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.
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.