Don't Just Do Something
Robert M. Hutchins
[This interview of Robert M. Hutchins by Keith
Berwick first appeared in The Center Magazine and was later
reprinted in a collection of articles from 1970-1972, published by the
Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara,
Between Two Worlds
Matthew Arnold once described himself as "wandering between two
worlds -- one dead, the other powerless to be born."
I suggest that this is our situation today.
The old world is one in which the West has lived for three hundred
years. The essential beliefs of that old world are: that we must seek
knowledge which will give us mastery over nature; there is no use
seeking wisdom; there is no way of transforming knowledge into wisdom;
values are unknowable and indefensible; standards are matters of
prejudice or inheritance; we are all strangers except as we happen to
be united by our interests; there can be no community, there can only
be pressure groups; what we call "community" is merely a
precarious equilibrium of pressure groups or, on a world scale, of
nations; politics is power. So Toqueville saw the American as
essentially forlorn, the individual living for himself alone, afraid
of his neighbors, afraid of foreigners, afraid of change.
The new world is one in which man is understood as a social and
political, as well as rational being. It is a world united by a sense
of common humanity, common destiny, common enterprise, and by the
warmth of human feeling.
Admitting that we cannot solve human problems, we can work in common
toward their solution. We can think, and think together, about how to
transform knowledge into wisdom. The body politic then becomes an
organic unity of sympathy and solidarity.
ROBERT M. HUTCHINS
BERWICK: After eleven years there is still a great deal of confusion
about what the Center is, and what you are doing there on Eucalyptus
HUTCHINS: That is odd because the name is completely descriptive.
What the Center is doing is studying democratic institutions by taking
a multidisciplinary look at the state of the democratic world -- and
the undemocratic world as well, because one has to contrast the two
and see how they are going to develop. After discovering what is going
on, or trying to discover what is going on, the Center offers its
observations for such public consideration as the public is willing to
BERWICK: As you know, you have been called many things, both you and
the Center, and there are those who regard the Fellows of the Center
as a kind of powerless elite. Elite they are. How about power? Or I
suppose the real question here is how can the influence of the Center
HUTCHINS: By the same measure that you would apply to any educational
BERWICK: But that opens up a Pandora's box. After twenty-two years at
the University of Chicago, you left that institution. Did that imply
an abandonment of the formal institutions of higher education? Did you
give up on the academy?
HUTCHINS: No, I simply thought the University of Chicago ought to
have another chance, that was all. I haven't given up on the academy.
I understand perfectly well of course that no educational institution
is ever going to realize the ideals of those who originally conceived
it. It is simply in the nature of human institutions that they become
bureaucratized, diverted, ossified. Some way ought to be discovered of
constantly injecting new life into good ideas. Anybody who discovers
this deserves three Nobel Prizes.
BERWICK: In that case, you should have three Nobel Prizes. But I'm
thinking now of the Center in Santa Barbara. In the last year or so it
has undergone almost an institutional revolution under your guidance,
has it not?
HUTCHINS: It might be called that, but we call it a kind of
refounding of the enterprise. Of course we used to try this all the
time at the University of Chicago. We used to try to keep an argument
going which involved the whole population of the university, with the
idea that this is what gives an educational institution its vitality.
If you can keep this argument going on important subjects, you can
avoid the ossification which is the bane of all educational
institutions. The Center devoted several years to reconsidering its
program; then it adopted a new and somewhat wider plan than it had
operated on in the past; personnel changes were made. But this, though
necessary, perhaps was a little drastic. I think the University of
Chicago model was better, that is, it is better to keep the argument
about fundamental purposes going in the institution and at as high a
level as possible.
BERWICK: I wonder if there isn't a great deal of con-fusion about the
role of the university in society, anyway.
HUTCHINS: Oh, yes, of course there is.
BERWICK: I'm still naive enough to imagine that one of the
fundamental purposes of an institution of higher learning is to
educate, yet it doesn't seem to me that that is the main thrust or
even an important thrust in most of them.
