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Robert Hutchins

Dr. Robert Hutchins, former dean of the Yale Law School, former president of the University of Chicago, and president of the Fund for the Republic, talks to Wallace about freedom, illusion as an enemy of freedom, government, civil rights, and education.

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Guest: Dr. Robert Hutchins
July 20, 1958

WALLACE: This is Robert Hutchins, a vigorous social critic, a great educator, a man who has helped to revolutionize our thinking on the role of education in America. His ideas continue to provoke debate, when he says that, despite all our talk, American education is still going down the drain; when he says that our bill of Rights is not adequate to protect the individual in our modern society; when he talks about the role of religion in a free society. We'll talk about those issues with Robert Hutchins in just a moment.

ANNOUNCER: The Mike Wallace Interview, present by the American Broadcasting Company in association with the Fund for the republic, brings you a special television series discussing the problems of survival and freedom in America.

WALLACE: Good evening, I'm Mike Wallace. In the last twelve weeks, we've been discussing many aspects of the free society, and what it must do to survive. We've interviewed two religious leaders, on a Protestant, on a Catholic; a millionaire industrialist who feared that we are endangered by police activities; a Supreme Court Justice who defended the right of free expression, even for dangerous ideas; a noted writer, haunted by a vision of over-population and impersonal forces eating away our freedoms; a former presidential candidate who talked frankly about the hazards and frustrations of politics; a television executive who criticized the quality of some of TV today; a psychoanalyst who declared that we worship machines, and care too little about our fellow men; a Pulitzer Prize winning editor who asserted that our press could stand considerable improvement; a leading businessman who said he deplored government incursions into the free enterprise system; and a military analyst who said we must be ready and willing to fight limited nuclear wars if necessary. One theme, I think, came through in most of these interviews: that somehow, as a nation, we are unprepared — that our response to the challenges we face is inadequate. Tonight is our last scheduled program in this series. Our guest, Robert Hutchins, former Dean of Yale Law School, form President of the University of Chicago, now President of the Fund for the Republic. Mr. Hutchins, first of all let me ask you this: As I've pointed out, we have been interviewing leaders in public life on the problems of survival and freedom, on the threats to — the incursions into — our freedoms; what do you think are the enemies of our freedom?

HUTCHINS: I think the principle enemy of freedom is illusion; and I think this series, in effect, shows that. Whether the items in our life described by these gentlemen are really illusions or not, that is what they are actually calling attention to; they're trying to call attention to things that they think are illusions.

WALLACE: Could you specify, over the series?

HUTCHINS: Mr. Huxley questions the indefinite benefits to be conferred by an infinite — and infinitely advancing technology. Mr. Justice Douglas questions the effectiveness of attempting to suppress freedom of speech in the name of national security. Monsignor Lally suggests that there are certain illusions around about the Church. And Mr. Kissinger indicates that perhaps some of the actions of the State Department are conducted under the influence of illusions. And Mr. Percy says maybe it's an illusion that we shouldn't trade with Russia and China. And so it goes.

WALLACE: I see. I gather that there are — or am I right when I suggest that there are a set of so-called "Hutchins illusions".

HUTCHINS: Oh, I have a great many, yes.

WALLACE: Well, then let's hear some of those illusions.

HUTCHINS: Well, these are not my illusions that I'm about to talk about, it's the illusions that I think other people have. I would say that the great, pervasive American illusion is the illusion of the importance of size or quantity. I would say that there is the illusion of our technical superiority. There is the illusion that we don't have to think. And there is the illusion which is related to all these other illusions, of progress.

WALLACE: May we take them one by one? Let's start with size or quantity. What do you mean about the illusion of size or quantity?

