Commentary Magazine

The Paideia Proposal, by Mortimer J. Adler

Schooling for All

The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto.
by Mortimer J. Adler.
Macmillan. 84 pp. $6.95 hardcover; $2.95 paper.

In the course of a writing career going back more than fifty years, Mortimer Adler has told us How to Read a Book (1940), How to Think About War and Peace (1944), and How to Think About God (1980). Now he has turned his attention to the reform if not the complete restructuring of American elementary and secondary education.

True to his own preferences in working style—he has led such vast collaborative projects as the Great Books publication program; the efforts of the Institute for Philosophical Research to define exhaustively leading ideas such as freedom; and, most recently, the current edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—Adler appears here as spokesman for a group of pedagogic notables. Known as the Paideia Group, its members include Jacques Barzun, Clifton Fadiman, and Theodore Sizer, the former headmaster of Phillips Academy, Andover. On the supporting list are several names from the Institute for Philosophical Research, the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and the Great Books concept in its academic manifestations.

Notwithstanding the appearance of joint labor, this small book is vintage Adler. It begins, as Adler so likes to do, with an admirably inclusive definition of the audience he is addressing: parents, teachers, school boards, college educators, elected public officials, employers, minority groups, labor leaders, military leaders, and American citizens. For Adler, all these groups are deeply concerned, each for its own reasons, with the future of public education. To deal with this concern, Adler suggests measures “to improve the opportunities of our youth, the prospects of our economy, and the viability of our democratic institutions . . . [all to] be achieved at the community level without resorting to a monolithic, national educational system.”



The Adler proposals start with twelve years of universal schooling. He follows John Dewey (to whom the book is dedicated, along with Horace Mann and Adler’s old associate, Robert Hutchins) in believing that in a democratic society we must give children not only the same quantity but also the same quality of public education. Yet in this pursuit, Adler asserts, we have failed: we are not an educationally classless society. By separating children into the academically educable and the intellectually hopeless, we have perpetuated a “hypocrisy in our national life.” Adler, who is strongly against vocational training in secondary schools, finds “every child educable up to his or her capacity. Educable—not just trainable for jobs!” This education must be based on the principle that “the best education for the best is the best education for all.”

Two chapter titles convey in themselves much of Adler’s intention: “The Same Objectives for All” and “The Same Course of Study for All.” The objectives are personal growth and self-improvement, citizenship, and preparation for earning a living. What is taught must be general and liberal, nonspecialized and nonvocational; it must be, “in several, crucial, overarching respects, one and the same for every child.” Pre-college elective choices in courses are to be eliminated, with the exception of some variation in the study of a second language.

Adler illustrates his curriculum in a diagram divided into three columns: Acquisition of Knowledge, Development of Skill, and Enlargement of the Understanding. Knowledge (in the basic academic discipline) is to be acquired through lectures, textbooks, and student responses thereto. Skills—including skills of learning—are to be developed through coaching and drill. Enlarged Understanding—of ideas and values—is to develop through “Socratic questioning and active participation.” The goals for all are to be set high.

While Adler emphasizes skills, his heart clearly lies in his third column, Enlargement of the Understanding. Here is the essence of the Great Books Program: learning to be at home among the leading ideas through the reading of masterworks and the directed discussion of their contents. In the arts and literature, for example, Adler writes:

Music and other works of art can be dealt with in seminars in which ideas are discussed; but, like poetry and fiction, they need an additional treatment in order to be appreciated aesthetically—to be enjoyed and admired for their excellence. In this connection, exercises in the performance and composition of poetry, music, and visual works, as well as the production of dramatic works, will help develop that appreciation in the most direct manner.



Adler has anticipated the argument that most children are not capable of responding to intellectual demands so intensive and many. Not only does he state that students will rise to meet challenges that are properly offered to them, he also proposes wide efforts at “preschool tutelage” to remedy “initial impediments.” About ineradicable individual differences he is sanguine, basing his attitude upon the Aristotelian and Thomist conceptions he has long espoused:

Despite their manifold individual differences, the children are all the same in their human nature. They are human beings and their human equality consists in the fact that no child is more or less human than another. . . . They all have the same inherent tendencies, the same inherent powers, the same inherent capacities. . . . Individual differences are always and only differences in degree, never differences in kind.

Crucial to the success of these educational plans is the quality of school learning, which Adler indeed calls “The Heart of the Matter.” Adler finds teachers at the heart of this heart, as “aids in the process of learning by discovery, not as knowers who attempt to put the knowledge they have in their minds into the minds of their pupils.” He writes:

The teacher’s role in discussion is to keep it going along fruitful lines by moderating, guiding, correcting, leading, and arguing like one more student! The teacher is first among equals.

This is hardly to say that Adler believes in permissiveness. He is firm about the need for discipline in the classroom, going so far as to invoke the once-banned word, “deportment.” Though he does not go into the details of punishment, he states clearly that “Infraction of rules of conduct . . . must be effectively dealt with” and that “Disturbing the peace is a serious matter in school as it is on the street—perhaps even more serious.”