HUTCHINS: There has been a reversal in the last few decades. I think
it has been brought about by the atomic bomb. The scientists who built
the bomb demonstrated that they could blow up the world, and that
ultimate power was in their hands. After that, if a university wanted
to be powerful, the thing for it to do was to develop scientific and
technological research. This marked a complete reversal of what went
on in the days when I first got into education.
I became an educational administrator on January 1, 1923. At that
time nobody seemed to be interested in scientific investigation.
Corporations were not interested; the government never thought of it.
If it hadn't been for the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie
Corporation, there would have been no support for research in the
United States. Universities were overgrown colleges or colleges with
professional schools attached. What has happened since is that we have
come to identify power and prestige as objects that can be served by
the development of these vast institutions now called multiversities
or multipurpose universities.
BERWICK: Which simply represents a kind of abdication from the
traditional responsibility of higher education.
HUTCHINS; It is much worse than that. The academic community in the
old days, whatever its defects, did have a certain control over its
future. True, it sometimes had to propitiate the donors, but if it had
enough donors it didn't have to worry about a small group's dominating
them. But when the institution comes to depend on government, notably
on the Pentagon, and when the mission of the university is determined
by the mission of the agency that supports it, then you have a very
drastic change in its character.
BERWICK: I am wondering too about the old proposition that the
multiversity, as it has now come to be called, is just a kind of
service station in which students are prolonged in their adolescence,
pampered, and given the chance to exercise their democratic right to a
HUTCHINS: Well, I don't think that is characteristic of the
multiversity. The multiversity is a service station all right, but it
is not a service station for the students, it is a service station for
pressure groups or agencies with money, power, and influence, who
either by bribery or pressure can get the university to undertake
certain projects for them. These projects are then undertaken and the
professors are, in effect, bought by these agencies -- though "bought"
is a rather disagreeable word to use.
BERWICK: Subversion by the subvention.
HUTCHINS: Right. Then what happens is that the institution becomes a
technical school; the students are trained, if they are trained at
all, in technical skills. Education, which in our oldfashioned way we
used to think of as the development of the mind for its own sake, is
being neglected all over the world. This is the basis for many of the
student disorders here and abroad.
BERWICK: Of course it is all of a piece with the general tendency to
subsidize problems instead of solving them; the pressure you speak of
is oriented toward solving problems as they are defined by governments
or industry. I wonder if I am drawing the correct inference here; that
you think that the student rebels are justified.
HUTCHINS: A generalization about the student rebels is bound to be
too general. There are all kinds of student rebels. For example,
Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, took a poll a year or
so ago and found that only a very small percentage of students were
formally allied with the highly publicized student radicals in
Germany, but as many as seventy-five per cent of those enrolled in the
universities were sympathetic to their aims.
Now, insofar as students object to the multiversity, their objections
are justified. Insofar as they object to the economic, political, and
social system of the West, I would think that those criticisms are
also justified. On the other hand, the students don't seem to be very
good revolutionaries. They are certainly very bright, but they are
also very ignorant. This isn't their fault, but it is true. They have
very little by way of program to offer, even though their criticisms
of both the university and the system are largely justified.
BERWICK: How would you compare the thrust of student unrest to that
of black unrest, Negro unrest? Which is more genuinely revolutionary?
HUTCHINS: I doubt if either is genuinely revolutionary, though here
again one has to distinguish. There are groups among the students who
are genuinely revolutionary, but if you take the students as a whole
and the blacks as a whole I should say that neither was really
revolutionary. What they are trying to do, rather, is to get some
decency into our society and to get this decency extended to other
societies around the world.
BERWICK: Scott Buchanan used to say that the greatest challenge
confronting mankind today is somehow to realize the constructive
possibilities of revolution, and the permanent possibility of
revolution, and to institutionalize these possibilities. I found that
a profound insight, one that I don't pretend yet fully to understand.
