The Yale Man
"Debating amounts to practically nothing here," the disconsolate William Benton, '21, wrote his mother back in Minnesota. "Very few take any interest in it. Only rubes are supposed even to go out for it." Among the rubes who went out for it in the fall of 1919 was Robert Maynard Hutch-ins. The Hutchinses of Oberlin, Ohio, for all their New England lineage, and for all the Reverend William James Hutchins' having been Yale, '92, were nobodies at the Yale of the 1920s. Hutchins, '21, arrived at New Haven with no contacts and no sponsoring upperclassman except another nobody, Thornton Wilder—his Oberlin classmate who, having been demobilized early from the Coast Artillery, had come to New Haven in 1918 to enter the class of '20. But the best that Wilder had to offer was the Lizzie-Lit circle of the Elizabethan Club and the Yale Literary Magazine, where the fellows a fellow would get to know meant to become writers—men like Stephen Vincent Benet and Archibald MacLeish, or Walter Millis and Henry Luce.
They had to make it on their own, and they were likelier to make it, then and thereafter, than the gentlemen who had it made for them. They had to make it with what they had and with what they could do, not with what they were. Since most of them were self-supporting as well as bright and ambitious, they had as many outside jobs as they could rustle up, and had neither the time nor the money for social life or campus politics. They were Yale's Horatio Alger boys.
Hutchins, '21, was a war hero. But Yale was crawling with handsome war heroes in 1919. This one looked more heroic than most. As Benton recalled it, his classmates that fall were awed by his "physical splendor." He was "among the leaders of his class in academic standing. He had marked gifts as an orator," and "was clearly marked for 'success.'" Lofty
of mien and manner, but reserved, his reserve actually enhanced his acceptability among the gentlemen whose hallmarks were impassivity and ennui and who regarded the rubes as pushy.
This one was pushy, too, if by pushy is meant nothing more than ambitious. He was intellectually aggressive his life long, forever looking for a fight and forever finding it.
Looking back at their childhood and youth, Bill Hutchins felt that his younger brother was shy and sensitive at bottom and had developed "a manner, a shell, with which he tries to protect himself as he crusades for unpopular causes. This manner, commanding, urbane, nonchalant, sometimes forbidding," was what his boyhood friend Theodore Green (hearing him lecture after a separation of many years) called the hard mask he had clamped over his face. One of his undergraduate classmates remembered Hutchins as "stand-offish." Haughty?—No, not haughty. Arrogant?—You might think so on meeting him, but—no. Abrupt?—Not really. Sharp, clipped—you know what I mean?—but not abrupt. Taciturn?—Oh, no. Shy, then? Well, you wouldn't say shy—just stand-offish. At twenty he was already a rising master of the arm's-distance posture, easy, "informal," that characterized him ever after.
The young gentlemen he met at New Haven had not come to Yale to be saved; they had come to Yale because they were already saved. Not that they didn't have a Cause. Their Cause was not confined to Yale, but it wasn't Oberlin's. Their Cause was winning your "Y" in the Great Game of Life, and the Great Game of Life was the Money Game, or, more precisely, and more mystifying, the Still More Money Game. The aspiration of an extremely poor boy, as Hutchins was not, was intelligible; it was intelligible that Bill Benton, who had been an extremely poor boy, would write his mother that he was going to "earn all the money I can, and let everyone else go to the devil." But why would very rich boys want to "get on," and on? They were born on. Private Hutchins had earned thirty dollars a month in the army, all of which, except for six dollars, was sent home to be invested in Liberty Bonds to help get him through college.
Like Benton, he wanted to earn all the money he could just then, to stay in college. He got a job in an ice cream spoon factory at sixty cents an hour. He swept floors, washed dishes, waited tables, sold clotheslines, kept books, lumberjacked, and during his two college summers, typed for Thornton Wilder's father on the New Haven paper and learned a little accounting there, and at last got to Cleveland (something he hadn't done at Oberlin) as assistant secretary of the local YMCA. In his second year on campus, as a senior, he did better. Alpha Delta Phi honored him with membership and an assistant stewardship (he had to join in order to get
the job). He tutored at Rosenbaum's agency and then organized a cooperative agency of his own. The net result was a dissent from the peculiarly American myth that it is a good thing for a boy to work his way through college. It was the only opinion he ever had on education that he claimed to have come by on his own.