HUTCHINS: Well, the illusion of size or quantity is that the bigger a thing is, the better it is. I don't think that this is American materialism, because I don't believe Americans are as materialistic as Europeans are. I think this idea that you count things or measure things, and in that way tell how good they are, is a result of laziness and it's a result of the fact also that we're trying to keep the peace in a pluralistic society. We don't want to argue about anything important. So we say, well, we know that the Empire State Building is higher than the Lincoln Building, and all you have to do if you want to prove that is to get out your tape measure and run it up. This settles the argument, and we can go back to our peaceful pursuits. But you see this in almost every walk of life — you see it in education, for example. Santayana — George Santayana — tells about crossing the Harvard yard in the ‘80s, when he was teaching Philosophy at Harvard, and he met President Eliot. President Eliot said to him, "Tell me, Mr. Santayana, how are your classes going?" Santayana started to tell him about how bright his pupils were, and all the interesting things that they were learning; and Santayana says, "Eliot cut me off as though I was wasting his time, and said, ‘I mean, Mr. Santayana, how many men have you in your classes?'" And when we discuss education today, we do so in terms of money, numbers of students, numbers of buildings, and so on.

WALLACE: I — we'll come a little bit later to education specifically, but I think we understand the illusion of size or quantity now. The second, I think, that you mentioned was that of our technical superiority?

HUTCHINS: We don't really need to discuss that, because that has been so obvious, and so obviously exploded. We first thought that the Russians couldn't produce an atomic bomb; we then thought that they couldn't produce a hydrogen bomb; and we then thought that they couldn't send up a satellite. They've done all three.

WALLACE: The third was that we don't have to think — the illusion that it's unnecessary for us to think.

HUTCHINS: Yes, this is the real basis of the anti-intellectualism in the country. We're a group of practical people, hacking out the continent, you know, and we're going to develop all these material goods, which we're then going to count and measure; and if you can count, you don't have to think. This is the way in which you determine whether anything is good or bad. Now, of course, the real way to determine whether anything is good or bad, in the practical order, is to ask what it is you're trying to do. Then you measure your result in terms of your standard — but this requires thought.

WALLACE: And the fourth illusion was that of progress.

HUTCHINS: I would only say further on the other one that a celebrated theol—er, sociologist made a remark that always interested me: he said, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." Now, the illusion of progress?


HUTCHINS: Well, the illusion of progress is perhaps best illustrated by the story of the Burmese who attended a recent international convention. He said that, since his country was rather backward, he had no sex crimes to report; but they were being rapidly industrialized, and he hoped that at the next meeting, he might be able to do better. There again, the question is, what is the total effect of your social organization on your total society, and can you delude yourself into pointing to your material accomplishments as a measure of the society.

WALLACE: If these are — if we accept these as at least four of our illusions, the illusions under which we currently labor in the United States, the question must follow, how did we get that way. Where did these illusions come from?

HUTCHINS: Well, I think you get some light on that if you think about what Thomas Jefferson's prescription for the successful republic were: He said that there were four reasons why the American Republic was going to succeed, in spite of the fact that he thought it — such a form of government could not succeed in Europe. He said, first, we weren't going to live in cities; he said, second, we were all going to be self-employed; he said, third, that we were all going to participate in local government; and he said, fourth, that we were all going to be so well-educated that we could cope with any problems that confronted us. Now, as it happens, the first three of these, I think, are not fulfilled to anybody's satisfaction; we know that most of us are employed by others; we know that most of us live in cities; nobody would suggest local government as a training-ground for civic virtue; and I certainly would not suggest that we were so well-educated that we could cope with any problems that confront us. Now it happens then that Jefferson's ideas seem to be valid — the ideas of the Founding Fathers seem to be valid — but how do they maintain their vitality when the facts to which they were applied have been entirely altered? What happens is that we hide behind a cliché curtain — a veil — of slogans and illusions that separates us from reality; we go right on talking as though we were still in the eighteenth century, but the facts are quite different.

WALLACE: Well, then, what do you suggest that we do about it, Dr. Hutchins? Are you suggesting that we re-write the Constitution set up by our Founding Fathers, that they simply do not understand the way — the conditions that prevail today, and that we've got to really do something about it?

HUTCHINS: I yield to nobody in my admiration for the Founding Fathers, and I certainly yield to nobody in my admiration for the Constitution. But I think that conditions have so drastically altered, as the world has not only been industrialized but has also been polarized; conditions, then, have so drastically altered and altered in such a dangerous way that we must be prepared to recognize, as the other men in this series have tried to suggest in the fields with which they have dealt, the difference between illusion and reality, the difference between a slogan and a principle, the difference between the eighteenth century and the second half of the twentieth.

