James Gutmann graduated from Columbia College in 1918, one year too early to be able to take the Contemporary Civilization course as a student. But as a teacher, Gutmann was inseparable from Columbia's general education courses, teaching CC and later Humanities throughout his long career at the College.
A member of the philosophy department for more than forty years, he was well known for his work in German idealism, especially the writings of Kant. Soon after Gutmann joined the Contemporary Civilization staff in the early 1920s, John Coss identified him, along with Jacques Barzun and Dwight Miner, as a great teacher. When the College decided to resurrect Erskine's General Honors course in 1932 as the Colloquium on Important Books, Gutmann chaired the new program. When the College decided in 1937 to require Humanities A for all freshmen, Gutmann was in the first group of teachers, and remained in the course until his retirement. He succeeded Mark Van Doren as chairman of Humanities A, serving from 1942 until 1950. He also chaired the philosophy department in the early 1950s.
Colleagues praised Gutmann's tenure as Humanities A chairman, noting that he withstood the controversies of the time "with serenity and a curious managerial skill that never allowed frivolity to triumph over learning." Most students, however, remembered him for his skill as a teacher. Among his many honors was the Society of Older Graduates' Great Teacher Award in 1962. Even after retiring from full-time teaching, Gutmann continued to support general education at Columbia as director of the University Seminars from 1968 to 1976.