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Monday, April 19, 2010


But enough of philosophy. I had been hired to teach the Social Sciences - more specifically, a section of the large required Sophomore level survey course that formed a part of the College's distribution requirements. Since I had been given the Fall quarter off to finish the Kant book, I stepped into the course in the Winter quarter. The course I was entering had a long and distinguished pedigree. It was one of the few remnants of the truly revolutionary curriculum introduced by Chicago's most famous president, Robert Maynard Hutchins., who had come to Chicago in 1929 at the age of thirty, after a brief stint as Dean of the Yale Law School. Hutchins was convinced that the last two years of high school were a waste of time, an overlap with what was customarily taught in the Freshman and Sophomore years of college. He carried though a sweeping transformation of Chicago's entire undergraduate program. Students were admitted to the college after the Sophomore year of high school, and put through two years of large, interdisciplinary survey courses, whereupon they were awarded the Bachelor's Degree. The two year sequence was capped by an integrative seminar [the original Organization, Methods, and Principles course], designed by McKeon and others along the lines of Aristotle's conception of the organization of the disciplines.

Students were required to complete each of the required courses by taking an examination, and they were actually permitted simply to sit for the examination, if they believed they were ready to pass it without taking the associated course. In theory, at any rate, a sixteen year old could earn a B.A. from Chicago after one semester of OMP, simply by passing all of the examinations. [When I was a high school student, back in the 40's, New York State administered a system of state-wide examinations called Regents Exams, whose purpose was to maintain common standards across the state. One could get credit for a subject by passing the Regents Exam without having sat in a classroom, something I took advantage of to get credit for Trigonometry by teaching it to myself over the Christmas break one year and taking the Regents.] With the B. A. in hand, students were then encouraged to earn an M. A., which involved three years of focused study in a field of concentration.

The Hutchins University of Chicago was a genuinely revolutionary experiment, one of the very few that has been carried out in America. If I may borrow a distinction introduced into the intellectual world by the famous Chicago School of Sociology, the curriculum of the Hutchins college had both a manifest and a latent function. The manifest function was to offer a completely different model of undergraduate education, one that took seriously into account both the emotional and intellectual stage of development of the students and also the integrated, cross-disciplinary character of knowledge and intellectual inquiry. If the success of a model of education is to be measured by the mark it makes on those exposed to it, then the Hutchins revolution was a spectacular success.

Most higher education in America is a homogenized product that might as easily be bought at any of four thousand or more campuses, but for two generations, one could spot a product of the Hutchins college instantaneously. When I was at Harvard, there were a few people who stood out in my mind as truly distinctive, different from the general run of men and women one met. Barrington Moore was one, Susan Sontag another. A young sociologist, Leon Bramson, was a third. When I first met them, I simply supposed that they were unusual, marching to a different drummer. But all of them had been involved in the Hutchins era at Chicago, either as students or as teachers, and once I got to Chicago, I realized the significance of that common bond. All were intensely intellectual, fascinated by books and ideas, and unusually widely read in fields other than the one they had chosen for career purposes.

This quality of mind still characterized the Hyde Park world in the 60's, when I was there. People at the University of Chicago gossiped about ideas in the way that the rest of us gossip about people, as though we and the ideas were both residents of a Realm of Ideas. The statement, "that is really not in my field," simply did not exist in their lexicon. One personal story will perhaps convey the distinctive tonality of the community better than a series of impersonal generalizations. Chicago had the peculiar habit of appointing a member of the faculty as "Dean's Representative" to a doctoral dissertation defense. The Representative was not given a copy of the dissertation, and was certainly not expected to take part in the discussion. He or she was there, I suppose, just to make sure a defense really took place. One day in my second year at Chicago, I received a letter appointing me Dean's Representative to a defense in the Music Department. The topic was "St. Thomas Aquinas' Philosophy of Music." This was a quintessential U of C topic. Never mind that Aquinas, so far as I knew, had no philosophy of music. Anyway, I went along to the Music Department, and knocked on the door of the office of the Chairman. He looked up, greeted me, and said, "I have just been reading your new book on Kant." I think I can say, without hesitation or fear of contradiction, that Chicago was the only university in America at which the Chair of the Music Department would be reading a newly published book on the Critique of Pure Reason!