WALLACE: You talk about the difference between illusion and reality; you talk about a cliché curtain. What I would like to understand is, why is it that I, and so many of my fellow citizens, are willing to buy illusion instead of reality? Why do we close our eyes to —

HUTCHINS: Oh, I'm sure, Mr. Wallace, that you are not the victim of any such sales talk. Well, I that the reason for these illusions is that they are comfortable. Why do we say, for example, when the Americans, when we were able to drop an atomic bomb, that the Russians would never be able to make one? A moment's reflection on the state of Russian science, on the state of secrecy affecting the processes underlying this bomb, would have assured us — as all the scientists did assure us — that the atomic bomb would be produced by the Russians within five years. But if we had accepted that idea, it would have been extremely disagreeable.

WALLACE: What is the way back? I'm — mind you, I'm probably searching for over-simplified answers here — but I think in a sense we must pigeon-hole, because it is an aid to learning. What is the way back?

HUTCHINS: I think the way back may be — and of course, anybody who said he knew the way back would be presumptuous — I think the way back may be, first, to recognize that the situation has changed. It's something that we usually refuse to do. Second, to try to identify the issues that these changes produce. Third, to try to clarify these issues, and proceed by the method of democratic discussion to see if we can invent a program of action.

WALLACE: May I come to some specifics now — some other specifics? One of our illusions, I gather you feel, is that the Bill of Rights fully protects us against our government. But you have gone — you've gone so far as to say that the Bill of Rights cannot protect us adequately from some incursions by our government into freedom of thought and speech. Why not?

HUTCHINS: The Bill of Rights was directed against the central government, on behalf of the States, and with the adoption of the Fourteenth amendment, the Supreme Court ultimately decided that certain sections of the Bill of Rights protect the citizen against the State government as well as against the Federal government. But the — what I have had in mind is not merely the question of freedom of speech and thought, it's much more general than that. The fact is that the Federal government is an entirely different animal today than the government that existed at the time of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. There's an infinite number of bureaus, all of whom regulate the life of the citizen in some respect some of the time. All you have to do to appreciate this is to imagine the number of government agencies with which a small businessman has to deal every day of his life. Well, the remedy that is proposed by the Bill of Rights for any interference by the government with the life of the citizen is that he should go to law. Now anybody who's ever gone to law knows that this is an experience that you don't want to have more than once in your life, and you don't want to have it then if you can possible avoid it. So this remedy is, for all practical purposes, useless to small businessmen that can't sue the government every time he has trouble about a license, every time he has trouble about his unemployment or social security taxes or about his income tax, every time he thinks they've cheated him out of $41.

WALLACE: It takes tremendous time and energy.

HUTCHINS: So, you have a totally new relationship that has developed between the individual and the central government without any comparable alterations in the remedies that are available to him.

WALLACE: Do you have a remedy to suggest?

HUTCHINS: Well, remedies are being tried in other places, in other countries. We don't think of France as a political model, precisely, but the Conseil d'état in France is an effort on the part of the French administration to protect the citizen against the administration; and the theory of it appears to be sound — whether the practice works is another matter. The British are very much exercised about this subject when Sir Oliver Franks was Chairman of the Royal commission a couple of years ago, in which they attempted to work out their answers. My only point at the moment is, that this situation has changed; that it is an illusion to suppose that the citizen is protected as he once was against the government; and that we ought to try to find out what to do about it.

WALLACE: Talking about protecting the citizen against his government as we are, recently on this series a Cleveland industrialist, Cyrus Eaton, vigorously criticized certain government investigative agencies. What do you see as the social effect of this public criticism of highly regarded governmental agencies?

HUTCHINS: Oh, I think Mr. Eaton was in the best American tradition. I don't know of any reason why any governmental agency should become a national icon, or why there should be a taboo on criticizing it.

WALLACE: And do you feel that the press of the nation came sufficiently to his defense when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee?

HUTCHINS: Well, that was a masterly error that aroused the press all over the country, yes.

