University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins in 1929. (Photography by Angelica King, University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-05032, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library)

Convocation address

From our print archive: Robert Maynard Hutchins' speech from the University of Chicago's 155th convocation ceremony held June 11, 1929.

Today from a hundred different platforms in a hundred different schools and colleges people in your helpless position are being told what the world expects of them. They are shown the tremendous advantages they have received in being supported by their families or the state, though all undeserving, so that they might enjoy the peaceful pleasures of education. And they are shown, too, the tremendous obligations, which such advantages inevitably entail. Nor are they left without a word of warning that his fellow countrymen demand morality, industry, energy, and service, to say nothing of other delightful characteristics, of every American citizen.

On this occasion I shall not go into any of these matters, first, because I have no doubt that they are being gone into sufficiently elsewhere, and second, because my sole purpose today is to make your acquaintance before you sally forth from these quadrangles. This is neither an inaugural address nor a convocation oration; it is simply an expansion of the words: Hail and farewell. And that expansion must take the form, for want of any other, of an attempt to state briefly some of the things that a law school dean thinks about after he has worked at every educational level from the secondary school up.

Among all sorts of people in all kinds of places it has become the fashion to attack American education. Some criticisms one may pass by quickly as too silly to be entertained by people intelligent enough to deserve attention. One such is that higher education makes men immoral and godless. Another, closely related to the first, is that it upsets and disturbs young people. This may be phrased alternatively to read that the universities are teaching bolshevism. Although I am sure that no one here present ever held such ideas, they are by no means confined to the illiterate or the reactionary. One of the greatest scholars of the country, and the greatest in his chosen field in the world, wrote a university president of a man who was about to be made a dean, “I wish strenuously to advise you not to make this appointment; Mr. X is a man who will unsettle the minds of the young men at a time when they are most in need of settling.”

This conception of education as a process of settling, or hardening, of the fixation of sound principle and righteous dogma in the youth of America brings me at once to state my own view of the purpose of university training. It is exactly the opposite of that of the eminent and learned gentleman to whom I have referred. It is that the purpose of higher education is to unsettle the minds of young men, to widen their horizons, to inflame their intellects. And by this series of mixed metaphors I mean to assert that education is not to teach men facts, theories, or laws; it is not to reform them, or amuse them, or to make them expert technicians in any field; it is to teach them to think, to think straight, if possible; but to think always for themselves. If we should send a graduate of our law school to the Bar who had memorized the Constitution and all the statutes and decisions in the country, I should think we had miserably failed, unless he had developed a critical faculty and a power of independent reasoning which probably could not live along with so much detailed information. By the same token a graduate of our law school who could not repeat a line of the Constitution, and had never got a case by heart would still be a product of whom we could be proud if he had found here a habit of work, an ability to handle his material, to effect new combinations, to exercise creative imagination, in a word, to think.

At every age their elders have a way of underestimating the development of the young. As a result many people seem to have the notion that the processes of education are simple and easy, that the student comes to college a sort of plastic mass to be molded by the teacher in whatever likeness he will. It is for this reason that parents have sometimes felt they could solve their domestic problems by turning them over to the educator. In preparatory school work: I have observed this phenomenon time and time again. A lady once presented to my headmaster her son, nineteen years old, saying, “He has been terribly spoiled. He has never done any work. I didn’t like to push him. He was so frail. Now you take him, and make a man of him, and interest him in his studies.” And my headmaster replied substantially in the words of Tennyson, “Late, late, too late, ye cannot enter now!” It is sad but true that at eighteen or nineteen or upon graduation from high school it is too late to take a boy and make a man of him and interest him in his studies. He has solidified, too often in more ways than one. But even if it were possible physiologically and psychologically, the college should not attempt the job. Because of its size, because its funds were given to it for another purpose, it can only to a very limited degree spend its time and money in supervising a student’s conduct, in regulating his daily habits, in forcing him to improve his mind and body against his will. The college is there, with all its opportunities. Broadly speaking, he may take it or leave it. And what this comes down to is that if a man hasn’t character, if he hasn’t the germs of intellectual interest, if he doesn’t care to amount to anything, the college can’t give him a character, or intellectual interest, or make him amount to anything. It may complete the task. It is too late to begin it.

For this reason the picture of the professors of America undermining religion, communizing the sons of capital, and knocking the lares and penates off the shelf generally is far removed from reality. I once taught a class of college freshmen a course called “Introduction to the Social Sciences.” But there were many aspects of the social sciences to which I could not introduce them, because they would not let me. There was only one Democrat in the class, and he battled alone against the protective tariff, with a degree of success in exact proportion to his numerical strength. The question whether vast military and naval expenditures were necessary could hardly be raised, because everybody knew that the United States was the greatest nation on earth and ought to keep other countries in a state of wholesome awe. Suggestions that there were some slight weaknesses in the party system in this country, or in our foreign policy since the war, or that there were a few words one could say for the labor unions, were repelled as unworthy of a college professor. The social and political dogmas inculcated at the paternal breakfast table these gentlemen had accepted whole, nor were they inclined to listen to the words of an academic person as against the teachings of practical men. Under these circumstances the most that a teacher can hope to do is to galvanize or stimulate; he cannot hope to persuade. And even in the hope he is entitled to he is frequently disappointed. The classic example is that of the Harvard professor who remarked to his class one day: “The fool hath said in his heart there is no God.” And all the class wrote down in their notebooks: “Professor X says there is no God.”