HUTCHINS: No, because it leaves the question of violence ambiguous,
the extent to which violence can be justified even if a revolution is
BERWICK: Yes, and then you have the complex problem as to what
comprises revolution. But it raises in my mind the question of what
you, Mr. Hutchins, regard as the most compelling problems confronting
us. You have been thinking on this global scale so it is not an
HUTCHINS: I think I should try to confine myself to subjects that I
know something about. I should say that what the world needs now is
citizens, though this is a rather broad statement. We have education
that purports to prepare us to be successful in everything but
citizenship, including marriage. I would not favor courses in
elementary, intermediate, and advanced citizenship. But I would ask, "What
educational program is likely to help most in preparing citizens for
citizenship?" This leads to the question of world citizenship,
which is what the world needs now, because our problems are world
For example, the tremendous new fad is ecology. We even get
opposition to pollution endorsed by Presidential messages and
appropriations. But pollution is not just an American problem. It is
not a local problem anywhere. The Swedes are being contaminated by
pollutants that come soaring over from Britain, and the Swedes
themselves are probably doing the same thing to their neighbors in
Europe and Asia.
BERWICK: You are saying that there is no such thing as a local
problem any more.
HUTCHINS: I am. I am saying that all problems are world problems.
This explains the evolution of our work at the Center. We began by
confining ourselves to American problems but now we understand that
our problems are not exclusively American. Whatever needs to be done
here needs to be done elsewhere.
BERWICK: You are associated in many people's minds with the Great
Books program, and the kinds of reforms that one associates with the
University of Chicago during your tenure there. Would it be fair to
say that you still regard the Great Books as the most relevant study
within the framework of education, that you still look upon them as
the great repository of wisdom, understanding, and insight?
HUTCHINS: I would never deny that there may be other ways of
achieving the objects that those who put forward the Great Books
program had in mind. Maybe you can begin with The New York Times,
maybe you can begin with the Los Angeles Times, maybe you can
take off from any number of starting points. But it seemed to me that
the Great Books were the most promising avenue to liberal education if
only because they are teacher-proof. If there were a Socrates behind
every teacher's desk, you would not need to worry about the
I remember one Dialogue which Socrates began by examining old men's
dances; he ended up with a discussion of justice and truth. Socrates
could do that, but there was only one Socrates and he is not now
available. So let us suppose you have, as you must expect to have,
just average teachers, good people to be sure, well-meaning people,
but just average people. What teacher-proof material can you use? The
Great Books themselves are great teachers. If the student will read
them, it doesn't make very much difference what the teacher has to say
about them. They represent the great ideas that men have had in the
past and we cannot assume that the past is totally irrelevant. And the
dialogue method, which goes along with the use of the Great Books, is
I am sorry to repeat that the striking thing about young people today
is that they are frightfully ignorant of the past. I don't see how
this can ever be an advantage. I understand the advantages of
innocence but I do not understand the advantages of ignorance.
BERWICK: It does seem to me that your generalization concerning young
people requires some examination. Certainly they are ignorant. At
least in my experience, they are astonishingly ignorant of the Great
Books and the near-great books, the works of Dickens and Smollett, for
example. On the other hand, they are extremely knowledgeable about
many things, through the mass media, television particularly.
HUTCHINS: That's right.
BERWICK: Now, isn't the real root of the problem that they have a
different conception of what is relevant? Isn't this really the point,
that they are dismissing what you regard as the promising avenue to a
liberal education as irrelevant?
HUTCHINS: No, I don't think so. I don't think that at St. John's
College in Annapolis, or St. John's College in Santa Fe, both of which
have a Great Books program, you would hear suggestions that the Great
Books are irrelevant. It is the absence of anything relevant in the
current program of the multiversity that has produced this demand for
relevance on the part of the young. When young people are asked, "What
are you interested in?" they answer that they are interested in
justice, they want justice for the Negro, they want justice for the
Third World. If you say, "Well, what is justice?" they
haven't any idea except that, well, it is letting the Africans have
more money or something of that sort. They are ignorant of the fact
that there is a Great Conversation echoing back through hist9ry on the
subject of justice. You are quite right that they are not ignorant in
the sense that they do not lack information. They have more
information than any previous generation, but having a great deal of
information has little to do with knowledge. Knowledge is organized
information, and an institution pursuing knowledge is not simply
trying to hand out the latest dope on everything; it is trying to put
this current information into a context of ideas that can be useful
for analyzing the problems of daily life.