In the first of two short concluding chapters Adler assigns a large part of the blame for the poor school performance of some minority-group children to the fact that they can only look forward “to unemployment after leaving school—thrown on the waste heap of a society that is squandering its human resources. Hopelessness about the future is bound to affect motivation in school.” For the present plight of education, he also blames parents who, in wishing material blessings for their children, neglect what these children need “to make themselves the best human beings they are capable of becoming.” To remedy both the hopelessness and the materialism, he asks a commitment on the part of society to a full-employment policy, and a realization by parents that the goals of basic schooling are “not just earning a living, but living well.” In the final chapter, Adler returns to the interrelationship among proper education, citizenship, and democracy. For him universal schooling and universal suffrage go hand in hand; without the former, the latter is an impossibility.

It cannot be denied that Adler’s proposals, so noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose (as Herbert Hoover said about Prohibition), contain much that will be attractive to anyone looking for seriousness in education. Many Americans are disturbed at the turning of our public schools into tax-funded day-care centers for intellectually idle children; many too are opposed to the importation into school curricula of every social and technological fad. The level of reading material assigned to students has dropped alarmingly over the past generation, and the idea of a common discourse based on an approach to high culture has been replaced by enforced acquaintance with the artifacts of popular entertainment. Minority-group parents are concerned about the inability of schools to lift their children out of a social quagmire. Discipline still remains an unsolved—and perhaps unexplored—problem across the entire school population.



But while Mortimer Adler does in fact address all these concerns, he does so in a way at once unpleasantly commanding in its tone and glibly superficial in its content. In The Paideia Proposal, as elsewhere in his writings, he proceeds as if realities which to the rest of us seem barely amenable to intellectual analysis are capable of being wholly subsumed in short, punchy arguments which do not admit (at least for Adler) of contradiction.

Thus, his linkage of universal schooling with universal suffrage depends on an unproved assertion that higher education leads to political wisdom; the history of totalitarianism and of its supporters would surely qualify that assertion. Similarly, his statement that giving children the same quantity of public education means that we must also give them the same quality of education would seem to play on the two meanings of the word quality—both virtue and kind. And what are we to make of his statement that “every child [is] educable up to his or her capacity”? Can this be more than a truism, stating little else than what is, is?

“Capacity” itself is surely more than just a matter of the ability to do things better or worse. Capacity also involves talent and interest. Scientists begin young, with intensive concentration in their field of interest; so do musicians, dancers, great athletes, mathematicians, and even chess players. Is it proper to force all these gifted and dedicated individuals into the Procrustean bed of a mandated curriculum?

In any case, as every teacher knows, positing goals is not the same thing as reaching them. Adler speaks of universal education as including not only the creation of musical, dramatic, and poetic works, but also the mastery of “at least one year of calculus.” This seems to assume that all will be well if only the determination of society (and teachers) is matched by the availability of undifferentiated, raw student material. One may be permitted one’s doubts.

Despite Adler’s concern with democracy and democratic education, his presentation is marked by an ignoring of private schooling and a bias against diversity and free choice by both parents and students. He justifies preschool tutoring, for example, with the following argument:

A democratic society, defined as an ideal to be approximated, is one in which all, being equal in their humanity, enjoy equality of treatment. But in actuality a democratic society is limited in its ability to effect such equality. It can do so only through the public agencies it is able to finance and over which it can exercise some control.

He is willing to use the mighty engine of the state to affect what many in our society view as private relationships:

The inequality of homes produces inequalities of nurture that lead some to draw wrong conclusions about the abilities of children. . . . The sooner a democratic society intervenes to remedy the cultural inequality of homes and environments, the sooner it will succeed in fulfilling the democratic mandate of equal educational opportunity for all.

Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of Adler’s program is his advocacy of education in the humanities. For him, of course, this humanistic education means the Great Books; he has devoted most of his life to just these works and just this approach to them. But even here, his own taste, as he himself describes it in his autobiographical Philosopher at Large (1977), seems both narrow and exclusionary:

To say, as I have said, that I have not learned a single fundamental truth from the writings of modern philosophers is not to say that I have learned nothing at all from them. With the exception of Hegel and other post-Kantian German philosophers, I have read their works with both pleasure and profit. The pleasure has come from the perception of errors the serious consequences of which tend to reinforce my hold on the truths I have learned from Aristotle and Aquinas. The profit has come from the perception of new but genuine problems, not the pseudo-problems, perplexities, and puzzlements invented by therapeutic positivism and by linguistic or analytical philosophy in our own century.

In one area, at least, Adler has indeed gone beyond his own reading of his philosophical masters; he now views democracy as “the only perfectly just form of government.” But his conception of democratic society is a curious one, and would seem to carry unhappy implications for both politics and culture. Marring much of his work is a strange reliance on the word all: “the best education for all,” “the same objectives for all,” “the same course of study for all.”

Here perhaps is the key not only to The Paideia Proposal but to Adler’s wider thinking as well. His goal is not the sheltering of diversity, the acceptance of choice and individual difference which has marked the growth of the American Republic. Instead he seems to envision the polity, no less than the course of general education, as an academic seminar writ large, with a leader, “first among equals” but nonetheless first, and all the rest sitting at their desks with notebooks open and minds at the ready. This vision may evoke something out of Orwell, but it hardly suggests the Founding Fathers.

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