Robert Maynard Hutchins

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The rise of experimental science has not made the Great Conversation irrelevant. ... Science itself is part of the Great Conversation.

Robert Maynard Hutchins (17 January 189917 May 1977) was an educational philosopher, a president (1929–1945) of the University of Chicago and its chancellor (1945–1951).

Great Books: The Foundation of a Liberal Education (1954)[edit]

Great Books: The Foundation of a Liberal Education (1954) by Robert M. Hutchins, Simon & Schuster, New York
  • Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was much doubt in anybody's mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western tradition.
  • In the course of history ... new books have been written that have won their place in the list. Books once thought entitled to belong to it have been superseded; and this process of change will continue as long as men can think and write. It is the task of every generation to reassess the tradition in which it lives, to discard what it cannot use, and to bring into context with the distant and intermediate past the most recent contributions to the Great Conversation. ... the West needs to recapture and reemphasize and bring to bear upon its present problems the wisdom that lies in the works of its greatest thinkers and in the discussion that they have carried on.
  • The Great Conversation began before the beginnings of experimental science. But the birth of the Conversation and the birth of science were simultaneous. The earliest of the pre-Socratics were investigating and seeking to understand natural phenomena; among them were men who used mathematical notions for this purpose. Even experimentation is not new; it has been going on for hundreds of years. But faith in experimentation as an exclusive method is a modern manifestation. ... it is now regarded in some quarters ... as the sole method of obtaining knowledge of any kind.
  • We are told ... Statements that are not mathematical or logical formulae may look as if they were necessarily or certainly true, but they only look like that. They cannot really be either necessary or certain.
  • It is sometimes admitted that many propositions that are affirmed by intelligent people, such as that democracy is the best form of government or that world peace depends upon world government, cannot be tested by the method of experimental science.
  • Since many propositions in the Great Conversation have not been arrived at by experiment ... or empirical verification, we often hear that the Conversation, though perhaps interesting to the antiquarian as setting forth the bizarre superstitions entertained by "thinkers" before the dawn of experimental science, can have no relevance to us now, when experimental science and its methods have at least revealed these superstitions for what they are.
  • One voice in the Great Conversation itself announces this modern point of view. In the closing paragraph of his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume writes: "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume ... let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." ... the positivists of our own day, would commit to burning or, what is the same, to dismissal from serious consideration ... Those books ... argue the case against the kind of positivism that asserts that everything except mathematics and experimental science is sophistry and illusion. ... The Great Conversation ... contains both sides of the issue ...
  • Only an unashamed dogmatist would dare to assert that the issue has finally been resolved now, in favor of the view that, outside logic or mathematics, the method of modern science is the only method to employ in seeking knowledge. The dogmatist who made this assertion would have to be more than ashamed. He would have to blind himself to the fact that his own assertion was not established by the experimental method, nor made as an indisputable conclusion of mathematical reasoning or of purely logical analysis.
  • The Great Books show ... that even those thinkers of the past who are now often looked upon as the most reactionary, the medieval theologians, insisted, as Aristotle had before them, that the truth of any statement is its conformity to reality or fact, and that sense experience is required to discover the particular matters of fact that test the truth of general statements about the nature of things.
  • "In the knowledge of nature," Aristotle writes, the test of principles "is the unimpeachable evidence of the senses as to the fact." He holds that "lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in the intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundation of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development; while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations." Theories should be accredited, Aristotle insists, "only if what they affirm agrees with the facts."
  • The facts are indispensable; they are not sufficient. To solve a problem it is necessary to think. It is necessary to think even to decide what facts to collect. Even the experimental scientist cannot avoid being a liberal artist, and the best of them, as the great books show are men of imagination and of theory as well as patient observers of particular facts. ... critics have themselves frequently misunderstood the scientific method and have confused it with the aimless accumulation of facts.
  • The great books ... afford us the best examples of man's efforts to seek the truth, both about the nature of things and about human conduct, by methods other than those of experimental science; and because these examples are presented in the context of equally striking examples of man's efforts to learn by experiment ... the great books provide us with the best materials for judging whether the experimental method is or is not the only acceptable method of inquiry into all things.
  • The contemporary practices of scientific research, as well as the scientific efforts that the great books record, show beyond doubt that the method of controlled experiment under artificial conditions is not the only method used by men who regard themselves and are regarded as scientists. ... as the work of astronomers, biologists, and social scientists reveals, experiment in the strict sense is not always possible.
  • The rise of experimental science has not made the Great Conversation irrelevant. ... Science itself is part of the Great Conversation.
  • Because of experimental science we know a very large number of things about the natural world of which our predecessors were ignorant. In the great books we can observe the birth of science, applaud the development of the experimental technique, and celebrate the triumphs it has won. But we can also note the limitations of the method and mourn the errors that its misapplication has caused. We can distinguish the outlines of those great persistent problems that the method ... may never solve and find the clues to their solutions offered by other methods and other disciplines.
