Education Opinion

His Life A Reminder of Our Humanity

By Terry Roberts — September 05, 2001 5 min read
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For all his reputation as an elitist, Mortimer J. Adler argued vehemently for the democratization of American schools.

The story goes that once, at a dinner party, the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler overheard a much younger colleague discussing what might occur after the great man’s death. From across the room, Adler called out, in a completely sincere tone of voice, “What causes you to think I will ever die?” This summer, on June 28, what had come to seem an unlikely event occurred: Mortimer Adler died at his home in San Mateo, Calif., at age 98.

Adler was born in New York City in 1902; his father, Ignatz, was a salesman and his mother, Clarissa, a former teacher. Although a gifted student, Adler dropped out of school at age 15 and became in time the assistant to the editor of the New York Sun. After reading John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, he decided on his own volition to become a philosopher and worked his way into the philosophy program at Columbia University. He completed his degree in three years, but was denied a diploma because he refused to take physical education classes or the required swim test.

It was not until 1983 that Columbia waived the swimming requirement and awarded Adler an honorary degree, the same year that DeWitt Clinton High School in New York awarded him a high school diploma. Adler had a long and brilliantly prolific career as a classicist, philosopher, educational reformer, and cultural gadfly. Indeed, much of his public life was marked by controversy—in part because of his often unpopular devotion to the idea of absolute truth and to his conviction that even the average citizen must practice the life of the mind. He once wrote, for example, that “the fundamental ideas and concepts upon which education should be based are not merely the mores and beliefs which happen to be current in 20th-century America. They are universal truths about what constitutes a good education for all men at all times and places simply because they are men.”

Adler saw a profound connection between democracy as a fragile, idealistic experiment and the function of universal education.

As part of his seminal work with the Paideia Program during the 1980s and ‘90s, he advocated strenuously for high expectations for all students, a universal core curriculum (similar to the more recent “national standards”), and for authentic assessment based on the progress of the individual child. If these ideas sound familiar in their more current guises, it is due in large part to Adler’s influence, both direct and indirect, on the next generation of educational reformers. Almost 20 years after the publication of The Paideia Proposal, the Paideia Program remains faithful to his original proverb that “all genuine learning is active, not passive,” and his conviction that active learning is the key to all citizens’ earning a decent living and leading a full life.

Unfortunately, Adler’s dedication to the classical, combined with what was often a difficult, even autocratic, personality, has led to his being dismissed by far too many contemporary educators. I say unfortunately, because he consistently articulated a set of ideas about schooling in a democracy that we would all be wise to recall, especially in a contemporary scene dominated by standardization and high-stakes testing. First and foremost, Adler’s ideas about educational reform were founded on a coherent and well-developed philosophy about the nature of humankind. He believed that our species was the most adaptable on earth and that we as individuals of that species are constantly evolving. In The Paideia Proposal, he wrote:

Of all the creatures on earth, human beings are the least specialized in anatomical equipment and in instinctive modes of behavior. They are, in consequence, more flexible than other creatures in their ability to adjust to the widest variety of environments and to rapidly changing external circumstances ... to the shock of change.

Strongly influenced by John Dewey (one of his professors at Columbia), Adler saw a profound connection between democracy as a fragile, idealistic experiment and the function of universal education. As he wrote:

The two—universal suffrage and universal schooling—are inextricably bound together. The one without the other is a perilous delusion. Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy—not rule of law, not constitutional government by the people as well as for them.

He argued constantly that we are compelled by history to include all American children and adolescents in a demanding and active public schooling—a schooling that teaches them to think, not merely to recite or perform. He argued:

We are politically a classless society. Our citizenry as a whole is our ruling class. We should, therefore, be an educationally classless society. ... We should have a one-track system of schooling, not a system with two or more tracks, only one of which goes straight ahead while the others shunt the young off onto sidetracks not headed toward the goals our society opens to all.

This remains a strong and even threatening statement to a society that as recently as 1998 saw nearly 30 percent of its Hispanic students drop out of high school, to a society that to this day retains far too many schools that are rigorously segregated according to the perceived ability of students. For all his reputation as an elitist, Adler argued vehemently for the democratization of American schools.

Further, he advocated that we greatly expand our notions of what it is to be educated. He did not believe that standardized tests measured all there is to know about a student’s development. In fact, he believed that a K-12 education only prepared students for what must become a life of continuous learning. In 1982, he wrote:

Education is a lifelong process of which schooling is only a small but necessary part. The various stages of education reach terminal points. Each can be completed in a definite term of years. But learning never reaches a terminal point. As long as one remains alive and healthy, learning can go on—and should.

And by 1988, when the Paideia Group codified the “Paideia Principles,” he would write that “schooling at its best is preparation for becoming generally educated in the course of a whole lifetime, and schools should be judged on how well they provide such preparation.”

Part of the reason that Adler believed true education to be a lifelong process is that he believed it had to do with the development of the whole person. One objective of basic education, he wrote:

... relates to that aspect of adult life which we call personal growth or self-improvement—mental, moral, and spiritual. Every child should be able to look forward not only to growing up but also to continued growth in all human dimensions throughout life. All should aspire to make as much of their powers as they can. Basic schooling should prepare them to take advantage of every opportunity for personal development that our society offers.
Perhaps his greatest gift was his belligerent insistence that we balance intellectual rigor with equal access.

For Adler, basic education (by which he meant the education that we all hold in common) had profound spiritual and emotional dimensions, and so could not be reduced to a test score or transcript. A basic education, the birthright of every child who is born in or comes to America, is a profoundly humanizing experience.

Although Adler’s three books delineating the Paideia Program have influenced the work of many educational leaders, perhaps his greatest gift—what we might now call a bequest—was his belligerent insistence that we balance intellectual rigor with equal access. Further, that we prepare the whole child: not just for the tests at the end of the year, but for the far more difficult tests of life.

Typically, Adler chose the epigraph for his 1983 Paideia Problems and Possibilities from a book by a 17th-century Moravian humanist named John Amos Comenius. Were he alive today, I believe that Mortimer Adler would enjoy the fact that although these words were written over 300 years ago, they serve as a fitting epitaph for a 20th-century American educator:

“The education that I propose includes all that is proper for a man and it is one in which all men who are born into this world should share. ... Our first wish is that all men be educated fully to full humanity, not any one individual, not a few, nor even many, but all men together and singly, young and old, rich and poor, of high and lowly birth, men and women—in a word, all those whose fate it is to be born human beings, so that at last the whole of the human race become educated, men of all ages, all conditions, both sexes, and all nations.”

Terry Roberts is the director of the National Paideia Center and the co-author of The Power of Paideia Schools and Teaching for Understanding: The Paideia Classroom. He can be reached via the National Paideia Center Web site at www.paideia.org.


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