I was desperate that April afternoon in 1937—not because I might lose my job with William Randolph Hearst's Chicago American , but because I might not. Covering Robert Maynard Hutchins' public performances for the American , I had seen him a half-dozen times since I'd interviewed him for the Forum magazine in 1933. True, the city editor had not let me cover the state legislature's investigation of the University of Chicago for subversive activities in 1935; I was assumed to be a partisan of the university and Chief was assumed to be a partisan of Charles R. Walgreen, the drugstore magnate and double-page advertiser whose niece had informed her uncle that her professors had been teaching her communism. I went to the "Walgreen" hearings anyway.
Some time later the city editor of the American threw me a University of Chicago handout: the commencement address to the class of 1935, by President Robert M. Hutchins. As the paper's University of Chicago specialist—except for the Walgreen affair—I had fifteen minutes in which to scan it and cut it down to a five-head story of three short-as-possible paragraphs. Instead of scanning it, I read it. And then I read it again. And then read it again and missed the deadline. It began:
My experience and observation lead me to warn you that the greatest, the most insidious, the most paralyzing danger you will face is the danger of corruption. Time will corrupt you. Your friends, your wives or husbands, your business or professional associates will corrupt you; your social, political, and financial ambitions will corrupt you. The worst thing about life is that it is demoralizing.
It went on:
"Getting on" is the great American aspiration. The way to get on is to be safe, to be sound, to be agreeable, to be inoffensive, to have no views on important matters not sanctioned by the majority, by your superiors, or by your group. We are convinced that by knowing the right people, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, holding the right opinions, and thinking the right thoughts, we shall all get on; we shall all get on to some motion-picture paradise, surrounded by fine cars, refreshing drinks, and admiring ladies. So persuasive is this picture that we find politicians during campaigns making every effort to avoid saying anything; we find important people condoning fraud and corruption in high places because it would be upsetting to attack it; and we find, I fear, that university presidents limit their utterances to platitudes. Timidity thus engendered turns into habit.
And it ended:
So I am worried about your morals. This University will not have done its whole duty to the nation if you give way before the current of contemporary life. Believe me, you are closer to the truth now than you will ever be again. Do not let "practical" men tell you that you should surrender your ideals because they are impractical. Do not be reconciled to dishonesty, indecency, and brutality because gentlemanly ways have been discovered of being dishonest, indecent, and brutal. As time passes, resist the corruption that comes with it. Take your stand now before time has corrupted you.
Last call for salvation.
The deadline for the three-paragraph five-head passed and I was still sitting there in the city room with the handout in my hand. Not a word about the Rational Animal. (Hutchins was supposed to exemplify the Rational Animal and the Discipline of the Intellect.) Every word about what he had been saying all along was none of education's business, namely, morals. Where was the intellect—and what would it do for politicians, important people, and university presidents who took care to say nothing, who condoned fraud, who uttered platitudes? Apparently what was wanted in this life was not the capacity to reason but the capacity to resist rationalizing. Where was it to be got?
This might be interesting.
This might be so interesting that, still sitting there with that commencement address in my hand, still June 1935, I phoned the university for a copy of the speech Hutchins had given when the "Walgreen" headhunters tried to shut the place down for subversion a couple of months before. I had heard it on the radio, over NBC. The speech was entitled "What Is a University?" and as I recalled it, it was a reasoned defense of reasoning. It began with that rat-a-tat trademark.
A university is a community of scholars. It is not a kindergarten; it is not a club; it is not a reform school; it is not a political party; it is not an agency of propaganda. A university is a community of scholars.
Reasonable enough. And then:
Socrates used to say that the one thing he knew positively was that we were under the duty to inquire. Inquiry involves still, as it did with Socrates, the discussion of all important problems and of all points of view. You will even find Socrates discussing Communism in the Republic of Plato. The charge upon which Socrates was executed was the same that is now hurled at our own educators: he was accused of corrupting the youth. The scholars of America are attempting in their humble way to follow the profession of Socrates. Some people talk as if they would like to visit upon these scholars the same fate which Socrates suffered. Such people should be reminded that the Athenians missed Socrates when he was gone.
Still reasonable enough, but a rising undertone there. And then, at the end:
In America we have had such confidence in democracy that we have been willing to support institutions of higher learning in which truth might be pursued and, when found, might be communicated to our people. We have not been afraid of the truth, or afraid to hope that it might emerge from the clash of opinion. The American people must decide whether they will longer tolerate the search for truth. If they will, the universities will endure and give light and leading to the nation. If they will not, we can blow out the light and fight it out in the dark; for when the voice of reason is silenced the rattle of machine guns begins.
