The inauguration of Robert Maynard Hutchins as the fifth President of the University of Chicago in 1929 coincided with a drastically changed social and economic climate throughout the world. And Hutchins himself opened an era of tumultuous reform and debate within the University. In the midst of the changes Hutchins started and the intense feelings they stirred, William H. McNeill arrived at the University to pursue his education. In Hutchins’ University he tells what it was like to come of age as a undergraduate in those heady times.
Hutchins’ scathing opposition to the departmentalization of learning and his resounding call for reforms in general education sparked controversy and fueled debate on campus and off. It became a struggle for the heart and soul of higher education—and McNeill, as a student and then as an instructor, was a participant. His account of the university’s history is laced with personal reminiscences, encounters with influential fellow scholars such as Richard McKeon, R. S. Crane, and David Daiches, and details drawn from Hutchins’ papers and other archives.
McNeill sketches the interplay of personalities with changing circumstances of the Depression, war, and postwar eras. But his central concern is with the institutional life of the University, showing how student behavior, staff and faculty activity and even the Hyde Park neighborhood all revolved around the charismatic figure of Robert Maynard Hutchins—shaped by him and in reaction against him.
Successive transformations of the College, and the tribulations of the ideal of general or liberal education are central to much of the story; but the memoir also explores how the University was affected by such events as Red scares, the remarkably successful Round Table radio broadcasts, the
abolition of big time football, and the inauguration of the nuclear age under the west stands of Stagg Field in 1942.
In short, Hutchins’ University sketches an extraordinarily vibrant period for the University of Chicago
and for American higher education. It will revive old controversies among veterans from those times, and may provoke others to reflect anew about the proper role of higher education in American society.
This slim volume explains better than any other recent study the myths and realities behind the renowned educator Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977) and the university he ran for more than 20 years. A student at the University of Chicago during Hutchins's glory days and until recently a professor of history there, McNeill offers an insider's account of Hutchins's efforts to transform an institution devoted primarily to research--``a completely new phenomenon in the 1890s,'' when the University of Chicago opened its doors--into a teacher-driven hotbed of discussion, centered on an undergraduate college ``so wonderful and vibrant'' that it ``always hovered on the edge of the absurd.'' The wonder becomes clear in the author's detailed descriptions of Hutchins's fierce battles with faculty to improve the state of liberal education and establish an atmosphere of ``intellectual stimulation.'' The absurdity is evident in his portrait of Hutchins as a ``quixotic character'' whose early success (he became president of the university at age 30) was overshadowed by a failure to specify ``what the metaphysical and moral principles or the detailed content of what such an education would be.'' Photos not seen by PW.