelation. Theology implies orthodoxy and an orthodox church. We have neither. To look to theology to unify the modern university is futile and vain" (p. 97).
So we are forced back to a condition like that of the Greeks who lived before the institution of the One Church and the Queen of Studies, Theology. The Greeks, however, had available the well-ordered life. Greek thought was unified by the study of first principles. Plato provided the method of dialectic for exploring first principles and "Aristotle made the knowledge of them into the science of metaphysics, rather than theology" (p. 97). Metaphysics, as the highest and universal science, unified Greek thought as theology ordered thought in the Middle Ages. "It considers being as being, both what it is and the attributes which belong to it as being" (p. 98). Metaphysics is the source of highest wisdom for wisdom is knowledge of principles and causes and metaphysics deals with the highest of these. The knowledge of metaphyics has the yearned for timeless quality, and to prove it Hutchins quotes Aristotle to the effect that this knowledge must be confined to God:
For the science which it would be most meet for God to have is a divine science, and so is any science that deals with divine objects; and this science alone has both these qualities; for (1) God is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a first principle, and (2) such a science God alone can have or God above all others (p. 98).
We learn with relief that metaphysics is divine in Aristotle's sense that it is not beyond nature and reason and, furthermore, it is diffused widely and "accessible to all who are capable of virtue." We seem to be almost home when suddenly there is a fall into the dark.
The thought of modern times can be given order only by either theology or metaphysics. Since our author has told us we cannot appeal to theology, only metaphysics is left. Then the crusher: metaphysics, like theology, Mr. Hutchins announces, is almost totally missing. It has shrunken to an innocuous, occasional course in "a department called philosophy" (p. 102). Here, we might well think that we had been brought to the end of the story, albeit, with a sad and distressing ending. We have heard a compelling argument that theology or metaphysics alone can rescue us from the onrushing disorder, and have been told that for all practical purposes neither exists.
Mr. Hutchins, however, is not content to leave us stranded. He gives examples of how, in fact, metaphysics creeps back on campus as experts in the sciences or humanities, untrained in metaphysics, persist in amateurish pronouncements on metaphysical questions which compound confusion. Or, in the Communist World, we have Marx, installed in the place of God, providing a false metaphysics. But the Communists realize at least that "it is impossible to have social order without intellectual order" (p. 105). Mr. Hutchins' point is that these abortive metaphysical efforts do show "how much we feel the need of an orthodox theology or a systematic metaphysics" (p. 104, italics mine).
We now are at a critical transition point. Hutchins is eager to move on to announce the programmatic outlines of a well-ordered university. But so far he has established only the following:
(1) That a well-ordered university• is impossible in the absence of a unifying theology or metaphysics.
(2) That no agreed-on systematic theology or metaphysics exists in American Society.
(3) That we (some at least) feel the need of an orthodox theology or metaphysics.
In order to show the shaky bridge Mr. Hutchins then constructs to move from his philosophical analysis to what is needed to his recommendations for educational content, we quote his words directly but number the sentences so that the argument may be followed closely.
(1) I am not here arguing for any specific theological or metaphysical system.
(2) I am insisting that consciously or unconsciously we are always trying to get one.
(3) I suggest that we shall get a better one if we recognize explicitly the need for one and try to get the most rational one we can.
Then he adds,
We are, as a matter of fact, living today by the haphazard, accidental, shifting shreds of a theology and metaphysics to which we cling because we must cling to something.
Here we note that a shift has occurred from the earlier argument that chaos can be banished only if actual metaphysical unity is provided to the position that we feel a need for unity. Then,
(4) If we can revitalize metaphysics and restore it to its place in the higher learning, we may be able to establish rational order in the modern world as well as in the universities (p. 105, italics mine).
Mr. Hutchins is now ready to lead us to the campus to show us the designs of true education in a true university. We cannot but recall the force of his contention that the task of education is to teach the truth. To teach truth, the truth must be known. The indispensable condition is the existence of a metaphysics to provide the first principles on which a hierarchy of well-ordered truths must rest. Then there was the shocking statement that such a metaphysics does not exist. As the educational tour begins, however, Mr. Hutchins provides an opening question to reassure us, and to get us under way, "If this miracle [of restoring metaphysics] could be performed, what would the content of the higher learning be and what would a university be like?" (pp. 105-106, italics mine). As we move off, we seem to hear from a window of the Administration building the lovely lyrics of "Wishing Will Make It So" from the classic story of Cinderella, and our guide announces:
The Student beginning with the junior year would study metaphysics, the science of first principles. He would study the social sciences, which are practical sciences, dealing with the relations of man and man. He would study natural science which is the science of man and nature (p. 106).
Such a course of study would be free from the disordered quality marking schedules based-on the elective scheme. It would proceed from an intelligible, rational structure with metaphysics providing the first order principles. Subordinate to it in the hierarchy would be the natural and social sciences. By way of illustration, Hutchins provides us with an explanation of what should be the proper relation of natural sciences to metaphysics. The natural sciences get their basic principles from the philosophy of nature, a branch of metaphysics. "In the study of [the natural sciences] such recent observations as serve to illustrate, exemplify, or confirm these principles must be included" (p. 108, italics mine). It is too bad that the tour does not provide time for an answer to the question of what would happen if an observation does not confirm a metaphysically derived basic principle.
Mr. Hutchins gives us many more details about how the true university would be organized if the elusive metaphysics could be attained in fact. Many have agreed that it is an impressive tale.