BERWICK: Dialogue is a very central theme to your thinking. I think
it would be useful to have you talk about the promise of the dialogue,
the sort of discipline that the dialogue represents. I think that the
Center, which has been irreverently called the longest-running talk
show in existence, is the one exemplar that I know of dialogue in the
HUTCHINS: All we can say is that we are trying. You know, it is a
very difficult enterprise. In a place like the Center you have to have
men who have first-class ability in their fields. This means that you
need specialists. Each specialist has to be sufficiently interested in
the work of other specialists, including visiting specialists, to be
willing to exchange ideas with them about their interests. The
business of developing a common vocabulary is enormously complicated
and is getting to be more so as we become more and more specialized
and the place of liberal education is taken by the accumulation of
BERWICK: It is symbolized, I suppose, by mass communications, which
actually cut down the possibility for communication.
HUTCHINS: That is correct. Real dialogue is a very difficult thing
and requires certain moral qualities. You cannot participate in the
dialogue if you are a show-off; you cannot participate in the dialogue
unless you really want to learn. The program of the Center is based on
probing into the inner connections among the important issues facing
the world. To do that requires a certain fortitude on the part of
those who may not be specifically interested, for example, in
electoral reform but are very much interested in problems of ecology.
They have to listen to one another and see how these things connect.
But by what other method could you really obtain a clear and rounded
view of the phenomenon? I was brought up as a lawyer, for example. I
see things in a legal context. I spent a lot of my life in education
and I also see things in that context. I am quite unused to the
approach of the biological scientist to either law or education. Yet
if I try to sell my view of humanity or any part of its activities
solely on the strength of my legal or educational experience, I am not
doing right by the community I am trying to serve.
BERWICK: Would you say that the problems of communication among
specialists are greater than those familiar ones between people who
speak different languages?
HUTCHINS: I think they are, because they are complicated by
careerism. You know, an American may not be in competition with a
German or he may even be trying eagerly to learn from the German, or
vice versa; but in the specialties the multiversity has organized, the
German is not merely one who speaks a foreign language, he is an
enemy, because he is after the money, the appropriations, the
students, the research facilities you want for yourself.
Take Karl Jasper's proposal that there should be a faculty of
technology in every university -- I suppose we would say a school of
technology. This is not at all the going thing in Europe and never has
been. Now Jasper's motive was not to produce more technicians, nor was
it to get ahead of the Russians. He arrived at his conclusion on
strictly metaphysical grounds. He said the development of technology
and the question of how we can survive with technology are the
greatest problems confronting modern man. Therefore you have to put
the series of disciplines called technology up against the other
disciplines; the specialists in these other disciplines have to
understand technology and the views of the technologists have to be
modified and affected by them. This is the ideal of an educational
institution. You accept this as something worth trying. Then how would
you organize it in order to make sure that the kind of result that
Jaspers wanted will occur? Well, dialogue seems to me an obvious
answer, though it is not the only one.
BERWICK: And yet, to come back to a point you were making at the
outset, you seem to imply a kind of fatalism about institutions; you
say they ossify, become moribund, become bureaucratized. I suppose
that applies equally well to institutions based on the dialogue.
HUTCHINS: Yes, I'm sure it does. You may make mistakes about the
selection of the people. You may make mistakes about the selection of
the topics you choose to consider and find yourself going down side
alleys. I would think, however, that an institution dedicated to this
kind of learning by this method would be less subject to ossification
than the usual type of bureaucratic institution.
BERWICK: Well, perhaps it would be more likely to see what was
happening, to stand back and observe itself. I was thinking also of
two of the most prominent, certainly two of the most widely
publicized, products of the Center dialogue, namely, the two Pacem
in Terris conferences. Those were efforts to project the dialogue
onto the international stage in an effort to bring peace.
HUTCHINS: Pope John XXIII wrote the encyclical Pacem in Terris.
