©2001 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Robert Maynard Hutchins (Version II)
Analyst: Susan Pinto

Link to Version I


1. Theory of Value:

...if we want to educate our students for freedom, we must educate them in the liberal arts and in the great books. (C, 14)

Now wisdom and goodness are the aim of higher education. How can it be otherwise? Wisdom and goodness are the end of human life. If you dispute this, you are entering upon a metaphysical controversy; for you are disputing about the nature of being and the nature of man. This is as it should be. How can we consider man's destiny unless we ask what he is? How can we talk about preparing men for life unless we ask what the end of life may be? At the base of education, as at the base of every human activity, lies metaphysics. (C, 23-24)

...if we can develop general education so that all advanced study will rest on a common body of knowledge, we may succeed in making our universities true communities and communities of true scholars. (B, 57)

If there are permanent studies which every person who wishes to call himself educated should master...then those studies should be at the center of a general education. They cannot be ignored because they are difficult, or unpleasant, or because they are almost totally missing from our curriculum today. (B, 70) The purpose of higher education is to unsettle the minds of young men, to widen their horizons, to inflame their intellects. (B, 48)

I insist, however, that the education I shall outline is the kind that everybody should have, that the answer to it is not that some people should not have it, but that we should find out how to give it to those whom do not know how to teach at present. (B, Chapter 3)

One purpose of education is to draw out the elements of our common human nature. (B, Chapter 3)

...the aim of education is to connect man with man, to connect the present with the past, and to advance the thinking of the race. (A, 131)

2. Theory of Knowledge:

Knowledge is everywhere the same. To acquire knowledge is the essence of education. (E, 94) Education implies teaching. Teaching implies knowledge. Knowledge is truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same. (B, Chapter 3) Young people do not spend all their time in school. Their elders commonly spent none of it there. Yet their elders are, we hope, constantly growing in practical wisdom. They are, at least, having experience. If we can teach them while they are being educated how to reason, they may be able to comprehend and assimilate their experience. (B, Chapter 3)

...knowledge is not fragmented but unified, since reality itself, which reflects, is a whole. (E, 54)

There is no virtue in encouraging immature minds to waste time in discovering for themselves the kind of knowledge that they can be taught in a few minutes. (E, 94)

The teacher has to have knowledge but not knowledge of education or what purports to be knowledge about methods of teaching gained from texts prepared by professors of Education in universities. The teacher has to have knowledge of the subject that he is attempting to teach. In addition, it will be helpful if he knows how to write, speak and figure. It will be helpful, in short, if he knows the liberal arts, which are the arts of communication. (D, 32-33)

Knowledge is organized information, that is, information that has been reflected upon, thought about. (D, 37-38)

3. Theory of Human Nature:

In general education we are interested in drawing out the elements of our common human nature; we are interested in the attributes of the race, not the accidents of individuals. (B, 73)

At seventeen, or eighteen, or nineteen, the student is, from my point of view at least, far too old to effect significant changes in his habits and attitudes. (A, 95)

...in order to have a community that thinks, you have to have mutual intelligibility...As a man, as a citizen, and even as a specialist, the specialist requires liberal education. (D, 4343)

4. Theory of Learning:

I agree, of course, that any plan of general education must be such as to educate the student for intelligent action. It must, therefore, start him on the road toward practical wisdom. It is acquired partly from intellectual operations and partly from experience. But the chief requirement for it is correctness in thinking. Since education cannot duplicate the experiences which the student will have when he graduates, it should devote itself to developing correctness in thinking as a means to practical wisdom, that is, to intelligent action. (B, Chapter 3)

In general education, therefore, we may wisely leave experience to life and set about our job of intellectual training. (B, Chapter 3)

I suggest that the cultivation of the intellectual virtues can be accomplished through the communication of our intellectual tradition and through training in the intellectual disciplines. This means understanding the great thinkers of the past and present, scientific, historical, and philosophical. It means a grasp of the disciplines of grammar, logic, and mathematics; reading, writing, and figuring. It does not, of course, mean the exclusion of contemporary materials. They should be brought in daily to illustrate, confirm of deny the ideas held b the writers under discussion. (C, 59-60)

