Willis D. Nutting

Willis D. Nutting (1900–1975) was raised a Presbyterian in Iowa City, Iowa. In his late teens, he joined the Episcopal Church and eventually became an Anglican priest. By 1930, however, he left the Anglican priesthood and became Roman Catholic. He was led to the Catholic Church by his constant questioning, a natural quality of his character: “A person acts and thinks as he does because he has certain convictions. A principle duty of every thinking man is to make a thorough examination of his convictions to see how they are proved true. The holding of unexamined opinions is the mark of an ignorant man.”

In 1921, Nutting graduated from the University of Iowa, the school where his father was a professor of zoology. Upon graduating, Nutting attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and an Anglican seminarian. After his graduation and ordination in 1924, he requested a parish assignment in the West Indies and became the pastor of a parish in Antigua. He contracted an illness in Antigua, however, and returned to the United States to become a pastor of an Episcopal church in Evergreen, Colorado.

In Evergreen, Nutting agreed to help prepare a small group of seminarians for their ordination. In preparing these seminarians, Nutting found himself confronting many of his opinions about the faith, opinions that were not in line with the Episcopal Church’s beliefs. He wrestled with many questions and found the answers he was looking for in the Catholic Church, which he eventually joined. Though he studied in Rome for the Catholic priesthood for a while in 1930, Nutting discerned quickly that this was not his vocation. In 1931, he returned to the University of Iowa to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy.

Nutting completed his Ph.D. in 1933 and accepted a position teaching German and Greek at the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minnesota. In 1934, he married Eileen Barry, a schoolteacher he met while he was in Evergreen. He accepted a position at the University of Notre Dame as an assistant professor of history in 1936. He and his wife moved to Notre Dame, settling on two acres of land north of the university. Proponents of self-sufficiency, Nutting and his wife planned to turn their two acres into a small farm and raise a family there. Nutting and his wife had three children: Teresa (b. 1938), Charles (b. 1939) and Theodore (b.1943).

Nutting’s interests revolved around his faith, family, education, and agriculture. In his mind, these interests did not belong to separate spheres of life; rather, Nutting viewed each as an essential element to a life lived well. He was a frequent lecturer on each of these topics, his views on education gaining him much recognition through the publication of books like Schools and the Means of Education (1959) and The Free City (1967). He was primarily concerned with schools’ increasing institutionalization—the separation of education from family and community life—and secularization—the removal of any effort in schools to help students become good people and good citizens.

Nutting’s views on education received great support. In 1950, he became one of the founding members of Notre Dame’s General Program, a program that continues today as the Program of Liberal Studies. The General Program was modeled after the Great Books program at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. Nutting was a beloved teacher in the General Program; he valued the contributions of his students to each other’s learning and to his own. A 1968 article in the Dome jokingly stated, “Dr. Willis D. Nutting is a student at the University of Notre Dame. He confesses that he feels a bit strange taking a salary for learning. He sits back as moderator in a Great Books Seminar and allows students to teach each other and, of course, himself. He teaches too, sometimes.”

Nutting’s educational initiatives did not end with the undergraduates of Notre Dame. After developing a successful adult education program for Florida’s University of Melbourne, he began a program of adult education at Notre Dame, calling it a “Seminar on the Great Human Problems.” The program was open to adults over the age of 21 of any level of education for a fee of $15. There were no textbooks, no tests, and no grades, a feature that attracted many adults recalling their schools days. The program was a success and continued for many years. Nutting described his role in the program as “the most fruitful kind of teaching I have ever done.” His ideas on the simple life and agriculture extended into the classroom: “One of the best things about this kind of education is that almost no equipment is needed—just a teacher, some students, and a place to meet.”

Nutting officially retired from Notre Dame in 1970. When asked about her husband’s retirement, Mrs. Nutting once said, “Retire? Why, he never retired.” While no longer on the faculty, Nutting continued to teach side by side with younger teachers and held directed reading courses for students at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s. He also taught scripture classes to adults at Christ the King Parish. Nutting believed in “no retirement age for thinking people.”

Willis Nutting continued teaching—and learning—until his death in 1975, leaving behind a legacy of dedication to education, the faith, family, and the land. To commemorate his legacy, an award is given in his name each year to a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies who demonstrates Nutting’s commitment to teaching and learning.

It has seemed to me that American Educators in equating educations with schooling have had, and have given us, a very inadequate conception of what is necessary in the education of youth, and are therefore positively responsible in a measure for the difficulties that our young people and their elders find themselves in. (“Schools and the Means of Education”)

A society, and particularly a democratic society, needs all the wisdom in its citizens that it can get. Therefore any plan of education that tends to level men down to the average, that does not give opportunity for the development of the greatest wisdom possible wherever signs of it may appear, will be most disastrous for a democracy. (“Schools and the Means of Education”)

Many people are awakened in school. Usually it is some particular good teacher that is responsible for it. That is all to the good. Such a teacher’s price is far above rubies. (“Schools and the Means of Education”)

It is obvious that we live in the age of the expert. Anyone who wants to be anything must possess some special skill at doing some one thing. But as people and society become more and more into the hands of experts, it becomes more and more necessary that what the experts do be guided by wisdom; and wisdom does not lie within the realm of any kind of expertness. The expert…must either have the wisdom to use his expertness well and rightly, to know when, where and even whether to use the skill that he possesses; or else he becomes merely an instrument, powerful but blind, to function at the command of someone else, whether that someone be a government, a corporation, or the president of a university. (“The Free City”)


“Speaking of Education,” by Willis Nutting

Willis D. Nutting Papers (University of Notre Dame Press).

Willis D. Nutting, Schools and the Means of Education. Notre Dame: Fides Publishers, 1959.