WALLACE: Of course, one public institution that has come under fire from all sides recently is our education — our schools, particularly since Sputnik, as you pointed out. Now, from all this hue and cry about education, what do you think has been accomplished, and will be accomplished, as the result of this jolt to our complacency?

HUTCHINS: Nothing.

WALLACE: Nothing?

HUTCHINS: Nothing.

WALLACE: In spite of the slick magazines, and the radio and television commentators, and the newspaper editorials, and all this?

HUTCHINS: Nothing.


HUTCHINS: Because our complacency hasn't been jolted. It has been temporarily nudged.

WALLACE: But why hasn't it been more than temporarily nudged?

HUTCHINS: You will recognize that the American people are — no matter what they say — are really indifferent to education. They can get temporarily excited about it, they want their children to have the diplomas and the degrees that will admit them to certain occupations. But the American people are not serious about education.

WALLACE: Well, I'd like to know why. You say the American people — do you think that people from other countries are more serious about education?

HUTCHINS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

WALLACE: And what's wrong with us, that we are not more serious?

HUTCHINS: Well, the reason other people are serious about education in other countries is that in other countries education is the only road to success. In Russia it's a road to very brilliant success, or it may be the road to such success. In Europe this is true, though perhaps to a lesser extent than it is in Russia. But education has nothing to do with success in the United States. A child of mine — I won't say a child of yours, because such a thought isn't possible — but a child of mine who is just above the level of moron could, I'm sure, acquire the diplomas and certificates that were necessary to enable him to get a job and make a comfortable living. So why should we get excited about education?

WALLACE: You said, Mr. Hutchins, and I quote you here: "By definition a moron is a person who cannot think; and one of the benefits conferred upon us by the Industrial Revolution is that it has made it possible for morons to be successful." Would you care to enlarge on that?

HUTCHINS: Well, this is perfectly obvious, but the object of industrialization is to reduce the amount of human effort and intelligence that is put into any single operation. Therefore, they finally get machines down to the point where they can be operated by twelve-year-old children — or could be operated by them if the law would allow it. This means that it is possible for a moron to be successful. Now, the horror of this situation is not in the fact that morons can be successful — something which I heartily applaud — the horror if the situation is that people who are not morons are doing work that morons could do. The assembly line is a cramping, narrowing, non-human anti-human industrial phenoma.

WALLACE: Are you suggesting then that we just do away with our assembly line?

HUTCHINS: Not at all.

WALLACE: Do away with technological progress?

HUTCHINS: Not at all. I'm all for technological progress, and I would like to see it accelerated so that we get automation. And this might have the effect of releasing individuals from this sub-human labor that is really only transitory anyway, because the aim of industrialization is clearly to substitute, at every point where it can be substituted, a man for a machine, or a mechanical process for a man.

WALLACE: And therefore automation would fee human beings to do what?

HUTCHINS: It would free human beings to be human, in a word.

WALLACE: Let's come back specifically to education for a moment. You suggest that we change our rewards for the properly educated man, and that thus we will upgrade education? Is that what we have to do to jolt our complacency, really?

HUTCHINS: I think something of that sort is required. It's not too difficult to change the symbols of a culture, and I think this would have to be done if we were ever to get the kind of educational system that I should regard as at all satisfactory for a country of this type. You have to provide the incentive in the culture that leads the family and the child and the environment to attach importance to intellectual achievement.

WALLACE: How does this square with your statement earlier in the program, in which you said that Americans are not materialists? You feel that Europeans are more materialist than Americans, and yet at the same time you suggest that European educational facilities, and the respect given to the educated man, is greater than here in the United States, because we respect material success more than they do.

HUTCHINS: The question that we were discussing was the question of the fallacy of — or the illusion — the importance of size or quantity. I was simply saying that we cherish this illusion of size or quality not because we value money in itself, for example — I think Americans will give away money with an — an abandon, almost with a frivolity that couldn't be equaled anywhere in the world. It isn't that they attach importance to these counters themselves; they attach importance to the fact that they have a large number of them.