Such misconception on the part of students and their relatives would never arise if we understood at the outset what a university is and what it is for. My pupils in the preparatory school I once taught in, when asked for an essay on why they wanted to go to college would almost to a man reply, and reply in English that reflected no credit on their instructor, that they wanted to go to college to get to know the fellows. The fellows were good fellows, I was told, who provided one another during college with the gayest amusements and the most profitable relationships, and who afterward formed a great brotherhood of men ready and willing to help out socially, politically and financially those of the brethren who might be down on their luck, ostracized from their party, or out of a job. And if we engage in a little introspection we may find that our reasons for going to college did not vary greatly from those of my former students. To far too many people a college degree is no indication of mental training or maturity. It is the badge of social attainment, the open sesame into the company of people who matter.

Now you may have heard that your generation is the hope of America. Perhaps it is. Mine used to be. But if your generation makes no better use of its educational opportunities than mine has there is little hope that the millennium will soon arrive, or if it does, that education will have been responsible for its coming. My father is connected with a college devoted to the mountain people of the South. The other day a mountain man came to him to enter a protest. He said, “My two girls came down ‘to your school to be educated, and then they went and got married, just like they was ignorant.” Without assenting to this view of matrimony, we can still sympathize with the general attitude expressed.

The thing that impresses me about my college generation is that we have acted, for the most part, “just like we was ignorant.” Yet we cannot hold the college responsible. We went there to go through the formalities, to become college men, to get to know the fellows. As for the professors, we subscribed to that eloquent inscription penned by an English public school boy: “To all school-masters, whose taste it is our privilege to follow; whose virtues it is our duty to imitate; whose presence it is our interest to avoid.” In general Santayana’s description of the pupil-teacher’s relationship was true of us; it was that of the cow and the milkmaid; mutual contributions may pass between them, but not conversation. The stock of prejudices we brought with us to college remained largely unimpaired when we left it. If we had our corners knocked off, it was chiefly because we were associated with a lot of bright young men who took peculiar pleasure in jumping on people for the slightest deviation from the normal.

One must, of course, concede the value of that type of training. Whether universities were founded to give it is another matter. We didn’t care to be jumped on, and so we never deviated from the normal after we found out what it was. It wasn’t normal then to depart from traditional apparel. Nor was it normal to be sentimental about the college, except in song, or to be friendly in conversation unless your remarks were prefaced by enough insults to show that you were manly. We grew gradually into the likeness of each other, and a rather pleasant likeness we thought it was, too. We talked well, though somewhat vaguely, on almost any topic. Having received the imprimatur of college society, we had the conviction that the society of the great world would welcome us. And so it did, on the whole. Whether it would have welcomed us any the less gladly if we had spent the same amount of time in the local country club or one of the fraternal orders, I do not know. These bodies have high ideals. They are organizations of men for mutual improvement. Four years in one might serve to knock the corners off. Their dues are lower than those of most colleges. You can get to know the fellows in one. It would seem plausible to suppose that one can get from them most of the things one gets at the university, if one goes to the university merely because it is the thing to do.

Let it never be forgotten that a university is not a collection of buildings, nor a collection of books, nor even a collection of students. It is a community of scholars. The first duty of a university is to provide those scholars with the means of life, which no university has yet adequately done, and with the means of work. If young men and women then wish to associate themselves with the scholars they must do so on the scholars’ terms. They must have an abiding interest in the things the scholars have to offer them, together with the minimum intellectual equipment necessary to understand those things. The whole system of required attendance, course grades, credit hours, and all the painful rigidities of the curriculum has grown up because the scholars, perhaps mistakenly, did not believe the young men and women had these characteristics, and perhaps mistakenly, did not have the courage to shut them out. And that system in turn has produced a vicious circle, by defeating the aspiration and dulling the interest of competent and willing students, driving them forth into extracurricular activities, or reducing them to the motions of a spiritless routine.

Such a routine, either on the graduate or undergraduate level, is neither scholarship nor education. Scholarship in its broadest sense means the careful, painstaking attempt to answer the question put by Bernard Shaw as follows: whether the human animal as he exists at present is capable of solving the problems raised by his own aggregation. And education means the development of the individual so that instead of adding to those problems, he may, in whatever walk of life, make his contribution to their solution. For the purpose of universities is not to provide some thousands of young people with a pleasant vacation from their families and agreeable postponement of the business of earning a living. To the universities the nation looks for men and women who have trained minds and know how to use them; men and women who know how to think and are willing to do it. Through the fumbling futilities of American education we shall yet pass to something new, native, and vital, superior to the education of Europe, which now, perhaps through our ignorance of it, sometimes strikes envy into our hearts. And from the crass commercialism, the narrow politics, the irreligion of contemporary affairs, we shall yet pass on as well, if we can muster the intelligence for the task.