"I think I'm the first person in American history who ever said that working your way through college was an anti-educational program, that if you were going to college the thing to do was to beg, borrow, or steal the money and go to college and get an education." He expatiated: "If we want to know whether work—by 'work' I mean here the expenditure of from one to eight or ten hours of a student's day as a dishwasher, janitor, groundskeeper, clerk, or housemaid—is good for a college student, we shall have to ask what a college is for. A college is a place to get an education. College education is the training of the young to think, to think straight, and to think for themselves. It is carried on for the immediate sake of the mind and for the ultimate sake of the character. If it were carried on for the ultimate sake of the mind, we might produce wise embezzlers or learned thieves. We are trying to produce men and women of good character. . . .
"One of the elements of good character is the habit of hard work. This brings us to dishwashing. Dishwashing is hard work with the hands. Studying is hard work with the head. Hard work with the hands may be exciting, healthful, boring, or painful. Hard work with the head is excruciating. In colleges which are actually engaged in education, studying is not only hard work, it is full-time work. As an ambitious boy I made the mistake of working my way through college. I worked as much as eight hours a day. I found that I had no energy left for study. And by energy I mean physical energy. Professor Einstein is as tired at night as you and I are, though his profession, unlike yours and mine, is strictly sedentary.
"The trouble with dishwashing as a habit is that it is preparation for a life of hard work at whatever the work turns out to be. If the work turns out to be safe-blowing, we'd prefer a sluggard to a hard worker. Good character involves something more than sweat and the habit of sweating; it involves the exercise of the mind on the distinction between good and bad and the application of that distinction to the problems that test character in later life. Study sweats a man and exercises his mind."
The college curriculum—at Yale and elsewhere—did not demand much. The remedy was not to put the students to manual labor, but to reform the curriculum. The college student has four years to develop his mind and fortify his character for the fifty ahead. He can achieve both these ends at once by studying hard. "It is paradoxical that the student
who loves learning so much that he is willing to slave for it must be deprived of some of the learning by the necessity of slaving."
In 1940, when the president of the University of Chicago gave vent to these reflections, the American Youth Commission discovered that for every boy or girl who completed the first year of college there was a former high school classmate of equal promise and ability who was getting no further education. His education was over, not because he lacked intelligence, but because he lacked funds. "This single statistic is the answer to those who say, 'Ah, but there are scholarships.' I suppose it is generally agreed that this country needs all the brains it can lay its hands on. When we compel some of our best boys and girls to work their way through college, we assert that we do not need to develop our best brains to their fullest power. When we compel half of our best boys and girls to forego a college education if they fail to find an off-campus job, we assert that we do not need our best brains at all."
Working six to eight hours a day did not prevent an ambitious student from graduating from college—"the college being what it was." What the college was was a mock-up, without moving parts, of a place to get an education—classrooms, courses, professors, students, playing fields, chapels, dining halls, dormitories, lawns, trees, and even a Fence. Hutch-ins, '21 cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, did not get an education: "I graduated from college, which is not the same thing."
At the end of the junior year he took the examinations for admission to the Yale Law School. Why? "Because I didn't know what else to do." Did he think he would be a lawyer? "I didn't think I'd be anything. I was afraid that with a Yale A.B. I'd be a prep school teacher all my life. I knew I couldn't be a banker or a businessman. Nobody at Oberlin would have understood it." Did he want to be a teacher? "I was afraid I'd be a teacher, so I suppose I didn't want to be. I suppose I should have obeyed that wholesome negative impulse and become a New York lawyer and been rich as well as happy. But my parents wouldn't have understood that, either."