We thought it was one of the greatest documents to come out of the
contemporary world. One of the points which struck us particularly was
the Pope's insistence on a proposition then novel in the West, namely,
that people could talk to one another and work together on their
common problems even though they were afflicted with differing
ideologies. In planning the first Pacem in Terris convocation,
we said, "Well, let's see if the Pope is right."
BERWICK: That was when?
HUTCHINS: That was almost six years ago. Well, after a couple of
thousand people of divergent views from all over the world met
successfully in New York, we thought that we had shown that the Pope
was right on this point.
The next Pacem in Terris convocation, two years later, was
held in Geneva. It attempted to address itself to more practical
problems. "Now, if we can talk together, let's see if we can get
somewhere," we said. At that meeting the West Germans and East
Germans publicly confronted one another for the first time and
publicly exchanged views about the future of that divided country.
Representatives of six Southeast Asian states said, "Let us see
if it isn't possible for us to get together, at least as soon as the
war in Vietnam is over." So things did happen on an international
scale as a result of the meeting.
We think the conference we sponsored last summer at the invitation of
the government of Malta combined the features of the first two. This
last one we called Pacem in Maribus because it dealt with the
seas and the whole question of who, if anybody, is going to control
what had been formerly the common property of mankind, namely the
seabed. It now appears that the seabed is a tremendous new hunting
ground for the enrichment of those who can get in there first with the
best technology, and it may turn out to be the real location of
Armageddon because you could have a nuclear collision at the bottom of
the ocean that, to put it mildly, would be most unfortunate. The
Center worked for almost two years on the development of an ocean
regime, trying to figure out how people can work together on the
formulation of a system of government for the seabeds that will
preserve them for all humanity.
BERWICK: This certainly has distinct analogies to the kinds of
problems represented in outer space.
HUTCHINS: In fact, the outer-space developments are very suggestive
as to what is possible in the ocean.
BERWICK: This third international conference then did not represent,
as some people suggested, an abandonment of your concern for peace and
for such problems as the war in Vietnam.
HUTCHINS: No, no, no, no. We think, and here of course we may be
wrong, that the disposition of the only common property of mankind is
going to prove critical to the maintenance of peace. If we can come
forward with an equitable scheme for the governance of the oceans
before decisive steps are taken by the technologically advanced
nations to stake out claims to the bottom of the ocean, then this will
be an important contribution to the maintenance of peace.
Now, you understand of course that the Center does not take an
institutional position on any of the issues it deals with. What it
does is try to formulate the problems, and what comes out of the
conference at Malta will not be what the Center has done, or what the
private citizens who attended the conference do, but what the nations
BERWICK: Of course this raises an interesting question of
understanding, or misunderstanding, of the Center's involvement in
international affairs. You have been widely accused of being amateur
peacemakers. The implication is that matters of peace and war are much
better left to professionals. But you are suggesting that there is a
kind of strength and validity to this amateur enterprise that
transcends the professional.
HUTCHINS: First I should say that the Center has never ventured
beyond the continental boundaries of the United States without
notifying the State Department or the White House or both, so we are
not operating without the knowledge of the duly accredited
representatives of the American people. Second, I am convinced that
there is a role for private peacemaking, though if you go into it, you
have to be prepared to be disowned by your own government even after
it has encouraged you to proceed. But when everything is said and
done, there is still a role for private diplomacy even though it may
fail or seem at the time to have failed. Time and time again the
official accredited representatives of a nation have said to us, "We
cannot get anywhere through governmental channels. All our public
positions are frozen. Now, if a private institution like the Center
could get together a group of people who can speak as individuals,
they could come back to influence the formal positions taken by our
Private peacemaking, then, is not an occupation that one should enter
upon if one has a weak heart or is liable to nervous breakdown. I do
not recommend it for such people and certainly I would never undertake
it as a day-to-day occupation. I want to emphasize that these are very
special situations. Even our own government officers agree that
private intervention can sometimes be helpful, whatever they may say
before or after. I thing the American Friends Service Committee has
shown this time and time again.