In the early Fifties, while we were caught in the miseries of the Korean War and the McCarthy episode, Mr. Hutchins addressed himself again to the question of the hazards facing education. In The University of Utopia, Hutchins acts as spokesman for a mythical Utopia, which starts with problems like those of our own U.S.A. Instead of being mired in controversy, though, the Utopians are able to create a rational educational program which leads to a genuinely enlightened community. The four principal dangers to be confronted are: those associated with industrialism (which include a variety of consequences flowing from science and technology), specialization, philosophical diversity, and social and political conformism. We shall consider only the matter of philosophical diversity. The people of Utopia desire a community guided by wisdom. Diversity is a threat, for in a general sense the problem is whether a community is possible in a condition where thinking men can't think together because they can't communicate. Specialization may make their languages and interests so divergent that they can't come together. Philosophical diversity may mean that their differences over basic principles or assumptions are so important that their conversations move along different lines. A resolution of the problem is critical both for the sake of community unity and educational reform. If this sounds familiar we are not surprised, for we know that the spokesman for Utopia is the same as the author of The Higher Learning In America.
Since the basic problem in the two works is defined in identical terms, we may recall Hutchins' earlier solution: the sole way to end confusion was to locate an instrument which could assure intellectual unity at the level of first principles. Only a theology or a metaphysics could perform the task. It is striking, then, to find that the guide to Utopia in 1953 employs neither the term theology nor metaphysics. This may be nothing more, however, than a matter of semantics, because it is still to philosophy, as a concern with first principles (here, again, never precisely defined), to which Mr. Hutchins turns for the key to attaining unity. Hutchins makes clear, however, that he does not look to contemporary philosophy without apprehension. The Departments of Philosophy seem to offer little hope. In their efforts to ape science, academic philosophers have become highly technical, with non-humanistic or even anti-humanistic tendencies. They tend to write on esoteric subjects of interest only to fellow academicians. They speak, moreover, with many voices as illustrated by their schools of positivism, pragmatism and Marxism each of which Hutchins finds wanting. Yet a civilized community must know what is its problem.
"Civilization is the deliberate pursuit of a common ideal. Education is the deliberate attempt to produce the type of man it wants (The University of Utopia, p. 52). To have a philosophy of education we must have "a rational conception of man and society" in a contemporary condition where "there is no authority that can decide among competing philosophies" (p. 54).
Does Mr. Hutchins confront this situation of chaos with the despair we saw in his earlier essays? No. It is hard to feel that he enjoys the situation but we are told there is a way to get on. This time the candidate to provide leadership to dispel confusion turns out to be a hitherto little-honored newcomer—philosophy of education. It evidently is capable of providing unity in a quite remarkable way. The University of Utopia, for example, has been able to develop a philosophy of education. "It has been able to do this in spite of the fact that in Utopia there is philosophical diversity. The Utopians even insist that philosophical diversity is a good thing" (p. 54). A point which helps is that the Utopians are sensible people who believe that education "is a conversation aimed at truth" (p. 56). (One may note that they seem to differ from earlier followers of Hutchins who insisted on the importance of access to truth itself. They held that freedom merely to pursue truth was quite insufficient. Remember the Philistines!) The question, nevertheless, remains how the Utopian philosophers of education can produce "one educational system and one educational philosophy in the face of philosophical diversity" (p. 67). We shall try to follow this point in a moment.
First, we note that as far as the educational program for young Utopians is concerned, it is essentially the same as that recommended by the younger Hutchins in previous years: an early emphasis, for the first ten years, on teaching the communication skills necessary to take part in the conversation aimed at truth. Reading, writing, and figuring are supplemented by history, geography and the world's great literature. At age sixteen, for four years, emphasis shifts from learning techniques of communication to studying the leading ideas about man and the world that have animated mankind. Following this, the young adult may enter the world of work or further study at the University. All citizens of Utopia will be students, from time to time, throughout their lives in centers of education for adults.
This program, when originally advocated by Mr. Hutchins, was predicted on the future realization of an if condition. If a unifying metaphysics could be revived or created, a rational, unified program of education could be deduced from it. Have the philosophers of Utopia succeeded in creating such a unifying metaphysics? As mentioned previously, Mr. Hutchins, as Utopian spokesman, does not now use the term metaphysics which was of such crucial importance before. He does assure us that Utopians have succeeded in creating one educational philosophy which provides the underpinnings for a single educational program.
How has this feat been accomplished?
By making the consideration of philosophical diversity the primary concern of educational philosophy. . . . The University is not a center of propaganda for an official doctrine. ... It is concerned with all doctrines that can have any reasonable claim to be taken seriously. Its effort is toward a definition of the real points of agreement and disagreement among these doctrines, not in the hope of obtaining unanimity, but in the hope of attaining clarity. The object is not agreement but communication. The Utopians think it would be very boring to agree with one another (p. 67).
There is, however, the remarkable result that does, in fact, happen in Utopia. Having agreed not to agree, but to communicate areas of agreement and disagreement, Utopian philosophers of education succeed in producing a single philosophy of education and a single educational program. Unfortunately, Mr. Hutchins leaves out the details as to how this transformation takes place. It would be fascinating to discover, for example, how a thorough discussion of the educational ideas of Plato, Dewey, Maritain, Rousseau, Skinner, Barzun and A. S. Neill would lead to a single set of agreements about education. Perhaps such amalgams are possible only for Utopians, not mere mortals. It would be nice if we were told so. Fewer would be left wondering why such sound ideas are not adopted more widely.