WALLACE: Let's tackle a related issue for a moment. As an educator who's devoted himself to the free exchange of ideas, how do you regard the impact of the Church on education in our society? For instance, some of the activities of churches and church-related organizations, the pressure groups, the censorship, the pressures on morality, gambling, drinking — are these compatible with education and democracy, as you see it?

HUTCHINS: I was brought up in the home of the Anti-Saloon League, and I deprecated its efforts, and I deprecated its success still more. But I wouldn't have suppressed it. It seems to me that the churches, or any other group for that matter, who feel that they have a message for society, should be allowed to preach it, to organize for it, to press for it in every conceivable legal way they can.

WALLACE: You seemed as though you were going to go on. Have you thought better of it?

HUTCHINS: Not at all — I thought I was just about to repeat myself.

WALLACE: Dr. Hutchins, I'm so sorry that the time has gone so fast, but we only have about four minutes left. I'd like to put a couple of fairly personal questions to you , if I may, sir. Have you worked out for yourself a logical, effective philosophy of what kind of world we should be striving for, what kind of world you would like to live in — a specific political, social, economic system that you believe would bring about the kind of world you'd like to live in?

HUTCHINS: Certainly not.

WALLACE: Well, why not?

HUTCHINS: Well, entirely apart from the limitations on my intelligence and time. This is an enormous job, and I would think that if I did finally lay out a blueprint, that I'd better begin to throw it away or see whether I could improve it immediately. Because to me, life is learning and the life of a democracy is a life spent in the educational process in common.

WALLACE: let me interrupt for just an instant. Could it be that this is one of our greatest problems? There's nothing wrong with discussion and study, but we're challenged right here and now for our existence by a force — Communism — which has a very clear and definite purpose and philosophy. And we here in America seem to be floundering somewhat, as though we'd been suddenly thrust into a strange world, whereas the fact is that we've been living through these times just as the Russians have. Some of the things which you've said lead us to believe — or lead me to believe — that perhaps you feel that Americans have been sleepwalking while the Russians have been wide awake over a period of the last fifty years.

HUTCHINS: I think, without passing on the question of whether the Russians are awake, asleep, or half-asleep, I would say that it seems to me that somnambulism is one of the great features of America at this day. It also seems to me to be a crime. The Republic — the political republic and the republic of learning go hand in hand. Government by consent means that the — each act of assent on the part of the governed is a product of learning. This means that, far from not having to think, we have to think all the time. We have to think about everything, and we have to be equipped through our education to do it.

WALLACE: In the popular use of the term, I think it would be fair to say that you're a liberal. Is that reasonable to suggest, Mr. Hutchins?

HUTCHINS: I'm also a conservative.

WALLACE: Well — we have a minute left. You — you are —

HUTCHINS: You brought it on yourself.

WALLACE: Well — well, I agree, I agree. But you are — I think you are regarded in the United States as an important and influential liberal. Now, I'll go along with the fact — and I think most of us would — with the fact that we have to learn and we have to think and so forth. But the liberal, particularly in the United States, is often accused of thinking too much and acting insufficiently, perhaps — of not coming up with answers. What the American people are looking for, I imagine is answers — how to cope directly and effectively with our most pressing problems. Your answer is — to keep thinking.

HUTCHINS: My answer is a little bit more than that. It is to identify the problems, to try to clarify the issues, and to promote the most active discussion that can possible be engaged in. It is only in these things that we can have faith, and we must have it.

WALLACE: I surely thank you, sir, for coming and spending this half-hour with us, and I thank you for your courtesy and cooperation over a period of the last thirteen weeks.

This ends our series on the problems of Survival and Freedom, which was brought to you with the cooperation of the Fund for the Republic, to whom I give thanks. Admittedly, over the past thirteen weeks, our guests have asked more questions than they have answered; we've posed more problems than we have solved. But there is, perhaps, as Mr. Hutchins points out, no more vital function. For as he once wrote, "A free society," he said, "must agree to little more than the proposition that we should keep talking. We must make sure that everybody who has anything to say can say it. The essential freedom is freedom of speech — the freedom to criticize, to talk back. And of course the essential responsibility is to think." Mike Wallace, good night.