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Robert Hutchins as a Democratic Institution : UNSEASONABLE TRUTHS: The Life of Robert Maynard Hutchins by Harry S. Ashmore (Little, Brown: $27.50; 616 pp.; 0-316-05396-1)

December 24, 1989|Frank B. Gibney | Gibney is president of the Pacific Basin Institute in Santa Barbara

A significant byproduct of Hutchins' principate at Chicago was the acquisition of Encyclopaedia Britannica by Hutchins' friend Benton, bought after the University of Chicago's timid trustees refused to accept it as a gift. While Benton turned E. B. into a puissant money-maker, Hutchins, as chairman of the board of editors, became its editorial conscience and guide. He presided over the publication of "Great Books of the Western World" and, ultimately, the memorable 15th edition of Britannica in 1974.

By 1951, however, Hutchins had headed West from Chicago to California, where he remained until his death in 1977. He first set up shop in Pasadena as associate director of the newly formed Ford Foundation. But it took only a few years to put a great void of distance between Ford's nervous board and Hutchins' ambitious plans to re-state the premises of American democratic dialogue, particularly against the right-wing vigilantism of the McCarthy era. In 1959, Hutchins retreated to Santa Barbara, where he established the hilltop center as a place for enlightened dialogue on the ideas behind the various political and social issues facing the country--a kind of "early warning system" for democracy, as he often put it. Here he gathered about him a group of prominent Amerian scholars and thinkers with widely different backgrounds and specialties. These center fellows would meet several times a week to discuss specific topics--from Constitutional freedoms to the multinational corporation--a kind of intellectual round table. Although some of Hutchins' intellectual knights were more errant than others, these talks in the center's heyday could be stimulating and provocative. They were relayed on tape and in print, to a national audience.

Sometimes the dialogues grew to a wider scale, as with the memorable "Pacem in Terris" conference in New York in 1965, where the center gathered about 2,000 of the world's prominent and concerned people to ponder the issues of war and peace and world governance, at the height of the Cold War. Sometimes they degenerated into trivial academic name-calling, as indeed happened all too often in the faction-ridden last days of the center. Yet for those of us who took part in such meetings, the thing we remember best was the magisterial presiding of Bob Hutchins, always questioning, always searching for new ways to keep the ideas behind the American debate from getting lost in the invective. Unlike most idealists, Hutchins was never boring, with his high irony, self-deprecatory wit and courtly invitation to outrageous thought. The issues he raised remain more pertinent than ever today--the goals and shape of American education not least among them.

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