But this, when you read it, was not the voice of reason. This was an appeal to confidence and courage and hope and tolerance—none of which was one of Aristotle's intellectual virtues. This was a commitment, not to the process of inquiry but to the duty to inquire, not to the pursuit of truth but to the will to pursue it; a call and a challenge and a warning, a preachment, a prophecy. "Such people should be reminded that the Athenians missed Socrates when he was gone."
The Rational Animal was a missionary in academic drag. But it took me two more years of Hearst, ever further from the truth, to make my way to the altar rail.
When I entered the sanctuary sore-hearted that day in April of 1937—a lifetime ago and a world away—the missionary was reading the English pages of the Greek-English Loeb edition of Aristotle's Metaphysics . He always said afterward that I was lying when I said he had his feet on the desk. He had his feet, actually, in his desk, in the top left-hand drawer,
which was otherwise empty. The top right-hand drawer was filled with oddities he found in the newspapers or that people, who were always giving him oddities, gave him, such as the announcement of the award somewhere of a doctorate of philosophy for a dissertation on the Bacteriological Content of the Cotton Undershirt or somewhere else of a course in Family Living (the last unit of which was How to Be Livable, Lovable, and Datable). In the center drawer he kept two small signs, which he displayed on appropriate occasions: "Don't Tell the President Things He Already Knows" and "We Wash Money."
He looked down on me and said, "The last time you favored me with a visitation"—if he had meant "visit," he would have said "visit"—"you were in better shape than you are now. You had been an Old Plan boy and, in consequence of your having been an Old Plan boy, you were unemployed. You may remember"—he remembered—"that on that occasion I despaired of anybody's ever being able to do anything for you. I was right, as usual. Look at you now. You are a hireling of Hearst. You ought to be ashamed. Are you ashamed?"
"Worse than ashamed," I said, "and that's what I've come to talk to you about."
He looked at his watch and said, "Professor Adler and I have to conduct a great books class in half an hour—this," holding up the Metaphysics , "is a great book—and Professor Adler will be here in twenty minutes to tell me what to think. So make it snappy, son." Son .
"I have come to be saved," I said.
"You have come to the right party," he said. "What do you want to be saved from?"
"Not 'what,'" I said, "'whom.'"
"Nobody ever needs saving from anybody else," he said. "Who do you mistakenly think threatens you besides Milton Mayer?"
"William Randolph Hearst," I said.
"Don't tell me you aren't happy working for Hearst," he said, "and besides, what has Hearst got to do with your being saved or lost?"
"How did you get saved from him?" I said.
"I didn't," he said. "Four years ago, when I was chairman of the Regional Labor Board I found for a CIO union and Hearst called me an accomplice of Communists and murderers. When he found he couldn't lick me, he tried to join me; he offered me a job. I turned it down and became an accomplice of Communists and murderers again. But you're wasting my time. What do you want me to do?"
"What will you do to be saved?"
"How much is Hearst paying you ?"
"Ninety. I'm the white-headed boy."
"I'll give you forty-five and you'll be the black-headed man."
"I can't live on that," I said.
"You didn't say you wanted to live," he said, "you said you wanted to be saved. You cannot be saved any cheaper."
Mousetrapped. "Your offer is irresistible," I said. "What can I do?"
"Get educated, like me," holding up the Metaphysics again. "I will introduce you to Professor Adler, who is educated, and he will introduce you to Aristotle, and you will learn that the cause of all ruin is ignorance, a condition which you exemplify by supposing that Hearst is the cause of your or anybody else's ruin. Hearst is not a cause but an effect—and a secondary effect at that. He is a secondary effect of ignorance. Wise up."
"By reading the books, or even, like me, by buying them and intending to read them. I was ignorant, like you, until I became a university president with nothing to do but intend to read the books. Look at me now. You too can do this. You can't become a university president, because you're a Jew, and neither can you be buried in the university chapel, where I'm going to be buried if they kill me before they fire me. Now get out of here like a good fellow—or at any rate get out of here—and think it over."
Think it over, my foot.
"Bob"—this is Thornton Wilder—"has the habit of being right." He wasn't right the day he hired me at forty-five a week. He could have had me at twenty-two-fifty.