Proposal to Robert Hutchins 1947

In 1946 McLuhan’s friend, Cleanth Brooks (then a visiting professor at the University of Chicago), facilitated a meeting between him and Robert Hutchins — the UC chancellor and arguably the most influential education leader nationally. Some 18 months later1, McLuhan submitted a proposal to Hutchins for an inter-disciplinary seminar and associated journal.  In his cover latter of December 7, 1947, McLuhan explained:

The enclosed proposal for an “editorial community” is a direct outgrowth of the talk I had with you about the college at Chicago.

The proposal is given below (with the permission of the McLuhan estate). It will be discussed in future posts.2 Suffice it to note here, however, only that it clearly looks forward to the Culture and Communication seminar that the Ford Foundation would finance beginning in 1953 with a grant of $44,000 over three years.  But McLuhan’s proposal to Hutchins, 5 years before, was looking for $200,000 annually (or well over $2million annually in today’s dollars)!

Surely McLuhan was correct, however, that the extent of our response to our spiritual and cultural collapse would have to be commensurate with the threat. So the astonishing thing is not the audacity of McLuhan’s proposal, but the fact that it has never even much been contemplated, let alone implemented.


Dear Mr. Hutchins:

The enclosed proposal for an “editorial community” is a direct outgrowth of the talk I had with you about the college at Chicago. The project is really conceived with a sense of the urgency and probable brevity of our affairs. But that note of alarm was kept out of these pages since they were intended not so much for your eye as for that of some wealthy sponsor who might occur to you, and who would prefer a longer view.

Somebody of the stature of Henry Luce or Marshall Field is indicated as the “angel” for this venture. Might not that indeed be a plan well-suited to the fulfillment of Luce’s hope for a fourth magazine?

Nothing is said of the actual personnel of the editorial community, but I have men in mind. You, however, would know of some who would be even more suitable. Eric Voegelin is a “must” for Political Science, I think. As for the locale of the venture, that would have to be settled on lines of expediency. Proximity to a big center like New York or Chicago is indicated.

Etienne Gilson, with whom I have discussed the project, approved it, but was most sceptical about the financial possibilities. Given the financial backing he would not, I think, hesitate to join the venture. This fact might be a useful one to hold in reserve, though.3 There are, I am aware, reasonable objections to having Gilson associated with the review. The community idea calls for younger men on the whole.

Should you see fit to approve this plan, would you, then, forward it to Luce or some likely sponsor? Naturally I would not ask such a thing as a merely personal favor to myself, but rather for the merits, if any, of the plan itself.

Very sincerely yours,
Marshall McLuhan



The Situation

Not since the scholars fled westwards from Constantinople in 1453 has there been a movement to rival the present accumulation of European specialists in the United States.5 And the role of the U.S. as host and custodian of the refugees and their learning can only be envisaged as a second Westward Movement of the scholars.

The resulting stimulus to American learning has been and will continue to be comparable to that which produced the developments in Italy, France, and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. So that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will be the American centuries in a sense more decisive than that of economic and political initiative. But without the economic and political hegemony these larger functions and fulfillments would be impossible.

The Possibilities

There is much that is involuntary about the role of Custodian of Western Civilization which has descended on the United States. So far as the larger drama of Western ideas and culture was concerned the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought of its role not even as a “walk-on” part but rather as a “walk-off” bit.

Everything involved in the trauma of emigration suggested to the emigrants a minimal rather than a maximal continuity with Western civilization. But it is important to realize that not merely external events but also a deep fidelity to the basic


European heritage which was brought to America, has reversed the conscious intention to attenuate the traditions of the West.

The American North fostered speculation in theology, philosophy, and science, in harmony with the great European current which flowed through Aristotle, Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Descartes, and Locke. The American South typically developed the correlative tradition of “Ciceronian” humanism which cultivates the practical virtues in the attainment of artistic taste, forensic eloquence, and legal and political skill.

Thus the United States has within her own immediate traditions rich points of contact with the entire range of European civilization. And this is a fact of the utmost value at present; since the new responsibilities and tasks do not impose any need for hasty initiation but call only for an enlargement and a comprehension of the native traditions.