Of course I am not sure how to measure success in diplomacy, private
or public. I sometimes think that it is one of the occupations in
which success is impossible.
BERWICK: Several weeks ago I was looking through the diaries of
Harold Ickes and came again upon a passage in which Ickes, in the
nineteen4hirties, talked about Robert Maynard Hutchins as a potential
Vice-Presidential candidate with Franklin Roosevelt. This prompts me
to ask whether you ever had aspiration to high political office. Do
you think that you might have had more influence than you have been
able to exercise had you entered the political arena?
HUTCHINS: I never could have entered politics because I would not
have been elected. Had I ever been elected, I certainly would not have
BERWICK: Why do you say that? I think I can guess, but I am curious.
HUTCHINS: I think your guess is probably better than mine, but it is
a conviction that I have always had. I do not know how I could
function without the independence to which I have been accustomed. A
politician after all is supposed to be re-elected to higher and higher
office all his life long. I have never been able to see how I could
make the necessary adjustments that would make that possible.
BERWICK: I am wondering whether your implied criticism here of our
existing political structure or any political structure is sound. Are
you not coming very close to saying that it is impossible for the
political man to maintain any kind of intellectual integrity or
HUTCHINS: I would not go that far. The question, after all, was
directed to me, it concerned what I thought of myself as a political
possibility. That is a subject that I have not thought about for a
long time and it is very difficult to answer to such a question
without seeming to be afflicted with some kind of intellectual
I do not want to imply that there have not been men who have been
able to do what has to be done in political life and at the same time
have maintained a kind of intellectual integrity. As for me, I think
it would be extremely difficult. Since, through no fault of my own, I
have from my earliest years been in positions of some public
importance where I could exercise a certain influence, moving into
politics seemed to be a dubious trade.
BERWICK: There is a tendency to equate the kind of celebrity you have
had with political availability, and this I think is a most serious
HUTCHINS: I think it is unfortunate but again it is inevitable. I do
not see how it can be avoided.
BERWICK: On the other hand, by your own testimony, the extent of
influence available to you in the sphere of higher education and that
available to your father and your grandfather, who were Presbyterian
ministers, were more or less comparable. You are plying the same trade
as your father, are you not? As a kind of evangel?
HUTCHINS: I suppose that is true; it is a sort of continuum. My
father, after he had been a minister for ten or a dozen years, became
a college professor and then became a college president.
BERWICK: Nobody is perfect, you see. ...
HUTCHINS: I am afraid I would have to say that these missionary
impulses have descended in a somewhat attenuated form to me and that
they have led me to feel that one must do what one can to alleviate
the lot of one's fellow man. But I do not mean to blame my
peculiarities on my ancestors.
BERWICK: There is another thing I am curious about. The enormous
publicity that attached a few years ago to a statement on the Triple
Revolution -- in cybernation, human rights, weaponry. Was that
statement, so to speak, an officially sanctioned outgrowth of the
HUTCHINS: No, it was not. I think it was affected by the Center
dialogue and some Center people were involved in the publication of
the Triple Revolution Manifesto, but the Center as such had nothing to
do with it.
BERWICK: Were you yourself impressed with the concept of the Triple
Revolution as a reasonable statement about the nature of our problems?
HUTCHINS: I think the Manifesto provided a reasonable statement about
some of the problems, yes. But I would not have signed it. I do not
think I was asked to, but in any event, totally apart from the content
of it, it was contrary to the operating spirit of the Center. The
Center does not take positions, does not recommend action, and, again,
does not engage in political activities. This therefore was not a
BERWICK: This the point I really wanted to get to and to have you
underscore because I think that much of the misunderstanding about the
Center has to do with certain ambiguities on that point.
HUTCHINS: There is, I think, almost every shade of political opinion
represented at the Center. There is every shade of economic attitude
represented, either in the resident staff or in our visitors. For
example, Neil Jacoby, who is one of our Associates, is a neoclassical
economist. Last week and the week before we invited in other
economists who are on the other side in order to make sure, or at
least try to make sure, that we understood the economic situation by
examining various respectable points of view about it.