A union at the University of Chicago and the great debate between John Dewey and Robert Hutchins.

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Yesterday I posted the letter that University of Chicago sent out to teaching assistants and student teachers regarding the ruling of the National Labor Relations Board that permits them to unionize.

On one level, in spite of all the high-falutin language, there is not much different about this letter than one any union-fearing boss would send to their workers who wanted a union.

Let’s pretend that there is a serious debate here about the nature of learning, teaching and the role of the university.

I know.

Just go with me for a moment.

In 1936, University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins published a slim volume entitled The Higher Learning in America.

The purpose of the essay was two-fold. Hutchins believed in knowledge for its own sake and believed that the liberal arts and the universities which taught them had lost their way.

But it was also a polemic against the progressive education ideas of John Dewey.

And Dewey knew the essay was directed at him.

Hutchins argued for a life of the mind, knowledge for its own sake uncontaminated by questions of practice, work, empirical sciences or current events.

Dewey, on the other hand,  understood “knowledge for its own sake” to be a part of what was called “vocational knowledge,” both within the liberal arts and the world outside the university.

Dewey believed in the uniting of theory and practice, knowledge and reflection on experience.

For John Dewey, a liberal arts education had to  address the fact that ideas and practice are two connected things. As Dewey puts it in Democracy and Education:

While the distinction [between labor and leisure] is often thought to be intrinsic and absolute, it is really historical and social. It originated, so far as conscious formulation is concerned, in Greece, and was based upon the fact that the truly human life was lived only by a few who subsisted upon the results of the labor of others. The problem of education in a democratic society is to do away with the dualism and to construct a course of studies which makes thought a guide of free practice for all and which makes leisure a reward of accepting responsibility for service, rather than a state of exemption from it.

Many University of Chicago students teachers and teaching assistants may never join another union for the rest of their lives. They can join one now.

Hutchins, if he were alive today, might find that disturbing.

Dewey, always a union man, would have been supportive, I am sure.

5 Replies to “A union at the University of Chicago and the great debate between John Dewey and Robert Hutchins.”

  1. Fredo,While Hutchins fought Dewey on curriculum, I don’t think he was an anti-union guy. He was a New Dealer who actually defended his faculty against anti-communist attacks during red scare. 

    1. I couldn’t find anything Hutchins said about unions. Particularly faculty unions. So, you are right. This was a bit of an imaginary flight on my part. While Hutchins was a political liberal, I could almost hear his voice in that letter to TAs. In fact, the authors of the current letter are probably liberals as well.

  2. Liberals? Maybe the authors of that letter are really neo-liberals… The tone of that letter was reminiscent of the arguments that our administrators and even conservative teachers used more than four decades ago to persuade teachers from “abandoning their status as ‘professionals’ to become labor.” Horror of horrors! “Teachers don’t punch cards like hourly wage-earners.” “A union will ‘dictate’ your working conditions.” “Education will decline and our poor students will suffer under unionized teachers.” “Civilization will end.” We heard all the baloney to prevent us from joining a union eons ago. You’d think that these two guys would have been a bit more creative than repeating this worn-out BS.

  3. David,
    Great read! I was an adjunct for nine years after I retired from my public school teaching career. I was in a far different position than my adjunct colleagues because I didn’t take the job to earn a living. I took it for motives that related to Social Security quarters and Medicare. I stayed an adjunct well beyond the time I had originally planned because I just enjoyed being in a friendly and totally academic environment. Other than routine teaching duties at one school, I had no additional pressures like supervision, faculty meetings, in-service days, committee assignments, or proof of professional advancement. There were no family pressures either. My adjunct experience was completely different from those of my colleagues.

    As the article indicated, almost all adjuncts take jobs at other colleges to earn as much income as possible. For many adjuncts, the job is like treading water. I saw first hand the amount of traveling they had to do daily, plus the horrendous time, money, academic, and family pressures that they faced. It was a grueling, inhuman pace and there were frequent turnovers. What a way to run an educational institution!!!

    I enthusiastically support unionization, but I agree with Noam Chomsky that devastating neoliberal policies for almost forty years have created a terrible crisis in capitalism of which the replacement of tenured, full-time faculty members by lower salaried personnel without benefits is one of its many symptoms. Then, the college administrators have the gall to suggest that unionization of adjuncts is somehow a threat to academic standards.

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