Quote of the week: “A university is not a kindergarten. . . “

September 29, 2022 • 9:00 am

Yesterday someone called this quote to my attention; it seems to have been made in 1961  [1935; see comment #12 below] by Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977), who became President of the University of Chicago at only 30 and served for 16 years, adding an additional six years as Chancellor. Here’s the Quote of the Week, though I’m not going to make this a regular feature. This statement, however, resonated with me:

“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.”

Hutchins was a remarkable force who helped shape the University and its Foundational Principles of free expression.  He started the Great Books Program (with Mortimer Adler), got rid of varsity football (seeing an emphasis on big-time sports as inimical to our academic mission), and constantly emphasized academic freedom and free speech. The University page on Hutchins (now archived) says this:

Hutchins was a strong advocate of academic freedom, and as always refused to compromise his principles. Faced with charges in 1935 by drugstore magnate Charles Walgreen that his niece had been indoctrinated with communist ideas at the University, Hutchins stood behind his faculty and their right to teach and believe as they wished, insisting that communism could not withstand the scrutiny of public analysis and debate. He later became friends with Walgreen and convinced him to fund a series of lectures on democracy. When the University faced charges of aiding and abetting communism again in 1949, Hutchins steadfastly refused to capitulate to red-baiters who attacked faculty members.

When I read the quote in bold above, it reminded me of our own Kalven Report, which, aiming to avoid chilling or quashing the speech of university members, established the principle that, with rare exceptions, The University of Chicago and its units were forbidden from making political, ideological, or moral statements. This policy has sometimes put it at odds with activists. (There was, for example, pressure for the University to denounce the war in Vietnam and to disinvest in corporations that did business in Darfur. It remained silent on both issues.) Kalven emphasizes that political statements and their like are the purview of individuals, not the university.  As First Amendment scholar, law professor, and former Provost Geof Stone said (see previous link): “It is for the students, faculty, trustees, alumni, staff, and friends of the University to take their own positions. It is not for the University to do so for them.”

At any rate, the quote at the top jogged my memory. I reread the Kalven report, written in 1967, and in it found the statement below, surely written with Hutchins’s words in mind.

“A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”
How many universities see themselves as lobbies, political parties, reform schools, and agencies of propaganda? I’d say a large fraction, for political statements and social-justice manifestos proliferate on college websites. And of course you know how universities behave as kindergartens: just look at the recent follies of The Evergreen State University, Yale University, or Oberlin College. Will we even recognize the university as a community of scholars in fifty years, or will it abjure its academic mission in favor of an ideological one?


Here’s a photo of the remarkably young Hutchins in 1929, just after he picked up the reins as President. It accompanies his first Convocation Address, which is worth reading.

Photography by Angelica King, University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-05032, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

22 thoughts on “Quote of the week: “A university is not a kindergarten. . . “

  1. WOW. Imagine being the President of UoC at 30 years old! And he was way more handsome than I am. Dashing, even. He seems like a really swell dude, and he sure could write a great quote!

  2. I got Adler’s book – titled, I believe, – How To Read A Book – didn’t know the connection.

    Oh hell, I’ll add this – learned it here :

    Save the World on Your Own Time
    By Stanley Fish

  3. Oh I forgot to mention :

    Many but perhaps not all universities and colleges in the United States are, I think, significantly in a business relationship with paying Customers who are Always Right., as the saying goes.

    It might explain some of the bending of colleges to the popular will. I’m looking at the hot chocolate that kept some students happy while they sought to damage a private local business. (Obelin v. Gibson’s).

  4. > A university is a community of scholars. It is not a kindergarten […] it is not a political party; it is not an agency of propaganda

    That is a beautiful ideal. Unfortunately, it has not been the case for universities in any country or era that I am aware of.

    Someday I hope universities can be precisely that. For now, unfortunately, universities are bound by political regulations (equal opportunity and non-discrimination – except oddly, mandatory discrimination on the basis of citizenship and residency status) and market forces (subject to bullying and cancellation). It look forward to when our ivory towers are able to ignore more real-world considerations, and pursue first and foremost the search for truth.

    Many of the problems we are seeing now are due to bullying by government agencies or by market forces. I wonder how precisely we could go about setting up a university unaffected by government policies and market forces. Maybe a Seasteading University?

