The inauguration of Robert Maynard Hutchins as the fifth President of the University of Chicago in 1929 coincided with a drastically changed social and economic climate throughout the world. And Hutchins himself opened an era of tumultuous reform and debate within the University. In the midst of the changes Hutchins started and the intense feelings they stirred, William H. McNeill arrived at the University to pursue his education. In Hutchins' University he tells what it was like to come of age as a undergraduate in those heady times.
Hutchins' scathing opposition to the departmentalization of learning and his resounding call for reforms in general education sparked controversy and fueled debate on campus and off. It became a struggle for the heart and soul of higher education—and McNeill, as a student and then as an instructor, was a participant. His account of the university's history is laced with personal reminiscences, encounters with influential fellow scholars such as Richard McKeon, R. S. Crane, and David Daiches, and details drawn from Hutchins' papers and other archives.
McNeill sketches the interplay of personalities with changing circumstances of the Depression, war, and postwar eras. But his central concern is with the institutional life of the University, showing how student behavior, staff and faculty activity and even the Hyde Park neighborhood all revolved around the charismatic figure of Robert Maynard Hutchins—shaped by him and in reaction against him.
Successive transformations of the College, and the tribulations of the ideal of general or liberal education are central to much of the story; but the memoir also explores how the University was affected by such events as Red scares, the remarkably successful Round Table radio broadcasts, the
abolition of big time football, and the inauguration of the nuclear age under the west stands of Stagg Field in 1942.
In short, Hutchins' University sketches an extraordinarily vibrant period for the University of Chicago
and for American higher education. It will revive old controversies among veterans from those times, and may provoke others to reflect anew about the proper role of higher education in American society.