As indications of the readiness and ability of Americans to undertake the business of exploration and re-adaptation of the entire Western heritage, consider on one hand F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West [1946], and on the other hand the testimony of Cyril Connolly in the American number of Horizon [1947]. Northrop’s sense of the fragmentary and scrappy character of American life when measured against the entire range of available civilized values and achievements is nothing less than a portent. Especially since Northrop speaks from within a specialized and limited portion even of American experience. He thereby gives evidence of an intellectual resilience and hospitality which is utterly different from that which once prompted the discontented American to live abroad in order to  


redress the pragmatic bias of life at home. Northrop really proclaims the fitness of contemporary America for the new task, in the very act of calling for major readjustments. Connolly, on the other hand, speaks as an apprehensive Englishman carefully testing our intellectual resources and climate for their immediate possibilities. He, too, provides a verdict of a most favorable kind. America is equal to the new intellectual and spiritual role.


The radical deficiency of American intellectual life vis-a-vis the new tasks of revaluation, synthesis, and exploration, is its lack of communal sense. This is true even of the academic scene. But outside the academic world there is certainly no likelihood of finding the leisure, the erudition or the disinterestedness for the work at hand. The first step, therefore, is to perform a basic overhaul job on the academies. To redirect the energies of the American college from the immediate goal of preparing students for a local commercial society to preparing students for the fullest kind of citizenship, such as is actually demanded of us as a condition of present survival — that is the task.

To accomplish this end it would be pointless to talk to presidents and deans and department heads. What must be done is rather to re-energize the entire body of the arts and sciences. That such a flow of energy into long dormant arts and sciences as poetics, rhetoric, and metaphysics has actually occurred is already evident to many. In fact, no such major revisions have taken place within the main provinces of human knowledge since the time of Hume and Kant.


At the end of the eighteenth century the main lines of human thought and action had been established for the ensuing century and a half. And in England and America the major means of making effective the new adjustments in the arts and sciences was the Edinburgh Review. In this Review the consequences of the positions of Adam Smith, Bentham, and Hume were thrashed out for and by economists, historians, philologists, critics, and scientists. What the French encyclopedists had been to France, the Edinburgh Review was for England and America. All the provinces of learning and investigation were opened up to discussion and revaluation. The due inter-relation between them was decided and the degree of cognizance which one was to take of the other was considered and settled.

That great positivist synthesis lasted until the time of Herbert Spencer and petered out in the popular fantasies of the encyclopedic H.G. Wells. Meantime it was increasingly challenged by the more speculative synthesis which stemmed from Vico and Hegel and was carried on through Marx on the economic side and through Nietzsche on the psychological and philological fronts. However, it has never been understood that the second-rate character of the English and American nineteenth century as compared with the German and French was owing to the German and French having adopted psychological rather than the biological experience as the source of the guiding analogies for the synthesis of social study and discussion. Adam Smith introduced into the


intellectual currency the analogy of a vague evolutionary providence operating through both human and animal appetites. This analogy fructified the minds of Malthus and Darwin. But it was analogy quite incapable of stimulating the great anthropological and cultural histories which, under Viconian and Hegelian inspiration, appeared on the continent. Sir James Frazer and Arnold Toynbee are by-products of Max Muller and Oswald Spengler rather than of their own traditions.

Every age has its reigning analogy in terms of which it orients itself with respect to the past and directs its energies through the present to the future. To be contemporary in the good sense is to be aware of this analogy. To be “ahead of the time” is to be critically aware of the analogy. That is, to be aware that it is only one analogy. To be creative and directive of the currents of the age is, while admitting the limitations of the dominant analogy, to carry out as complete as extension and synthesis of the arts and sciences as it will permit. But also to explore as much new terrain in each art and science as it will allow. To recover as much of the past as can be made creatively relevant to the present. To be aware of the past as presently useful and of much of the present as already irrelevant — all this is to be a contemporary mind. And this mode of awareness is itself based on an analogy derived from relativity physics (as also from the correlated Jungian conception of the collective consciousness of the race) whose usefulness to a society faced with the problems of world government and international community is as immense as it is as yet unexploited.