That spring—after taking the law school admission exams—he was accosted in the library by Professor Charles E. Clark of the Yale Law School, who said: "I am impressed by your examination. Come in and see me." Insofar as anything changes a man's full-grown life, this changed his. He would still be a candidate for the AB but be permitted to do all his senior year's work in the law school, except for obeying a regulation "of obscure origin and purpose" which compelled every Yale College student working in the law school to take one two-hour course in the college. He enrolled for a two-hour course in American literature.
And that, too, changed his life. By his own testimony he had entered Yale illiterate, that is, unread. After a year he was still illiterate. What little he had read that year was textbooks. The reading of textbooks—he had found this out at Oberlin—was enough to persuade a student never to read anything again as long as he lived. But the course in American literature would require him to read some real books—or so he thought. What it required him to read was snippets from real books and then listen to the instructor talk about the whole book. But as often as not the instructor talked not about the book but about the author's life and times, which were presumed to explain the book and, of course, did not.
So it was that young Hutchins, '21 cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, completed his college education without having read a good book—except for the three he had read before he came to Yale: the Bible, part 1 of Faust , and one dialogue of Plato. Nor did it appear that he would ever read any others, for the only books he read in law school were those from which the case method was taught. He discovered, as he said afterward, that "not more than two or three judges in the history of Anglo-American law have been great writers. One who is immersed long enough in the turgidities of some of the masters of the split infinitive who have graced the American bench may eventually come to write like them." There was no attempt, either at Yale or anywhere else, to have the student learn anything about the intellectual history or the intellectual content of the law, or to connect it with ethics, politics, and economics.
"I see now," he said, when he had long since been a law school dean and was a university president, "that my formal education began in Law School. I do not mean to say that I knew then that I was getting an education. I am sure the professors did not know they were giving me one. They would have been shocked at such an insinuation. They thought they were teaching me law. They did not teach me any law. But they did something far more important: they introduced me to the liberal arts.
"It is sad but true"—he was saying this not at twenty-one, but at forty-one—"that the only place in an American university where the student is taught to read, write, and speak is the law school. The principal, if not the sole, merit of the case method of instruction is that the student is compelled to read accurately and carefully, to state accurately and carefully the meaning of what he has read, to criticize the reasoning of opposing cases, and to write very extended examinations in which the same standards of accuracy, care, and criticism are imposed. It is too bad that this experience is limited to very few students and that those few arrive at the stage where they may avail themselves of it only at about age twenty-two. It is unfortunate that the teachers have no training in the liberal arts as
such. The whole thing is on a rough-and-ready basis, but it is grammar, rhetoric, and logic just the same, and a good deal better than none at all. One may regret, too, that the materials upon which these disciplines are employed are no more significant than they are. No case book is a great book."
The process of learning how to read, write, and speak accurately, carefully, and critically, and the use of "significant materials" to facilitate the process, was to become the basis of the "Hutchins Plan" at Chicago and the Hutchins crusade everywhere. The necessary modifications were obvious: it would be made available to every college student—even to every senior high school student—and not just to law students; the teachers would be trained in the liberal arts and would know that it was the liberal arts they were teaching; and the teaching materials would be the masterpieces, old and new, of the mind and imagination of man, and not the judicial opinions of masters of the split infinitive. The Hutchins Plan would even, in time, under Dean Hutchins, change the Yale Law School and many another.
In his first year at Yale he met a girl named Maude Phelps McVeigh, the multifariously talented daughter of the editor of the New York Sun . They met at the home of Hutchins' one rich relative, a New York lawyer. She was almost as tall as he was, and more accomplished (in sculpture and drawing). They spoke the same sparkling language, hers a bit sharper even than his. Maude McVeigh was tough and imperious. They married—three months after he got his AB. The Hutchins ancestry produced able women and educated women. But they were not generally Career Women. They shared their husband's work and their husband's ministry. Maude McVeigh was an Eastern girl, of the sort that Yale '21 called classy. Her schooling was fashionable and her artistic talents were encouraged. She meant to have her own career—not her husband's—and she had it. If he was shy, or stand-offish, she was genuinely aloof. She wasn't meant to be a schoolteacher's wife. (Perhaps she wasn't meant to be anyone's wife.)
