The history of higher ed is littered with big ideas that never quite took off.
The no-fun campus. Few people tinkered quite as much with a major university’s DNA as University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Hutchins believed that colleges had lost their focus; what was needed was a more efficient, concentrated approach that would school students in a core set of ideas with as few distractions as possible. Following his “New Plan” for Chicago, Hutchins scrapped the football program at the school that won the first Heisman Trophy, and fought to keep fraternities and sororities off campus. He also instituted a rigorous Great Books–driven curriculum for all undergraduates, opened up admission to sixteen-year-olds, and awarded bachelor’s degrees after just two years for students who passed a comprehensive competency exam. Students weren’t at college to have a good time, he thought, and they shouldn’t stick around longer than was needed.
Hutchins was at first greeted as a liberator, at least off campus: Time plastered him on its cover in 1935, dubbed him “the golden boy,” and predicted that his “New Plan” for Chicago “should eventually transform U.S. education.” But his ideas, inevitably, proved toxic when it came to attracting students to Hyde Park, since young people tend to like distractions. Despite Time’s glowing reviews, undergraduate enrollment declined, and even many of the school’s faculty considered the scheme harebrained.
The results were mixed: Chicago churned out its share of top scholars, and the old football stadium was put to productive use as a testing ground for the Manhattan Project. On the other hand, as the New Yorker put it in 1952, the undergraduate college was “the greatest magnet for neurotic juveniles since the Children’s Crusade.” When Hutchins left in 1951, so too did most of his big ideas: fraternities returned three years later; football made a comeback in 1969. More broadly, his Great Books dogmatism helped fuel a countermovement to expand general education syllabi beyond the Western canon.
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