William Heard Kilpatrick was … horrified by Hutchins’ views. He fulminated that Hutchins was an authoritarian whose ideas were out of step with “every intellectual advance of the last 300 years.” Worse, “Dr. Hutchins stands near to Hitler. When you have a professed absolute, then you have to have some authority to give it content, and there the dictator comes in.”
Dewey also excoriated the Great Books supporters. As a Pragmatist philosopher, Dewey was appalled by Hutchins’s classical commitment to absolute principles or eternal truths. Every belief, Dewey held, is subject to scientific experimentation and ongoing revision. Circumstances continuously change, requiring human minds to discard outmoded explanatory principles and to seek relevant new ones. What was true during ancient or medieval times does not necessarily continue to explain natural or social events under the greatly changed conditions of the modern world. Dewey, too, compared Hutchins to the dictatorial powers of 1930s Europe. As Ravitch writes:
Astonishingly, Dewey went so far as to imply that Hutchins was ideologically linked with the jackbooted thugs who were then brutalizing Europe. “I would not intimate that the author [Hutchins] has any sympathy with fascism. But basically, his idea as to the proper course to be taken is akin to the distrust of freedom and the consequent appeal to some fixed authority that is now over-running the world.”
In their criticisms of the Great Books approach, Dewey and Kilpatrick ignored the fact that Hutchins and Adler encouraged students to read not just the works of a single philosophic figure or tradition, but all of the greatest works of the Western canon. Included were John Locke, Isaac Newton, Goethe, Voltaire, Kant, Charles Darwin, Einstein, Freud, and other revolutionary thinkers “of the last 300 years”—and of earlier figures, as well. Further, consider the twisted logic and bitter irony of Soviet apologists imputing support for totalitarianism to those seeking to nurture independent cognition.
How did a philosopher such as Dewey come to deeply despise intellectual training rooted in the most important philosophic thought of history? Among the many reasons, Dewey and other Progressives conflated certainty and absolute knowledge with dogmatism and political authority. Did Progressives truly believe that those who were certain of facts—such as 3 x 3 = 9, George Washington was the first president of the United States, or A is A—would inevitably sic the Gestapo on intellectual opponents? More likely, they understood that independent thinkers—those not reliant on any group or authority for their grasp of reality—would never make for obedient subjects, nor would such thinkers accept the communist dictatorship for which Progressives pined.
The intellectual battle lines between these two groups of educators were clearly drawn. One side, in regard to elementary school, wanted primarily to teach students practical life skills and conformity to the group, with a dollop of cognitive training mixed in. The other side wanted to provide students with practical life skills and foundational knowledge of academic subjects—and, above all, to teach them to think independently. These differences continued into secondary school. One side sought to socialize students, to provide vocational training for most of them and academic education only for an elite few. The other side strove to continue teaching academic subjects, to teach students to think for themselves, and, in many cases, to prepare them to study the timeless works of Western civilization—works that shed light on history, science, philosophy, and art, and that provide principles and guidance for the present and future.