  5. Separate point, separate post.

    > got rid of varsity football (seeing an emphasis on big-time sports as inimical to our academic mission)

    Thank you! I am always thrilled to see people talking openly about universities cutting varsity programs. Academia has no business getting involved in spectator sports – and as an added bonus, not only would universities waste less cash on sports facilities, but we wouldn’t have to worry about the current push to desegregate college sports, when we can just abolish them instead!

    1. That would be exceedingly difficult and unpopular, given attachments to college sports and how they impact area economies. But it is still very weird and other countries which lack them must think it very strange.

  6. I’ve always been a fan of Hutchins. The following is at the foot of my email messages:

    The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens. — Robert Hutchins

    Almost no one running the American educational system today seems to agree.


  7. Great quote and sentiment and, I have to say, a great idea for a weekly feature! But, far be it for me to suggest additional work for you. Thanks for all the great features and articles you present.

    Oh, and “addomg” in the first paragraph…

  8. As noted in the post, the University of Chicago did not divest from Darfur because that would be a political statement in violation of the Kalven Report. But, is not the portfolio that a university invests in not inherently a political statement? Or should a university’s investment policy be totally amoral, which means that it would invest in companies that promises the largest return regardless of the actions of the corporation? Would it have been acceptable for the University of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s to invest in German companies that manufactured the gas used in concentration camps if the return on investment was promising?

    In the article cited in the post, there is a comment by “Akio” that I largely agree with. The comment is as follows:


    “I have to question whether it is possible to take a position in a case such as this that is actually politically neutral. When dealing with investments, the money involved is a far more profound statement of support or disapproval than any amount of verbiage – to invest is, ultimately, to express confidence in a company by funding their business model. It is not a black box where the use of those funds is concealed; it is not a slot machine, where money goes in, money comes out, and between is nothing but a trio of bars.”

    “That, however, is the relationship that the Kalven Report attempts to establish between the University and the coporations it invests in; we must either feign institutional ignorance towards the actions of a corporation or attempt to recast its behavior as a force of nature with no connection to the company we invest in.”

    “Though I agree that the University should not exist to express political opinion, I don’t see how we can adhere to the recommendations of the Kalven report without unacceptable self-deception. Accordingly, the debate should be reopened, with the realization that the Kalven report, however well meaning, is ultimately wrong in its denial of the power of wealth, and other standards should be taken up in its place while still retaining the goal of maximum political detachment.”

    “Possibility: Consideration should be given not to the morality of a company, but on whether or not it is implicated in that which is illegal.”


    To truly honor the Kalven Report, the university should stop immediately from investing in corporations or admit frankly that it invests only for profit amorally without consideration how the corporation makes its money. Only then would it not be making a political statement.

    1. Is it possible the UofC has a blind portfolio? If true would you consider that insufficient and they are still culpable of….something?

      1. Even if it were a blind portfolio, it would still be amoral investing. In effect, the university would be covering its eyes and saying to the portfolio manager, “don’t tell us what you’re investing in, we don’t want to know. Just make us money.”

    2. I think the way it works is that the Trustees or their financial advisors choose what to invest in, and that is not public information. They may indeed use moral considerations, but what the University CANNOT do is tell them what and what not to invest in.

  9. …and speaking of Hutchins quotations:

    “The only question that can be properly raised about a professor . . . is his competence in his field. His private life, his political views, his social attitudes, his economic doctrine, these are not the concern of his university; still less are they the concern of the public. I have no patience with the philosophy of “Yes, but” as applied to this matter. Any position short of the one I have stated will be found to involve such compromises that nothing is left academic of freedom.”

    1. That seems naive in today’s world, with (e.g.) sexual predators who just manage to avoid blatant criminality. And for that matter, the above policy could even tolerate convicted criminals. But in reality I expect that even the U of C has an enforceable code of conduct which restricts aspects of professors’ private lives. Anybody know of any recent cases?

  10. “Yesterday someone called this quote to my attention; it seems to have been made in 1961 by Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977)…” – J. Coyne

    The quote is not from 1961 but from 1935! Here is it with the original reference:

    “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.”

    (Hutchins, Robert Maynard. “What Is a University?” [Radio Address, April 18, 1935, Parent-Teachers Association.] In /No Friendly Voice/, 5-11. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1936. p. 5)

    The whole book is freely available at Archive.org:


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