Paul Andersen: Hutchins: man of ideas and ethics
September 14, 2003
The social reformers who spurred Aspen to its renaissance in 1949 were civic and cultural evangelists, a visionary group of idealists, philosophers and moralists who thought they could save the post WWII world.
One of the most remarkable people in that period was Robert Maynard Hutchins. He was one of the architects of the Goethe Bicentennial in 1949, where beautiful music and great thinkers shared their art and their ideas in the sanctified atmosphere of Aspen’s first music tent.
When Hutchins came to Aspen more than 50 years ago, the streets were dirt and many of the buildings were in disrepair. The struggling economy was tied to agriculture, small mining ventures and a seasonal influx from skiing. Aspen was largely an anachronism, a throwback to the previous century.
In addition to helping launch the Goethe Bicentennial, Hutchins also inspired the direction of The Aspen Institute when it was formed in 1950. He was a rare man who lived in the world of ideas and equally in the realm of ethics and morality.
Because of his unflagging idealism, Robert Maynard Hutchins suffered constant reminders that American culture, education, business and politics were tainted by serious, perhaps fatal, flaws that perpetuated war, divisiveness, and man’s inhumanity to man.
Born in 1899 into a Puritan New England upbringing, Hutchins was schooled at Oberlin, a bastion of liberalism. He completed his formal education at Yale, where he distinguished himself as a scholar and was chosen, at 28, as dean of the Yale Law School.
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When he was 30, Hutchins became president of the University of Chicago, the youngest person in the U.S. to hold such an esteemed position. In that role for nearly 20 years, he pursued his undying passion for educational reform.
Said Hutchins: “To cultivate the rational human powers of the individual so that armed with the intellectual and moral virtues he may hope to meet and withstand the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune – that is education.”
Several years into his presidency, Hutchins earned notoriety for abolishing intercollegiate football at the U of C, claiming that he was more interested in cerebral matters than celebrity athletes. He also boldly defined the role of the university in sociopolitical terms.
“If what you want is a dead level of mediocrity, if what you want is a nation of identical twins, without initiative, intelligence, or ideas, you should fear the universities. From this standpoint, they are subversive. They try to make their students think.”
Because of his unwavering moral compass and probing mind, Hutchins was always one step out of the mainstream. Though his great skill as an orator would have dovetailed neatly with a political career, he refused to make the compromises that were put to him for such a role, even when that meant a possible run for the presidency of the U.S. in 1940.
To Hutchins, the core challenge of civilization was rectifying a skewed value system. “At the root of the present troubles of the world,” he said in 1943, “is a pervasive materialism, a devastating desire for material goods, which sweeps everything before it, up to, and perhaps over, the verge of the abyss.”
Hutchins partnered with Mortimer Adler on the Great Books program, through which he met Aspen scions, Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke. He also worked as editor for Encyclopaedia Britannica, and later founded the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a philosophical round table in Santa Barbara that advanced civil rights and social justice.
In Aspen in 1949, Hutchins drew out his lasting vision for a better world during his address at the Aspen Music Tent. Citing Goethe’s faith in the “goodness of humanity,” Hutchins implored, “through this faith we may bring about that moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution which will unite mankind in lasting peace.”
[Paul Andersen thinks it’s time to recall the wisdom of the past. His column appears every Monday.]
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