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.