The great books are then a part, and a large part, of the permanent studies. They are so in the first place because they are the best books we know. How can we call a man educated who has never read any of the great books in the western world? Yet today it is entirely possible for a student to graduate from the finest American colleges without having read any of them, except possibly Shakespeare. (B, 78)

Learning at the college level should have not vocational aim. It should provide a common stock of fundamental ideas. (B, 116)

5. Theory of Transmission:

The faculty dealing with general education... must be remote enough from the university to be able to work on its problems without the interference or control of the university faculty and without interfering with or controlling that faculty. (B, 10)

I am now convinced that the greatest danger to education in America is the attempt, under the guise of patriotism, to suppress freedom of teaching, inquiry, and discussion. Consequently, I am now in favor of permanent tenure, with all its drawbacks, as by far the lesser of the two evils. We cannot expect to get good teachers without decent salaries and security. (A, 121-122)

What a teacher needs is a liberal education and special preparation in the subject or subjects that he may be called upon to teach. (D, 34-35)

6. Theory of Society:

But we know that the United States is not a country devoted to the achievement of the common good through reason. We know that we are a people devoted to the acquisition of material goods by any means not to outrageous. What will be the fate, then, of our graduates? They will be, in my opinion, as well equipped for financial success as our graduates are today. But they may not want it; and they should be quite unwilling to use some popular methods of attaining it. (C, 63)

It seems obvious to me, therefore, that the kind of education I have been urging is the kind that helps to develop a social consciousness and a social conscience. I have been saying that I want to give the student knowledge about society. (C, 30)

...we must regard the school, not as a place where classes are taught, but as a center of community life, reflecting the community's interest in music, art, the drama, and current affairs, as well as in what we have been accustomed to think of as "education." (A, 113)

7. Theory of Opportunity

We should try to frame a course of study that is good for any pupil and then focus our attention on developing the methods of transmitting it to those we cannot reach today. (C, 53)

The scheme that I advance is based on the notion that general education is education for everybody, whether he goes on to the university or not. It will be useful to him in the university; it will be equally useful if he never goes there. (B, 62)

Clearly a university...ought to provide every facility for the students to participate in the advancement of knowledge. But, sooner or later, it must take the position that the student should not be sent to the university unless he is independent and intelligent enough to go there. (A, 82)

Such a program of general education proceeds on two assumptions: First, it assumes that everybody has a mind and that we must find out how to train it. (A, 130)

Economic conditions require us to provide some kind of education for the young, and for all the young, up to about their twentieth year. Probably one-third of them cannot learn from books. This is no reason why we should not try to continue to work out a better course of study for the other two-thirds. At the same time we should continue our efforts and experiments to find out how to give a general education to the hand minded and the functionally illiterate. (Hutchins, Chapter III)

A University should not discriminate by race. (B, 142)

8. Theory of Consensus

Education needs nothing so much as to have a group of experts studying it who are not parts of the system and who will examine it with the same cold and penetrating glance that the professor directs at the world about him. (A, 157-158)

...our alumni can be of the greatest assistance to us by suppressing the inferiority complex in themselves. They must realize that they cannot test the standing of their Alma Mater by many notions prevalent in the East. We have different functions, different duties, different opportunities. The western universities must now strike out and be themselves. (A, 86)

It is the perpetual task of professional leadership to direct the mind of the public and boards of trustees to the real function for which such institutions were established. (A, 134)

Trustees are in a different category from alumni. They at least have the undoubted legal right to control the institution. The wiser they are the less they will attempt to do so. (B, 23)


A. Hutchins, R. M. (1936). No Friendly Voice. University of Chicago.

B. Hutchins, R.M. (1936). The Higher Learning in America. New Haven: YUP.

C. Hutchins, R.M. (1943). Education for Freedom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State.

D. Hutchins, R.M. (1953). The University of Utopia. University of Chicago.

E. Kneller, G.F. (1963). Foundations of Education. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.