  • Liberal education was aristocratic in the sense that it was the education of those who enjoyed leisure and political power. If it was the right education for those who had leisure and political power, then it is the right education for everybody today.
  • ... all should be well acquainted with and each in his measure actively and continuously engaged in the Great Conversation that man has had about what is and should be ...
  • ... criticisms that I have mentioned come to the same thing: that liberal education is too good for the people.
  • The more logical and determined ... critics will confess that they believe that the great mass of mankind is and of right ought to be condemned to a modern version of natural slavery. Hence there is not use wasting educational effort upon them. They should be given training as will be necessary to enable them to survive.
  • Because the bulk of mankind has never had the chance to get a liberal education, it cannot be "proved" that they can get it. Neither can it be "proved" that they cannot. The statement of the ideal, however, is of value in indicating the direction that education should take.
  • The products of American high schools are illiterate; and a degree from a famous college or university is no guarantee that the graduate is in any better case. One of the most remarkable features of American society is that the difference between the "uneducated" and the "educated" is so slight.
  • The business of saying, in advance of a serious effort, that people are not capable of achieving a good education is too strongly reminiscent of the opposition of every extension of democracy. This opposition has always rested on the allegation that the people were incapable of exercising the power they demanded. Always the historic statement has been verified: you cannot expect the slave to show the virtues of the free man unless you first set him free. When the slave has been set free, he has, in the passage of time, become indistinguishable from those who have always been free.
  • There appears to be an innate human tendency to underestimate the capacity of those who do not belong to "our" group. Those who do not share our background cannot have our ability. Foreigners, people who are in a different economic status, and the young seem invariably to be regarded as intellectually backward ...
  • In education ... whenever a proposal is made that looks toward increased intellectual effort on the part of students, professors will always say that the students cannot so the work. My observation leads me to think that what this usually means is that the professors cannot or will not do the work ... When, in spite of the opposition of the professors, the change is introduced, the students, in my experience, have always responded nobly.
  • Great books are great teachers; they are showing us every day what ordinary people are capable of. These books come out of ignorant, inquiring humanity. They are usually the first announcements for success in learning. Most of them were written for, and addressed to, ordinary people.
  • If many great books seem unreadable and unintelligible ... it may be because we have not for a long time learned to read by reading them. Great books teach people not only how to read them, but how to read all other books.
  • There is a sense in which every great book is always over the head of the reader: he can never fully comprehend it. That is why these books are great teachers; they demand the attention of the reader and keep his intelligence on the stretch.
  • As Whitehead has said "If it were easy, the book ought to be burned; for it is cannot be educational. In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place."
  • We do not confine people to looking at poor pictures and listening to poor music. We urge them to look at as many good pictures and hear as much good music as they can, convinced that this is the way in which they will come to understand and appreciate art and music.
  • If only the specialist is to be allowed access to these books, on the ground that it is impossible to understand them without "scholarship," ... then we shall be compelled to shut out the majority of mankind from some of the finest creations of the human mind. This is aristocracy with a vengeance.
  • The dogma of individual differences. This is one of the basic dogmas of American education. It runs something like this: all men are different; therefore, all men require a different education; therefore, anybody who suggests that education should be in any respect the same has ignored the fact that all men are different; therefore, nobody should suggest that everybody should read some of the same books; some people should read some books, some should read others. This dogma has gained such a hold ... that you will often now hear a college president boast that his college has no curriculum. Each student has a course of study framed, or "tailored" ... to meet his own individual needs and interests.
  • Educators ought to know better than their pupils what an education is. If the educators do not, they have wasted their lives. The art of teaching consists in large part of interesting people in things that ought to interest them, but do not. The task of educators is to discover what an education is and then to invent the methods of interesting their students in it.
  • Is there any such thing as "an education"? The answer that is made by the devotees of the dogma of individual differences is No; there are as many different educations as there are different individuals; it is "authoritarian" to say that there is any education that is necessary, or even suitable, for every individual.
  • So Bertrand Russell once said to me that the pupil in school should study whatever he liked. I asked whether this was not a crime against the pupil. ... Should he be allowed to grow up without knowing Shakespeare? ... Lord Russell replied that he would require a boy to read one play of Shakespeare; if he did not like it, he should not be compelled to read any more.
  • If any common program is impossible, if there is no such thing as an education that everybody ought to have, then we must admit that any community is impossible. All men are different; but they are also the same. As we must all become specialists, so we must all become men. ... The West needs an education that draws out our common humanity rather than our individuality. Individual differences can be taken into account in the methods that are employed and in the opportunities for specialization that may come later.
  • Recall the dictum of Rousseau: "It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church, or law. Before his parents chose a calling for him, nature called him to be a man. ... When he leaves me, he will be neither a magistrate, a soldier, nor a priest; he will be a man."

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