In 1921, Nutting graduated from the University of Iowa, the school where his father was a professor of zoology. After graduation, 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. He became the pastor of a parish in Antigua. After contracting an illness in Antigua, Nutting 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 church’s beliefs. He wrestled with many questions and found the answers he was looking for in the Catholic Church. He left the Episcopal Church and became Catholic. 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, Minn. 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 (very) 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, his 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. He authored many books and articles on the subject of education, including Schools and the Means of Education, a book published in 1959, and The Free City, published in 1967. He was primarily concerned with the 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 -- of schools.
Nutting’s views on education received great support. In 1950, Willis 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 stop 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. The program was titled “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 readings 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.” In fact, upon his retirement, a group of Nutting’s supporters organized a campaign to have Nutting appointed president and Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, then president of the university, elevated to the new rank of chancellor. The university’s charter states that only a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross may be president of the university. However, Nutting’s supports wanted him to direct the administration. They collected signatures on petitions to change the charter and were of the mind that Fr. Hesburgh would have more time to concentrate on his activities outside the confines of Notre Dame if he were chancellor.
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.”
-- Preface, 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 become 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 ether 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
Press Release to South Bend Tribune by Department of Public Information, Willis D. Nutting Papers (University of Notre Dame Press).
Faculty and Administration Questionnaire, 17 Sept. 1958, Willis D. Nutting Papers (University of Notre Dame Press).
Willis D. Nutting Papers (University of Notre Dame Press).
Nutting, Willis D. Schools and the Means of Education. Notre Dame: Fides Publishers, 1959.