Mortimer Adler

Mortimer Adler

If he were still alive on this earth, and if he were looking for an opening, any College or Classical Christian School looking for a first rate academic leader would be foolish not to at least interview Mortimer Adler.

In the modern world, with the modern academy having been taken over by the business model, one can only hope that somewhere there are Adler-like leaders being groomed. In an essay entitled, Liberal Schooling in the 20th Century released in 1960 (found in Reforming Education), Mortimer Adler lays out some of the most wonderful ideas and plans for higher education you will read anywhere in the modern world. What Adler said for the 20th century is as true and relevant for the 21st century. 

Adler begins with an assertion that many modern administrators would find appalling. Being a realist, who had some sense of human nature, he says the following about young people being educated, “The reason is simply that youth itself–immaturity of mind, character, and experience–is the insuperable obstacle to becoming educated. We cannot educate the young; the best we can do for them is to school them in such a way that they have a good chance to become educated in the course of their adult life.” Adler actually may have been ahead of his time, since all of us who have been teaching of recent years have had students leave high school and go to college who are not well prepared. There is evidence that even in college there is a growing rank of graduates who graduate and still need what Robert Hutchins called the “six R’s of remedial reading, remedial writing, and remedial ‘rithmetic.”

Specifically addressing the matter of Liberal arts and her growing disrepute, again quoting Hutchins, “the liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, undeveloped one, or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one.”

Writing in 1962, Mortimer Adler made assertions then that were not embraced and certainly would be considered ridiculous at our moment. When it comes to education, Adler says that there should be no specialized training in real liberal arts colleges and certainly no specialization in k-12. I remember reading not long ago that there are those who are saying that specialized training should actually begin in middle or high school, but we should test children for training in elementary school. Related to this notion is that since many colleges and universities are now flooded with electives in addition to specialized training, it would not surprise the reader that Adler said no to electives. He also says there should be no special divisions among the faculty. The teachers at a university, show first and foremost their worth, as teachers, by being excellent, authentic teachers.

Another extremely radical notion that Adler had in 1962 is that there should be no textbooks. Having been in a program for the past decade that does not use textbooks, I can 100% endorse Adler’s proposal. The truth is, textbooks do not in any way, shape, form, or fashion aid the student in thinking through material. For all the years that I have been part of college education and advocating using the Great Books throughout the curriculum by arguing that every course in every department should actually require some primary sources, the responses have always been the same from most administrators and professors, “students are simply not smart enough to understand these books.” It has been my deeply held conviction and, until this moment held in silence, that I do not believe that it is the students who are not smart enough for the Great Books to be taught across the curriculum. Adler gives an intriguing analogy to college students handling the Great Books. He says that the Great Books are like a puppy gnawing on a very large and meaty bone. The puppy might not succeed in getting very much nourishment from such a bone upon which it is constantly gnawing, however, the very activity and exercise of gnawing on the bone, vigorously gnawing, is of great long-term benefits to the puppy.

In the university where Adler would be Dean or a school where he would be Headmaster, all courses would at some point and in some way have the Socratic method as a dominate part of instruction. Adler says there would be “an occasional formal lecture out of course may supplement the Socratic method of teaching, which should be the model emulated by all teachers in a liberal arts college.”

How then are students evaluated in Mortimer Adler’s school? There are little to no written exams, there are only verbal exams. For those of us committed to the Trivium, we would certainly desire to petition Dean Adler to modify his current policy to include a great deal of writing. Imagine every class, everyday as an oral exam. The class sizes are small enough for students to be engaged by the teacher in a meaningful way about meaningful ideas.

It is truly tragic that Mortimer Adler had to actually defend the term Humanities in 1962 as it was already being abused. “When I say that the course of study in the liberal arts college should be exclusively humanistic, I do not mean to exclude the study of mathematics or of the natural sciences. When these subjects are approached in a certain way, they are as much a part of the humanities as our philosophy, history, and the social sciences, or the fine arts of poetry, music, painting, and sculpture. For those who may still be missing the brilliance of Adler’s academic approach, he does qualify what he means by the term humanistic. His clarification is rather simple, it “is to say that the humanistic approach to any subject matter is philosophical, in the sense that it looks for the universal and abiding principles, the fundamental ideas and insights, the controlling canons of procedure or method, all of which are determined by the faculties of man as inquirer or learner.” Again, for those in Classical Christian education, he is essentially addressing the good, the true, and the beautiful.

It should be remembered this essay was originally published in 1962. At that point Adler was seeing that many professional schools were asserting, especially in the areas of law, medicine, and engineering, that college graduates are woefully inept in their preparation to do the kind of work one should be doing in the field of law, medicine and engineering. One could certainly add other graduate studies to this list. If it was that bad in 1962, one can only imagine how much worse it has become by today. So what is one to do? Look for the Adlers of today and work with them, serve with them, learn from them, and do all these things in Kingdom terms so as to see fruit in the here and now, plant seed for the future, and make an eternal difference.

Books by Mortimer Adler may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Musings of a Christian Humanist.

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