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Eminence Greater Than Influence

UNSEASONABLE TRUTHS: THE LIFE OF ROBERT MAYNARD HUTCHINS by Harry S. Ashmore, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 616 pp., $27.50

THE career of Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977), whose fame spread, first as the controversial head of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951, and then at the Ford Foundation and several of its subsidiaries, may be seen in contradictory ways.

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First, as a classic American success story: onward and upward with brilliant - and bumptious - Bob Hutchins. So Harry Ashmore, a liberal journalist-turned-writer, and a longtime friend, presents it in this comprehensive biography - admiringly, uncritically, a little superficially.

Here is Hutchins, the fast-moving administrator, processing reams of paper and spurring his subordinates forward; Hutchins the accomplished fund-raiser, extracting fat checks from hard-nosed millionaires by hitting precisely the right button; Hutchins, the Ford Foundation innovator and gadfly, standing firm for civil liberties during the McCarthyite '50s; Hutchins the imaginative educational philosopher and lifelong advocate of the Great Books program; Hutchins the witty, charismatic public speaker (with nearly 800 full-dress speeches to his credit) and critic of mediocrity; and Hutchins the boon companion and supportive friend, delightful in private dinners and correspondence. All this, plus energy, irrepressible wit, film-star good looks, and a first-class mind - he easily earned a Yale law degree while working full-time and heading a family, and soon became dean of the law school itself.

Here indeed was an intellectual golden boy, the personification of creativity and success, even early on. No wonder the press gathered around as Hutchins and his willowy wife, Maude, glided down the railway platform when arriving in 1929 - he was barely 30 - to take over the University of Chicago. Was it Bob and Maude, or Scott and Zelda?

Which brings us to the second way of perceiving Hutchins's career: frustrating controversies and failure, intense marital discord and divorce (his second marriage was apparently happy), and the virtual disappearance of his work once he departed. He left few followers - aside from the difficult Mortimer Adler - no continuing imprint on the public mind, and little in his many books that still prompts attention.

Hutchins as a thinker and man of ideas is glossed over by Ashmore, who, having known him in the '50s and '60s in southern California at the Fund for the Republic and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, is quick with names, dates, and facts, but not with appraisal or interpretation. The reasons why Hutchins, despite his great natural gifts, accomplished so little requires an analysis of both American life and Hutchins himself; this Ashmore does not give.

Hutchins's difficulties have two explanations, one personal, the other institutional. Intellectual arrogance led him to gratuitous public criticism and wisecracks, which created - quite mistakenly - a radical image that damaged both Hutchins and the institutions he led, particularly when American conservatives were on the warpath. Hence the admonition to Hutchins by a trustee, when the University of Chicago was denounced by the Illinois legislators in 1935 as ``infiltrated by Communism,'' ``I'll give the University $100 for every wisecrack you don't make.''

There was, in fact, a near-fatal contradiction (which Ashmore ignores) between Hutchins the public figure, responsible for the future of great institutions and much wealth, and Hutchins the enfant terrible projecting a light-minded and irreverent image that provoked distrust among the powerful personages whose support he needed.

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Ashmore presents too little about Hutchins's early years (he was, in any case, pre-Freudian in his reticence, especially about his disastrous first marriage) to explain why he constantly provoked and disturbed. This son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers and teachers was also a child of the irreverent Prohibition era. Did his internal conflicts impel him to scandalize the respectable bourgeoisie from which he came?

Hutchins also faced painful institutional restraints. He was rare among educators in sincerely caring about the curriculum, about spreading logical and rational thinking as far as possible, rather than simply raising new buildings and enlisting superstars. Hence his advocacy of the Great Books program, the drastically revised ``Encyclopedia Britannica,'' and the famous undergraduate college at the University of Chicago. All were concerned far less with training, in the narrow sense, than with encouraging logical analysis - the foundation of wisdom. In this, Hutchins was following his Presbyterian ancestors in believing in a cause, that of a democracy, firmly based on citizens capable of free and logical thinking.

That a university should focus on developing a wise citizenry collided head-on with the orientation toward facts and training of the graduate and professional schools, which looked skeptically at the Hutchins college, constantly fought its ``radical'' ideas, and helped undercut it after Hutchins left Chicago in 1951. The collision between his principles and the conventional wisdom continued at the Ford Foundation, where Hutchins's eminence was not matched by his actual influence - or accomplishments.

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