But in 1920 all that was up ahead somewhere and, naturally, unforeseen. In 1920 Bob Hutchins was still working his way through college. He couldn't afford most recreations, but there was one extracurricular activity he couldn't resist: he couldn't resist debating. "He could," as Bill Benton thought he remembered it, "fell an adversary with a single stroke of his ironic wit" —but the stroke was toneless (and all the more effective for being so) and the wit bone-dry. His audience would never be sure that they should laugh, or even smile, and he wouldn't pause to let them.
The captain of the Yale debating team of 1920-21 was plainly a strong candidate for the 1921 DeForest Prize, awarded annually by the faculty to "that scholar of the Senior Class who shall write and pronounce an English
oration in the best manner." The previous year's DeForest winner was Henry R. Luce, '20, the most vociferous anti-Bolshevik on the campus and one of the few who cared one way or another about such matters. Luce had emerged as a bidder for the prize in 1920 when he argued the case of the Russian Whites against the Reds before a sparsely attended meeting of the Yale Union. His theme—which would one day be the theme of Time, Inc.—was that if we did not intervene soon against "this radical group of Communists" in Russia, bolshevism would "undermine the civilization of the world." His audience indicated the attitude of the most advanced thinkers on the undergraduate campus by voting for his position 45 to 18.
Chosen, as a consequence, to deliver the DeForest Oration, Luce spoke about what he (and his publications) would one day call the American Century: "When we say 'America' today, we connote power. We hold the purse strings of the world. . . . America is power, and it sits astride the globe."
William James Hutchins had won the DeForest Prize in '92. So his son Robert had to win it in '21. In 1920 Harry Luce had offered America the world. In 1921 Bob Hutchins offered America Appalachia, which he characterized as the country's "back yard." His oration, entitled, "Our Contemporary Ancestors," was a straightforward exposition of the history and condition of the five million so-called hillbillies "isolated and forgotten, the mountaineers of the Southern Highlands." It was a solid report by a young man who, over the previous two years, had spent a profitable few holidays visiting the Reverend and Mrs. William James Hutchins in Berea, Kentucky.
"Our Contemporary Ancestors," in contrast with Luce's performance of the year before, seemed to be concerned not with the American challenge to the world but with the challenge to America of its own people. "Every man, woman, and child in three Highland counties was born in America, and in fifty-nine counties all but ten individuals were born in America. . . . In New York there is $2,600 worth of taxable property for every child of school age. In the mountains there is $248 worth." The ovation ended with an unpretentious appeal: "Give them the opportunities they crave, and we shall yet impart to these ancient Americans the ideals of today's America. We shall yet make the mountains 'a good place to be born in'; we shall emancipate five million people."
Hutchins was awarded the DeForest Prize in April 1921. Prizes awarded by the faculty cut no more ice with the undergraduate body than the captaincy of the debating team. What did was the selection by the senior class of its Class Day speaker in June. Hutchins was chosen. He had made the grade at Yale at last.
The Class Day speech was vintage Hutchins. In some seventeen hun-
dred words—one of the shortest addresses he would ever make—it encapsulated in substance every Hutchins Plan that would ever be sprung.
"We have only forty-four hours more as undergraduates. Never again shall we be in a position collectively to estimate what Yale has done for us. Never again shall we be able collectively to determine what we can do for Yale. On manifold occasions in the past few years we have announced that we are for God, for Country, and for Yale. Appreciating in a vague way what it meant to support God and Country, and understanding that it was certainly the right thing to do, we have scarcely stopped to consider what constitutes being for Yale."
It was popularly supposed, he went on, that all a man had to do for Yale was to sit in its cheering section. He was moved to demur from the popular supposition. The class of '21 had entered Yale for many reasons, but probably the only one their relatives would assign was that they were to be educated there. What they had certainly done was make a few firm friends and many acquaintances. "More or less untrammeled by parental restraint, we have learned to be free without being wild and how to be self-reliant without being self-important."
