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Mortimer Adler, Paideia, and Classical Education

book review, mortimer adler

Imagine being inspired to read Plato’s dialogues by first reading the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill–yes, that John Stuart Mill, the naturalist and utilitarian. That is precisely what happened to Mortimer Adler.

Classical Academic Press has released another in its Giants in the History of Education series, under the editorship of Dr. David Diener. The new release is Mortimer Adler: The Paideia Way of Classical Education by Dr. Robert M. Woods. Dr. Woods is a friend of mine and one of my professors. He is a fan of Mortimer Adler and the Paideia approach, and, to be forthright, he gave me a free review copy of the new book. All of which is to say I am biased. It is unlikely that I will be able to give a “fair and balanced” review of the book. But I wonder if that actually matters?

For instance, when I once told my daughter that she is beautiful, she responded as many children do, “You have to say that, you’re my father!” I thought about it for a moment, then realized that’s precisely the reason why I know it to be true and that I know it better than anyone else could (excepting her mother, of course)! It seems strange to me that a daughter (mine or anyone’s) will hold a stranger’s opinion of her beauty–a stranger who makes his assessment on little more than the immediate response to her physical appearance and shape–in higher esteem than her father’s opinion of her beauty–an opinion that includes her physical appearance and her emotional, spiritual, mental, and a thousand other attributes with it. My daughter agreed with my realization, though that is not the point of this anecdote.

So, sure, someone who does not know Dr. Woods and the fine folks at Classical Academic Press, nor one who has been influenced by Mortimer Adler or the Paideia approach to education could give a seemingly less biased review of the book, but why should that be considered of more value than my own?

Thus, I persist in reviewing this work. In summary, it’s short, sweet, and to the point.

Dr. Woods begins with a short biographical sketch of Adler. Did you know that Dr. Mortimer Adler never earned a high school diploma? Nor a bachelor’s degree? Nor a master’s degree? Yet he somehow earned a PhD, taught at Columbia University and the University of Chicago, helped develop the Great Books of the Western World set, and authored many books himself.

The book then continues by identifying the intellectual context into which Adler is born. He, as is classical education generally, is often criticized for elitism, yet his goal was to democratize real education–what David Hicks refers to as the ennobling of the masses in Norms and Nobility.

Dr. Woods then shares Adler’s view of the nature and purpose of education. They are “the moral and intellectual virtues…happiness or a good human life” (11). Or, “an education that enables students to reason clearly, listen closely, and be capable of writing and speaking well is a grand education” (11). Mortimer Adler insisted on the pursuit of apprehending and understanding ideas, and ideas are to be judged by their commitment to truth, goodness, and beauty. Woods then shares views distinctive to Adler. For, as he is clear to say, “while the Paideia approach is complementary to and in many ways parallel with the ideals of classical education, the two are not synonyms” (30). But, perhaps, my favorite line from this chapter is this one: “Textbooks would be all but banned for seventh through twelfth grade, and students would spend time studying primary works” (27). A textbook Adler defines as “instruments of didactic instruction” (57), which is to say fit only for the acquisition of organized knowledge, not for the learning of skills or ideas. If a book is communicating something within the realm of skills or ideas, it is unlikely to be a textbook properly understood.

Next, Dr. Woods shares Adler’s intellectual and pedagogical heritage. These are, primarily, the Great Books set, his pedagogical modes, and first steps for implementing such works and ways. Finally, he considers the implications of Adler on education in our day. In a world where education is ordered primarily by a culture’s desire to either propagandize or pragmatize, Adler calls us to order education according to the nature of the student and the lesson being taught. When we think only of our goals for these children who will someday be economic contributors in the marketplace, Adler wants us to think of these children as, themselves, having a human nature that matters in the classroom right now.

The book is worth reading not because it will give you an exhaustive understanding of all things Adler. It is worth reading because it is short, sweet, and to the point, because it will give you a good overview of Mortimer Adler and the contributions he has made to classical and liberal education–an overview that will help you to know where to look when you want to learn more, to get the more exhaustive view of what he was putting forth. Mortimer Adler was a well-educated man, despite his lack of all of the appropriate credentials, and we do a disservice to him, to our students, and to ourselves when we too quickly set those ideas aside.

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