Place and Profession in the Intellectual History of the City: Sidney Hook and NYU

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.

And yet, Hook’s career as a teacher and philosopher of education has been slighted, if not ignored. Scores of books and articles have testified to Hook’s centrality in American thought and culture. But they have focused almost entirely on his politics. Where his ideas on education are explored, as in the overriding attention on his infamous Heresy, Yes, Conspiracy, No! (1953),scholars have often mortgaged Hook’s trenchant analyses of the state of American education for the sake of lamenting the book’s political fallout. Attempts to place Hook within the American philosophical tradition have been more fruitful. But they have frequently overlooked Hook’s own repeated claim that his positions reflected a deeply sustained commitment to educational reconstruction as the means toward the realization of a democratic culture.

Hook and Dewey

Hook and Dewey


Equally important to an appreciation of Hook’s long career is the institution that employed him. For more than forty years he taught philosophy at NYU, spending most of his time at its Washington Square College campus in Greenwich Village. (Given the meager salaries of teaching and the economic vicissitudes of New York, Hook supplemented his income by also teaching night school at the New School until the 1960s). Situated squarely on the doorstep of American intellectual life, at NYU Hook devoted his energies not to the everyday activities of New York’s literary circles, where most scholars have focused their attention on him, but to the duties of being a full-time professor and the seemingly thankless task of department chairman. All the while, he did so at an institution that for the better part of the twentieth century lived a rather precarious existence.

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.

Hook and Russell

Hook and Russell

After years of bickering with educational authoritarians, Hook presented his alternative vision for education in two of his least read and least understood texts, Education for Modern Man and The Hero in History. Both reflected an enduring passion for historical study and inquiry, the curricular centerpiece of Hook’s philosophy of education. Modern Man went on to sell almost 14,000 copies by 1970. Within a decade of its publication, several colleges and universities wove elements of The Hero in History into their courses. Even the American government took note. The Department of State asked Hook for help with several translations that would eventually be distributed throughout postwar Europe. The book appeared in nearly ten languages by the mid-1960s. The military took a chapter, too, for an anthology of American essays distributed throughout Asia. At the height of the Korean War, it produced 5,000 copies of a translation of the entire book in for the Southern population. An historian would be hard-pressed to find an intellectual who attracted so much attention from his government.

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).