To impinge at the most decisive point with the most adequate materials. To this end it is proposed that there be established a Review of an entirely new sort. It will consist of eight or ten full-time editors who will for the most part write it. Each editor is to be a specialist. but a specialist with encyclopedic interests and tendencies. A genuine intellectual community is indispensable. The first business of the editors will be during some months to conduct a mutual inquisition into each other’s specialty and to develop a full sense of the congruities of method and pursuit among their specialized interests. The study of methods and results is to be both of investigation and transmission or pedagogy. The editors should represent at least

  • Philosophy (metaphysics, logic, cosmology)
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Political Science
  • Anthropology
  • Analytical Psychology
  • Philology (classics, modern languages, art, music, history. and criticism)

Associated with each of the permanent editors should be two or more temporary editorial fellows recruited on a leave-of-absence basis from the universities. These men would be selected with regard to such considerations as the following:

(a) Youth and ability to discuss and express the problems of their specialized fields


(b) Advanced development of some new concepts in their fields.

(c) Variety of experience at several leading institutions.

The reason for this selection is two-fold. First to insure a fresh flow of perceptions and problems to the editorial community.  Second, to provide a free flow of editorial influence into the major institutions of the country.


The procedure of the review would be to present, in the first place, a clear picture of the total situation in each province of knowledge. This would also involve a thorough critique of each subject and of the best methods of pursuing and teaching it. A sharp scrutiny of the actual pursuits and teaching methods at the dominant institutions would, even as a rhetorical strategy, assure an attentive body of readers among the entire faculties and graduate students of the universities.

The contents of the Review would include new contributions to specialized studies; but a press associated with the Review could, in general, handle such matters more expediently. More typically the contents would follow the lines of definitely established projects, doing on an advanced level what Fortune magazine does for the casual reader. The method of each project would ideally be that of genetic investigation of each problem. The genetic method insures a maximum of comprehension with a minimum engendering of irrelevant emotion.

For example, F.S.C. Northrop offers an excellent instance


of the genetic method as applied to the total absence of developed sensibility in American life coincident with the hypertrophy of action. The notable superiority of the Chinese culture in the matter of esthetic and moral discrimination is a fact from which much can be learned. One major deficiency in American life and education calls precisely for redress of the balance between theoretic and esthetic or particular perception and judgement.

The editorial community would function as a super-seminar in which the projects of each person would be submitted to the constant inspection and discussion of all the rest. In this way alone is it possible (a) to escape the intellectual isolation of the present-day specialist and (b) to inter-animate one knowledge with the due life and results of the others.


Estimated annual cost of projected Review (exclusive of its earnings), $200,000.6



  1. The delay between the meeting with Hutchins and the submission of McLuhan’s proposal may have had several grounds. In the first place, McLuhan must have needed time to think through his ideas and to find a way to express them clearly.  This was especially the case, second, that he suspected even before his 1946 meeting with Hutchins that work with him and with UC generally might be fruitless: McLuhan wrote to Cleanth Brooks on March 29, 1946, “I came increasingly to feel that Hutchins was beyond any hope from our point of view, and my tone, therefore, became uncompromising. I’m sure that he’ll put this in the hands of Adler, McKeon, and Crane, but nothing is to be gained by playing ball with those lads” (letter cited in Mark Royden, Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism, 1996, 205). Third, he was unsure himself of the wisdom and goodness of his ideas.  As he wrote to Clement McNaspy at Christmas, 1945: “What an object lesson a Christian has to-day in seeing so much good produce so much ill. Not for a moment do I imagine that I can frame a course of action which will do good. (…) How easy it would be to set up a school on these lines, utilizing the encyclopedic learning of our age. But whether that is desirable?” (Letters 180)
  2. See Nef on McLuhan’s proposal. Some discussion of the meeting and proposal may be found in Marchand’s McLuhan bio, 98-99. But Marchand had not seen the proposal himself and some of the details reported to him are wrong. The connection of the proposal with Sigfried Giedion’s ideas is very important. And Harold Innis had comparable suggestions. Nef on McLuhan’s proposal discusses these ties with Giedion and Innis.
  3. Minor corrections to McLuhan’s cover letter and proposal have been made. So here, the word ‘though’ appears in McLuhan’s letter not at the end of this sentence, but at the start of the next. McLuhan often composed by dictation to his wife at this point in his career and then seldom corrected the result.
  4. Page numbers of the original proposal are given in square brackets.
  5. McLuhan specifically suggested only two scholars for his proposed project and both were Europeans, Eric Voegelin and Etienne Gilson.
  6. $200,000 in 1947 dollars = $2,050,000 in 2012 dollars.