After completing two years (1915-1917) at Oberlin College, a small liberal arts college in Ohio, Hutchins served in the American Army's ambulance services in the Italian theatre during World War I. After returning from the war, Hutchins went to Yale University (B.A. 1921), where he was a member of Wolf's Head Society. After spending a year teaching high school History and English in Lake Placid, New York, he enrolled in Yale Law School (L.L.B 1925).
Upon completing his LL.B., he was invited to join the Yale Law faculty. He became Dean of Yale Law School two years later in 1927 at the unusually young age of 28. At the time, Yale Law School was dominated by the Legal Realists and Hutchins sought to promote Legal Realism during his time as dean.
In 1929 he moved to Chicago to become President of the University of Chicago at the age of 30. Over the next several years, Hutchins came to question Legal Realism, which he had previously championed, and grew skeptical of the ability of empirical research in the social sciences to solve social problems, especially in the face of the Great Depression. Particularly through contact with Mortimer Adler, he became convinced that the solution to the philosophical problems facing the university lay in Aristotelianism and Thomism. In the late 1930s, Hutchins attempted to reform the curriculum of the University of Chicago along Aristotelian-Thomist lines, only to have the faculty reject his proposed reforms three times.
Hutchins served as President of the University of Chicago until 1945, after which he served as the University's Chancellor until 1951. After leaving his position at the University, Hutchins founded the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in 1959, which was his attempt to bring together a community of scholars to analyze this broad area. Hutchins described the Center's goal as examining democratic institutions "by taking a multidisciplinary look at the state of the democratic world -- and the undemocratic world as well, because one has to contrast the two and see how they are going to develop." He further stated, "After discovering what is going on, or trying to discover what is going on, the Center offers its observations for such public consideration as the public is willing to give them".
Throughout his career, Hutchins was a fierce proponent of using those select books, which have gained the reputation of being great books, as an educational tool. In his interview in 1970 titled, "Don't Just Do Something", Hutchins explained, "...the Great Books [are] the most promising avenue to liberal education if only because they are teacher-proof." Illustrating his dedication to the Great Books, Hutchins served as Editor In Chief of Great Books of the Western World and Gateway to the Great Books. Additionally, he served as coeditor of The Great Ideas Today, Chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from 1943 to 1974, and published his own works, No Friendly Voice (1936), The Higher Learning in America (1936), Education for Freedom (1943), The University of Utopia (1953), and The Learning Society (1968).
In The University of Utopia, Hutchins outlines the educational experience of young Utopians, where the first ten years of instruction prepare students for the learning experiences to come. Communication is the primary skill developed. Students learn to read, write, and discuss issues in preparation for their future lifetime of learning. Students study science and mathematics, which form part of the groundwork for future learning. History, geography, and literature are also studied to add to the framework for even deeper learning later in life. Finally, art and music are studied because these are considered the elements that make society great.
Throughout these fields of study in Utopia, the Great Books, those books that shaped Western thought, are used as study material and are discussed by classes using the Socratic method. The Socratic method, named for Socrates and his method of teaching, involves the teacher's keeping the discussion on topic and guiding it away from errors of logic. In a discussion conducted in accordance with Socratic principles, unexamined opinions are fair game, and only reason itself is the final arbiter. Thus, any conclusions reached in such a discussion are the individual's own, not necessarily those of a class consensus, and certainly not necessarily the teacher's. The Great Books are a natural choice, since they are considered to be works of genius, timeless, and ever relevant to society. Why settle for lesser materials when you can have the best? Despite his other foci, Hutchins does not entirely shun the laboratory world; he believes, however, that some such things are best learned through discovery once a student has been graduated to the outside world.
In Utopia, initial schooling is followed by college, which continues the study of a highly prescribed curriculum. Here, however, the focus shifts from learning the techniques of communication to exploring some of man's principal concepts of the world and the leading ideas that have propelled mankind. After college, students sit for an extensive exam created by an outside board, which reflects what an education appropriate to a free person should be. This rigorous exam is similar to those taken throughout a student's education but is more comprehensive. When the student passes this exam, he or she is awarded a Bachelor of Arts Degree. The degree is conferred based on the mastery of this information, not on the number of classes taken, credits earned, or hours spent in class.
After proving that they have the necessary education to become a part of the republic of learning and of the political republic, the student may enter the work world or continue his or her formal education at the University. Once departing from formal education, a lifetime of learning follows for the citizens of Utopia. They visit centers of learning to explore and discuss ideas and analyze great works. These centers of learning are residential institutions where citizens go during what Americans would traditionally think of as vacation time. If they choose to matriculate to University, students begin to specialize, but they do not study collection of data, technical training, or solutions to immediate practical problems, but rather they explore the intellectual ideas specific to their chosen field. Here, students study in much less formal situations but with no less vigor. During their initial schooling and college, students had to prove that they could learn independently; if they then chose to attend a University, they were expected to make effective use of those skills.
In addition to Hutchins's belief that school should pursue intellectual ideas rather than practical, he also believed that schools should not teach a specific set of values. "It is not the object of a college to make its students good, because the college cannot do it; if it tries to do it, it will fail; it will weaken the agencies that should be discharging this responsibility, and it will not discharge its own responsibility." The schools should not be in the business of teaching students what is right and just; it should be in the business of helping students make their own determinations.
When young people are asked, "What are you interested in?" they answer that they are interested in justice: they want justice for the Negro, they want justice for the Third World. If you say, "Well, what is justice?" they haven't any idea.|40px|40px|(Berwick, 1970)
Critics will point out that the great books do not have one answer to what justice is or isn't. In fact, there are many contradictory answers to this question. But what some see as a weakness, Hutchins sees as a strength. Hutchins asserts that students should be exposed to these conflicting ideas so that they may weigh and balance them in their own minds, boiling down the arguments and synthesizing a view of their own. In this way, and only in this way, can students learn what justice, beauty, and good really are.