The latent function of the Hutchins plan was quite different. In the first part of the twentieth century, the East Coast and what is now called the Ivy League dominated higher education considerably more than is now the case. Higher education was to a greater extent then than now a privilege of the monied classes and those from the upper reaches of society. The old joke about English country manors ["How do you get such beautiful lawns?" "Just toss some grass seed on the ground and roll it for six hundred years"] found its echo in the presumption that a liberal education was reserved for a select few, into whose ranks it was forbiddingly difficult to penetrate. The Hutchins conception of an education of Great Books offered an alternative route to enlightenment for those from common origins in a part of the country barely old enough to have a concept of ancestry. The list of books one needed to master for a Chicago degree was long, and each one of them was an intellectual challenge, but the list was finite, and once you had read them all, you were educated, as thoroughly and beneficially as though you were the seventh generation to attend Harvard.

In Hutchins' revolutionary college, Western Civilization was conceived as a perpetual debate about a number of timeless questions, conducted by the great minds of the Judeo-Christian, Graeco-Roman tradition, with its medieval Arabic variants, through the medium of a small, but continuously growing, library of great works of philosophy, tragedy, poetry, fiction, history, political theory - and, more recently, sociology, anthropology, economics, and anthropology. Homer and the nameless authors of the Old Testament, Sophocles and Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar, Paul and the Evangelists, Ovid, Sappho, Philo, Tertullian, Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, Erasmus, Luther, Chaucer, Calvin, John of Salisbury, Marsilius of Padua, Jean Bodin, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Montaigne, Descartes, Spinoza, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Locke, Galileo, Newton, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz, Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling, Herder, Marx, Smith, Bentham, Mill - on and on they came, quibbling, quarreling, drawing distinctions, splitting hairs, proving the existence of God, refuting the proofs for the existence of God, reading one another, referring to one another - a grand faculty seminar, captured for all time in no more than several hundred immortal books.

A liberal education - so this story had it - was a ticket of admission to the Conversation. At first, one was a mere auditor, much as I was when, as a boy of ten, I had sat on the steps of the staircase leading from our living room and listened to my parents, my uncles and aunts, and the neighbors debating politics, literature, and the bureaucratic insanities of the New York City School System in which they worked, longing for the day when I too would be permitted to enter the discussion and make my voice be heard with the others.

Eventually, an inspired few actually entered the Conversation, and made to it contributions that would be taken up into the immortal lists of Great Books. But for the rest of us, it was enough that we had been initiated into its rituals and shibboleths. Throughout our lives, that eternal debate would be the intellectual accompaniment of our quotidien lives. In the evening, after dinner, we could sit quietly before the fire and turn once again the pages of THE REPUBLIC, THE CITY OF GOD, MACBETH, THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON [well, perhaps not THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON], THE PRINCE, THE RED AND THE BLACK, or JANE EYRE.


Graeme Wood said...

Hutchins, not Hutchens. (I would not normally be a member of the orthographic Gotcha! gang, but you seem to be using the name a lot.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. Thanks Graeme. Welcome to the blog. Now I must go back and change them all. I hope I can find the "find and replace" button.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

OK. I think I got them all. I always was the world's worst copy-editor and speller.

Graeme Wood said...

Thanks for the welcome. Has been a pleasure from installment one.

wj said...

Love the memoirs! Keep them coming!

Request for Chicago anecdotes on any of the following figures: Hannah Arendt, Wayne Booth, Leo Strauss, Richard Weaver, Herman Sinaiko (not well known but a legendary undergrad instructor at Chicago), Stanley Rosen. I'm not sure if your time at Chicago overlapped with all of these figures, but I figured it couldn't hurt to ask.

(As you might have guessed, I'm a Chicago grad: I thought the bit about the Music Chair reading your book on Kant to be a *perfect* illustration of the best aspects of the often wacky place.)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

God. I had totally forgotten Herman Sinaiko! No anecdotes that I can recall. I have already told one little anecdote about Arendt. Another one coming up indirectly, via a New School for Social Research event, but that is much later. I am only up to 1964, and this is 2010!!

flyingScotsman said...

Ok, so the big question you raise you must also know the answer to, because you sat thro' the defense: *does* Aquinas have a philosophy of music?

Graeme Forbes

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nope. Not that I could discover. Aquinas has a theory of beauty, of course. It is, along with truth and goodness, a transcendental [i.e., it applies across categories]. But not a philosophy of music as such. That, needless to say, was not going to stop a Chicago denizen!