Mortimer Adler: The Forgotten Educational Reformer

Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler on the Cover of Time Magazine, March 17, 1952

I firmly believe that Mortimer Adler is one of the most misunderstood and neglected thinkers of the last one hundred years. Often labeled elitist and Eurocentric, people often confuse his views on education with people like Allen Bloom and Ed Hirsch, who advocate a kind of cultural literacy as a key component of education. On the contrary, I believe Adler’s views on educational reform are deeply democratic and innovative. He was recommending changes to the educational system decades before other more trendy names were found for them. The concepts behind educational buzz words like “critical thinking,” “literature circles,” “project-based learning,” and “inquiry learning” are found throughout Adler’s writings.

Unfortunately for today’s schools, Adler’s work is often buried behind a prejudicial wall of misunderstanding, based on an incomplete and inaccurate picture of what Adler stood for. Adler is often invoked by homeschoolers (another misunderstood group), great books programs and private academies, leading to the false impression that his work is somehow arch-conservative, perennialist or exclusive. To be clear, while I consider Adler one of my intellectual heroes, I don’t agree with everything he proposed, and he sometimes comes across as arrogant. But I think many of his ideas are so important they deserve to be considered by everyone interested in educational reform.

To that end, I’d like to periodically share some of his ideas in his own words, with my occasional comments. Ideally, I’d love to get a conversation going about the reforms he suggests. So please feel free to drop in and leave comments whenever he or I touch a nerve.

To begin with, people often think that because Adler advocated great books programs that he is just another advocate of the “dead white male” approach to literature, whereby reading a limited set of writings gives us the truths of the universe. But as he explains below in his introduction to Reforming Education, this is not his idea of reading great books at all:

Some basic truths are to be found in the great books, but many more errors will also be found there, because a plurality of errors is always to be found for every single truth. One way of discovering this is to detect the contradictions that can be found in the books of every great author. Being human works, they are seldom free from contradictions. Skill in reading and thinking is required to find them. But, given that skill, finding contradictions in a book puts one on the highroad in the pursuit of truth. The truth must lie on one or the other side of every contradiction. It is there for us to detect when we are able to resolve the contradiction in favor of one side or the other….

The difference between [Leo] Strauss’ method of reading and and teaching the great books and the method that [Robert] Hutchins and I had adopted…lies in the distinction between a doctrinal and a dialectical approach. The doctrinal method is an attempt to read as much truth as possible (and no errors) into the work of a particular author, usually devising a special interpretation, or by discovering the special secret of an author’s intentions. This method may have some merit in the graduate school where students aim to acquire narrowly specialized scholarship about a particular author. But it is the opposite of the right method to be used in conducting great books seminars in schools and colleges where the aim is learning to think and the pursuit of truth.

A “dialectical approach” where the aim is “learning to think and the pursuit of truth.” In reading classrooms across America something very similar to this is done under the title “Literature Circles.” If more teachers read Adler’s ideas of how to conduct a seminar with students, the level of thinking in literature circles would skyrocket. In any case, I think it’s clear that Adler is less interested in a cultural language that everyone speaks than he is interested in true dialogue about important ideas. Of course, some people will deny his assumption that objective truth exists at all, but perhaps that’s something we can take up at a later date. At this point, I’m simply interested in clarifying what Adler’s intentions were in promoting the use of great books in education.

Some might wonder what Adler means by “great books.” In an entertaining essay called “The Great Books of 2066” Adler lists seven characteristics:

  1. Great books are original communications. Their authors are communicating what they themselves have discovered, not repeating what they have learned by reading the books of other men.
  2. Great books have intellectual amplitude; each draws light from and throws light on a large number and variety of ideas, all of them basic.
  3. Great books are universally relevant and always contemporary; that is, they deal with the common problems of thought and action that confront men in every age and every clime.
  4. Great books are the only books that may be deemed indispensable, every one of them, to a genuine, sound liberal education.
  5. Great books are the only books that never have to be written again — that do so well what they set out to do that they cannot be improved upon. (For this simple but penetrating statement about the nature of a great book, I am grateful to my friend Carl Van Doren.)
  6. Great books are inexhaustible; they are indefinitely reread-able, each time with additional profit; understandable to some degree on the first reading, they continue to deepen our understanding every time we reread them, and we can never exhaust their power to enlighten us; no matter how many times we read them, there is always more for us to understand.
  7. Great books are addressed to human beings, not to some special group of students, scholars or experts; they are seldom written by professors and, if they are, they are never written exclusively for professors.

I look forward to hearing any thoughts you might have on Mortimer Adler and/or his ideas, especially as they relate to teaching.

Cross-posted at One Catholic Life.

1 Response

  1. ktenkely says:

    I’m not familiar with Adler and appreciate the introduction! I find that with all views on education (no matter who they come from) there will be some things that I agree with and others that I oppose. It is important for us to take a look at all ideas and give them voice if only to consider all of the options. What we glean from the ideas as worthwhile is what we need to compile and keep.

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