SECRET LIVES

The Man Who Could Make Your Kids Less Ignorant

College campuses across the U.S. are in an uproar about issues of free speech, but perhaps they should be outraged by the uneducated students they are churning out.

09.17.16 4:01 AM ET

A new Council of Foreign Relations and National Geographic survey shows that most American collegians are global illiterates. Only 29 percent of 1203 enrolled students or fresh graduates passed a “global literacy” test—asking, for example, whether Indonesia has a Muslim majority. The average score was 55 percent. Illiterate college students become ignorant citizens—and policy makers. In 2006, during the Iraq War, The New York Times reported that many members of Congress couldn’t distinguish Sunnism from Shiism. One Democrat admitted: “it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.”

Before force feeding anyone more facts, this survey is a reminder of how we must redefine the purpose of higher education. This way, whatever facts are conveyed will fit into a “perspective” and “categories” that resonate for students.

Although he died nearly 40 years ago in 1977, we need the wisdom of the educational reformer Robert Maynard Hutchins. While he probably would be shouted down on many campuses today for being politically incorrect, this Oberlin graduate and anti-McCarthyite was a true liberal. He wanted universities producing thoughtful, knowledgeable, and critical world citizens, not narrow-minded specialists, soulless technicians or indoctrinated political bullies.

Hutchins, born in Brooklyn in 1899, was educated at Oberlin College, Yale University, and Yale Law School. By the time he was 29 years old, he was Dean of Yale Law School. Hutchins regretted graduating with a superficial understanding of Western Civilization. The Law School’s question-and-answer based Socratic case method, however, taught him how to reason. “Student Education,” he concluded, “is to unsettle their minds, widen their horizons, inflame their intellects….”

By 1929, this 30-year-old started implementing his educational vision as president of the University of Chicago. He would serve until 1945, and as university chancellor until 1951. Collaborating with the philosopher Mortimer Adler, Hutchins invited students into “The Great Conversation” teaching Great Ideas through Great Books. “The purpose of the university,” he exclaimed, “is nothing less than to procure a moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution.”

Hutchins believed that “Learning at the college level should have no vocational aim. It should provide a common stock of fundamental ideas.” He wanted students to know “what is meant by soul, State, God, beauty,” and other such metaphysical concepts. He wanted students to understand “the great thinkers of the past and present, scientific, historical, and philosophical.” He wanted them to read the great books to understand “our society and ourselves.” He warned that American democracy would die not by burning these books: “All we have to do is to leave them unread for a few generations.”

These shared ideas would create a common conversation, giving citizens a common set of references, which had, he and Adler taught, “withstood the test of time.” Hutchins did not expect unanimity, just shared frameworks. Similarly, while appreciating the Western heritage, he wasn’t stuck in the past. “Contemporary materials … brought in daily,” could “illustrate, confirm or deny the ideas held by the writers under discussion.”

Methodologically, these enduring texts would be taught in ways that expanded the mind and the soul. The super-specialized “vocational education” Hutchins detested, mass produced cookie-cutter experts, automatons taught to think, act, and react the same. He valued individualists who could belong to a community—yet also break away from it, intelligently, constructively.

Hutchins repudiated propagandists, saying: “It is not the school’s duty to win [students] over to a particular political program. Democracy will progress because people are educated and not because they have been taught to agitate for social reform.” Pushing ideas that could get him bullied on today’s campus, he wanted education to be subversive not suffocating. “A liberal education… frees” an individual from “the prison-house of his class, race, time, place, background, family and even his nation,” he observed. The notion of identity politics dominating the university would have made as much sense to him as a music school teaching only one song on one instrument to every student. “The ideal university is an understood diversity,” he taught, seeking diversity in thought and approach not just background or skin color.

At the University of Chicago, Hutchins developed a curriculum revolving around Socratic dialogue engaging the Great Books, resulting in comprehensive examinations testing overall fluency in these big ideas rather than mastery of the specialized subjects students could learn at the Masters’ level. Bolder than most college presidents, he eliminated the football program because he wanted his alumni boasting about scholastics not sports. He also opposed racial discrimination, believing such bigotry undermined the open community he valued. “A university is supposed to lead, not to follow,” he proclaimed. “A university is supposed to do what is right, and damn the consequences.” Even when wealthy donors like the pharmacy king Charles Walgreen lobbied against alleged Communist influences at the university, Hutchins defended academic freedom, wanting to defeat Communism in the open marketplace of ideas, not by imposing an alternative orthodoxy.

Not all of his reforms were implemented—or lasted. Still, today the University of Chicago is better known for its faculty than its restored football team. Hutchins’ spirit persists in “The Core,” which, its website boasts, “is distinctive for its small, discussion-based classes and its commitment to primary texts.” And Hutchins’ spirit infused Dean John Ellison’s letter this summer welcoming incoming freshman by affirming the university’s commitment to “freedom of inquiry and expression.”

In 1952, Hutchins and Adler, working with Encyclopedia Britannica, launched the 52-volume set, the Great Books of the Western World. To Hutchins, this was “more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.” The volumes became best-sellers when salesmen sold them door-to-door, commodifying Hutchins’ beloved works—yet popularizing them.

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In the 1950s and 1960s, Hutchins established teacher training programs and some model great books programs through the Ford Foundation. He launched the National Education Television network amid great anxiety about television becoming a “Vast Wasteland.” NET ultimately became PBS.

If Hutchins were alive, he would fight this Global Illiteracy by returning to fundamentals. Once students understand that “A world community can exist only with world communication,” which “means common understanding,” they would be motivated to learn about the rest of the world. And mastering their own heritage would actually provide clearer categories, and more open perspectives for absorbing knowledge about the heritage of others.

Alas, today’s gutless academic administrators lack Hutchins’ boldness and creativity. More concerned with raising money and mollifying students, few college presidents last year defended the free speech and critical thought universities require. Starting with adding admissions essays that ask students to address the college’s defining goals rather than presenting themselves as superheroes who overcame great challenges at the tender age of 17, our universities leaders should lead. They should trigger conversations about their school’s mission, and the meaning of higher education in general, rather than being distracted by silly debates about trigger warnings and micro-aggressions. Hutchins said he and Adler wanted “to start a big argument about higher education.” Let’s continue it substantively, intelligently, creatively, courageously.