By Matthew J. Cotter
Sidney Hook (1902-1989) was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and controversial intellectuals. Most people know him solely as John Dewey’s star disciple. But he was also in many ways Dewey’s successor — far more engage than his mentor, though hardly inactive philosophically. As one of the twentieth century’s leading educational theoreticians and its foremost philosopher of democracy, Hook modified and applied Dewey’s concepts, usually assigned to elementary reform, to higher education — to fend off what he perceived as authoritarian forces inside the classroom and without. Feted abroad as New York’s answer to Jean Paul Sartre in France and Bertrand Russell in Britain, this was, in fact, his most distinctive contribution to American intellectual history.
This is crucial to understanding his intellectual legacy, for unlike Columbia and other private colleges or universities, NYU did not become a prestigious institution until the late 1970s, well after Hook retired. To keep NYU in step with the rapid social, political, and economic changes transforming the city — and to make it one day an intellectual “Mecca [of] the Atlantic seaboard” — Hook pushed furiously for deep-seated curricular and administrative reforms for decades. The cycles of boom and bust that frequently taxed NYU’s infrastructure both shaped and sustained Hook’s campaign. Hyper-active and combative, he oversaw a number of changes firsthand.
The point, for historians, is that Hook’s dual career as cloistered educator and public intellectual should be a general reminder that New York City’s intellectual and cultural life can often best be understood in terms of its institutional academic culture. It is a matter of place, too. NYU sat in the heart of a vibrant, cosmopolitan, hyper-urban location. But, again, the lesson is that, while scholars have almost exclusively written about Hook’s political legacy, no issue occupied more of his time and energy than reforming his beloved curriculum at NYU, and confronting the scores of educational theorists who opposed it.
For decades Hook engaged (and enraged) not just people within NYU, but a coterie of educational luminaries outside the city — in particular, Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, and those postwar thinkers who championed the Great Books idea. These arguments were eventually broadened to include the famous Bertrand Russell case, where Hook’s beloved alma mater, The College of the City of New York, sought to add Russell to its faculty — with disastrous results for higher education. Hook saw in the Great Books program the very betrayal of the educational values he articulated and the inherent authoritarianism that undergirded it. Soon his very public defense of Russell affected both his career at NYU and his impatience with the likes of Adler and Hutchins (soon after, grafted onto the Catholic Church). So intense was Hook’s vitriol that, one could argue, he made it his personal mission to publicly, repeatedly, and demonstrably, refute them at every turn. In a way, his obsession was not with Anticommunism, as many historians contend, but with education.
In a sense Hook’s nuisance value — the hallmark of any public intellectual — can be measured by the hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students who testified to their educational debt to him once he retired from NYU. He was, for a time, responsible for transforming New York City’s academic and political culture via his professional calling, teaching. The history of NYU and its place in the city should be revisited in light of his legacy, and it is only by examining Hook’s professional life in New York that we can fully grasp these larger trajectories in his thinking.
Matthew J. Cotter is the Director of College Now at Bronx Community College (CUNY), and the editor of Sidney Hook Reconsidered (2004).