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Mortimer Adler Hits the RoadTo Incite a Curriculum Revolution

By Susan Walton — November 03, 1982 6 min read

Washington--Like an evangelist spreading the word, Mortimer Adler has taken to the road. During the past six weeks, the 79-year-old philosopher and educator has traveled all over the United States meeting with school officials, appearing on local television talk shows, being interviewed by the press, and talking to anyone else interested in listening.

His mission is simple: As the representative of the educators who make up the Paideia Group, Mr. Adler is explaining the Paideia Proposal, an “educational manifesto” that offers a plan for American education that would, he says, “revolutionize” the schools. Developed over a two-year period, the proposal was issued this fall.

To date, listeners have been positively disposed toward the idea, but uncertain how to put it into practice, Mr. Adler said when he touched down in Washington last week at a gathering sponsored by the Council for Basic Education (cbe). “I have not met with any reputable group that disagrees with the proposal,” he said. “I’ve had the sense that everyone sees the direction we’re going in as right.”

Some educators are ready to put the proposal to work, Mr. Adler said. School boards in Atlanta and Chicago have approved the proposal for use in the schools. In Atlanta, a pilot program is scheduled to begin next fall. Alonzo A. Crim, Atlanta’s superintendent, and Ruth B. Love, the superintendent of schools in Chicago, are members of the Paideia group.

But the same people who agree strongly with the proposal’s basic content often have doubts about whether it is possible to put it into effect. “All the questions are about how to do it and about implementation,” Mr. Adler said.

New Proposals

The questions arise, Mr. Adler acknowledged, because what the group proposes differs significantly, in both content and teaching methods, from the curriculum found in the public schools today.

The Paideia group argues that the current “multitrack” system of public schooling perpetuates “an abominable discrimination” because it aims at different goals for different groups of children.

To replace this, the group recommends a “one-track system of public schooling ... that has the same objectives for all without exception.’'

Such a system would aim at three main objectives that “are determined by the vocations or callings common to all children when they grow up as citizens earning their living and putting their free time to good use.”

“The twelve years of basic schooling must prepare them for this task, not by training them for one or another particular job in our industrial economy, but by giving them the basic skills that are common to all work in a society such as ours,” Mr. Adler writes.

The “basic skills” that the group advocates extend beyond the current “minimum-competency standards.” They include reading, writing, speaking, listening, observing, measuring, estimating, and calculating. Students would be required to learn the facts of the disciplines and how to use them.

Schools that followed the proposal would have students take a required curriculum that allows only one elective--a second foreign language.

The coursework would include language, literature, fine arts, mathematics (including calculus), natural sciences, history, geography, and social studies. Students would also take 12 years of physical education and hygiene, Mr. Adler said.

The curriculum would be organized around three “columns,” according to the proposal. The first, “acquisition of organized knowledge,” would teach students “about” things.

The second, “development of intellectual skills--skills of learning,” would focus on how students use this knowledge.

And the third, “enlarged understanding of ideas and values,” would involve discussion of books (other than textbooks) and works of art and “involvement in artistic activity.”

Three kinds of teaching would be required, according to the Paideia group. Didactic teaching--lecturing, describing, etc.--would be joined by teaching by coaching, and teaching by asking questions.

To follow the proposal would require educators to jettison many subjects that are now integral parts of public schooling, such as vocational education.

The group contends that precollege education is not the proper place to teach trades.

Adoption Will Take Time

The Paideia group does not expect its proposal to be adopted immediately by the public schools; Mr. Adler said that it might take 20 or 30 years.

Dennis Gray, deputy director of cbe and a member of the group, said that it would probably take that long “to change the way people look at schooling.”

The proposal’s lack of direction on “practical” matters, Mr. Adler said, is deliberate. He and the other members of the Paideia group intended only to outline what they regarded as the optimum education. “I don’t see why the Paideia group, having come up with the proposal, should solve all the practical problems, too,” Mr. Adler said. “It’s everyone’s job to solve the implementation problems.”

Providing a Framework

To those who ask, “How are you fellows going to do this?” Mr. Adler said, he replies, “No, how are you going to do it?”’

Moreover, he said, it would be “presumptuous” for the group to dictate the precise methods for carrying out the proposal. “We gave them a framework,” he said. “There are some imperatives, but they are not imperatives of detail.”

Hence, Mr. Adler said at the Washington meeting, neither he nor any other member of the group can answer such questions as “How will students be evaluated?”

“We don’t know the answer to that question,” Mr. Adler replied. “Everyone should think about it. There are lots of questions like that.’'

Other examples, he said, include whether it violates the “one-track ideal” to separate fast learners from slow learners and how teachers should prepare themselves to teach a curriculum that includes the Socratic method.

“If you ask questions like that, I’m going to say, ‘We don’t know the answers,”’ he said.

The answers, when they come, will probably differ considerably from current practices, Mr. Adler suggested. “The standards of accomplishment are different,” he said. “I’m not sure they can be measured by written tests.” He suggested that oral evaluations, although more difficult to conduct, would be a better measure of students’ accomplishments.

How teachers should accustom themselves to teaching by questioning is another area that educators will have to work out. Mr. Adler said that in time, schools of education might be drawn into the process of preparing teachers to teach according to the Paideia proposal.

But the best preparation, Mr. Adler said, would be for the teacher to have spent 12 years being educated according to the proposal, then attending a four-year liberal-arts college, then having a three-year “clinical experience.”

Teachers who are already teaching, he said, could learn how to use the Socratic method by watching videotapes of seminars at which it is used. He said he hopes to make such tapes available.

Educators who are interested but wary of trying the proposal may get some hints on practical applications within the next year, Mr. Adler said.

Second Book Scheduled

In mid-November, the Paideia group will reconvene to discuss how to use the curriculum. It will then produce another book, The Paideia Proposal: Pointers and Prospects, which is scheduled to be published next spring.

Additional information about implementing the concept may come from the Atlanta and Chicago experiments. In Atlanta, the program will begin next fall, with the 12-year curriculum to be phased in over three years. Mr. Adler will meet with school officials there next month to work out some of the details.

The best way to “test” the proposal in one school, he said, would be to draw the students at random from a district, rather than to recruit volunteers.

The students, he said, should include those with “a whole range of aptitudes, not just an elite few.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 1982 edition of Education Week as Mortimer Adler Hits the RoadTo Incite a Curriculum Revolution


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