According to the Yale Daily News , the purpose of college education was to fit a man better for his career in life. "If that definition is correct, we may say (may we not?) that we are educated men. For certainly we are better fitted for the careers we shall follow than we were four years ago. We shall most of us go into business, and in business the name of Yale carries far, opening avenues of social success that we otherwise could not travel. But if the News ' definition is correct, is it worth while to come to college at all?" Success in business depends in the end on merit; wouldn't it be better, perhaps, to go immediately into business after prep school and get the technical training at once? And couldn't young men acquire the experience in meeting people and the social graces Yale gave them by afternoon and evening courses at some convenient country club? That would require less effort, time, and money, than their college courses had consumed.
Another definition of education might be in order. The incoming president of Yale, James Rowland Angell, had said that the purpose of college education was to inflame young men with ideas, to stimulate their intellects, to get them to think. "That is, instead of fitting a man better for his career in life, college should fit a man for a better career in life. Instead of sending its graduates out to become conventional American financial successes, which they would eventually be if they had never passed its doors, the college should develop men intellectually alive, awake to the needs of their time, eager to meet those needs, and acquainted with that most dif-
ficult exercise, thinking. Only such men may be called in any real sense 'educated.' Are we, by this standard, educated men?"
The most distressing feature of the eastern college, he went on, was the conformity which looked with disfavor and distrust upon the man who varied from the college type of thinking. "The most conservative places in the United States today are the universities. The religious and political dogmas inculcated at the paternal breakfast table we have either accepted whole or forgotten, without bringing the pressure of our own minds to bear upon them. And in this direction it can not be said that our professors have inspired us. As a member of a faculty has remarked, teachers and pupils seem individuals of different species, useful and well disposed toward one another, like a cow and a milkmaid; periodic contributions can pass between them, but not conversation."
It was true that college life merely reflected the national life. "If at colleges we have never tested what may be called the sweetness and glory of being rational animals, it is because America does not know nor highly esteem that sweetness and that glory. And we are products of America. But we are supposed to be the finest products of America . . . favored by four years of college. Can we vindicate our failure to bring forth leaders of American life by saying that we have brought forth accurate reflections of it? From the flat mediocrity, the crass commercialism, the narrow politics, the irreligion of commonplace affairs, the nation looks to the colleges, and especially to Yale, which was founded to train men for service in church and civil state. The nation looks to Yale for men who shall come up from the crowd." As about-to-be alumni, they were called to pledge their loyalty "to the high purpose of making Yale enkindle the minds of men as she has through centuries enkindled their hearts."
James Rowland Angell was probably there that day; he had been made an honorary member of the class of '21. It would appear that he either heard the speech or read it, for when he summoned Alumnus Hutchins to New Haven two years later and offered him the secretaryship of the university, and Alumnus Hutchins asked him why, President Angell said; "Because you are the only member of your generation of Yale men who is interested in education"; to which Alumnus Hutchins replied, silently at the time, aloud ever afterward, "I didn't know that I was interested in education."
In the spring of 1921 Robert Maynard Hutchins made the ultimate grade at Yale. He was voted Most Likely to Succeed.
Why? Was it because the class of '21 was comfortably agreed that though he talked a fast game of nonconformity and coming up from the crowd, he would come around in time to the gentlemanly Episcopalian
Republicanism that led to the good banking houses or law firms? Or may it have been that the class perceived something that Benton, '21, perceived? "The rest," said Benton, "was mystery. . . . He looked at the world with ineffable sadness. Here was a young man clearly marked for 'success'—who conveyed a sense that his life must be one of atonement. For what? No one knew." Hutchins himself, asked (in 1971) what he was ineffably sad about in 1921, said: "I was mourning my lost youth."
And he may have been. He—and Thornton Wilder—had been brought up in what Wilder once referred to as the late foam-rubber period of American Protestantism. Now he was exposed at last to the unsheltered life. A Yale man who would never be able to outgrow his innocence, he would never be able to leave Oberlin—or go back there. Reason enough for the sadness of the man who was now Most Likely to Succeed.
Doing what? "I didn't want to do anything special. I wanted to get a job and stay out of the tenement houses I saw around 125th Street when I took the train between New York and New Haven." "Was that your ideal then?" "Yes." "Your only ideal?" "The only one that mattered."