Mortimer Adler, professor, philosopher, and educational theorist, was born in New York City in 1902. He left school at age 14 to write for newspapers and initially enrolled in Columbia University to improve his writing. Because he never passed the swimming test, he never earned a baccalaureate degree, but he did eventually earn a PhD from Columbia University where he studied with John Dewey. Adler eventually repudiated Dewey's faith in progress and in science, positing instead the argument that while human situations may change, human problems remain the same. For education, then, we should look to the ancients and to philosophy rather than to fashion and science.
It is not surprising, then, that “Mortimer Adler” and “great books” are often considered synonymous categories. Adler believed that the classics are the foundation of a good education for all people because they pass down the “great ideas.” Reading the great books develops ethical, socially responsible citizens who have in the great ideas the basic tools for living a good life. While Adler defines the three main objectives of education as (1) preparation for earning a living, (2) learning to be a good citizen of the republic, and (3) leading a morally good life, it is clear that he thinks the latter two purposes take precedence over the first because they lead to human happiness. Since learning to be a good citizen and learning how to lead a morally good life (and in fact actually doing so) are attainable through reading the classics, that mode of study should be primary and universal.
The Paideia Program (from paidos, Greek for “raising a child”) was based on an educational reform proposal from Adler and a group of like-minded scientists, educators, and business leaders intended to promote the reading and study of the great books. The program was based on the following tenets:
All children are educable.
Education is a lifelong activity.
The primary cause of learning is the activity of the child's mind, which is assisted by the teacher.
Multiple types of learning and teaching, including coaching and extended discussion, should augment lecturing.
Preparing to earn a living is not the primary objective of education.
In many ways, the program was a “back to basics” reform proposal, with reading, writing, and arithmetic at the heart of it. It was also a self-consciously democratic and egalitarian proposal. In the words of Adler (1998), “equality of educational opportunity” is not
taking all the children into the public schools for the same number of hours, days, and years. If once there they are divided into the sheep and the goats, into those destined solely for toil and those destined for economic and political leadership and for a quality of life to which all should have access, then the democratic purpose has been undermined by an inadequate system of public schooling. (p. Existing Achievement Gaps)
Given his argument for a universal great books education, it is somewhat ironic that Adler's name and the Paideia Program have been associated with elitist approaches to education. There are three apparent reasons for the recurrent charges of elitism. The first is that great books curricula have usually taken root and flourished only at wealthy, private institutions such as Columbia, The University of Chicago, and Stanford—which abandoned its required freshman great books curriculum in the late 1980s but maintains an optional program (known as SLE, for “structured liberal education”), as does Yale (“directed studies”)—or at renowned, equally wealthy, liberal arts colleges. (Exceptions that arguably prove the rule are honors programs at state universities, like the Honors College at the University of Houston, that require a Paideia-like curriculum for all majors.)
The second source of suspicion of elitism derives from a constellation of practical and populist notions about the vocational purpose of education, some of the more sophisticated of which derive from Adler's old foe John Dewey. Adler does not help his cause with such critics when he argues that the ancients regarded the training for particular jobs as the training of slaves. In Adler's view, the ancients, always his authority on matters of education, saw the pursuit of happiness as the universal human vocation and the primary, if not the sole, purpose of education.
Finally, programs inspired or supported by Adler have faced charges of bias and elitism. In 1986, these charges flared during debates at Stanford University, when students and faculty challenged a freshman requirement and its “core list” of 15 works, from Homer and the Hebrew Bible to Marx, Darwin, and Freud. The controversy culminated in 1989 with Stanford replacing “Western Culture” with a multicultural course titled “Culture, Institutions, and Values,” or CIV. More directly and personally, charges of racism and sexism hounded Adler then and continue to this day—for his sometimes strident opposition to the inclusion of works by non-Western and non-European writers as well as works by women and persons of color and for his unwavering advocacy of the so-called canon consisting almost exclusively of “dead White males.” Champions of multiculturalism at Stanford and elsewhere included Black student organizations, feminist groups, and others on the cultural left who argued that a curriculum like Adler's could not be relevant to the contemporary world in which students lived. The lack of “balance” in the curriculum was proof that there must be a bias beneath the egalitarian surface of the Paideia Program. Adler countered that great books, as opposed to good books, are not relevant for one moment or locale but for all time and that they provide an essential grounding for everyone—a common culture necessary for a functional democracy.
With multicultural critics of content on one side and populist critics of purpose on another, Adler's great books curriculum faced opposition on both the left and the right. During the 1980s and 1990s, the reputation of Adler's unifying and democratizing intentions were tarnished when critics lumped him with E. D. Hirsch, who helped fan the culture wars with his call for a “national culture,” and Allan Bloom and William Bennett, both of whom Adler considered elitist. More recently, Nel Noddings developed a nuanced alternative to Adler's program, which she calls a “Whitmanesque” curriculum, for poet Walt Whitman. Adler's insistence on a one-track system of education ignores real differences in talent and interest, Noddings claims, thus alienating and humiliating students who are not engaged by a Paideia-like program of study. She advocates a broader, less bookish, understanding of intellectual work, one that includes those who cook and those who repair as well as those who speak and write. Summarizing, then, critics of Adler object to the impractical, nonvocational nature of his program, the rigidity of its application to all children, and the preponderance of Western, White, and male writers in his great books canon.
Respecting the last and best known of these objections, great books programs are now often modified to include “alternative voices”: works by women, persons of color, and non-Western/non-European authors. At almost every institution influenced by Adler, his 54 great books and the 102 great ideas he indexed in the Synopticon have been expanded and modified, and educators are generally less sanguine about the universality and sufficiency of their approach. Yet Adler's central insight still underlies much of what is identified as “core” or general education in schools, colleges, and universities. If they cannot agree on a list of titles, many, if not most, educators do believe in classic, universally valuable books and perennial ideas that are relevant to human problems in all times and situations. The implicit, if not explicit, assumption is that some ideas endure and broadly influence individuals and societies, and some books, let us call them “great,” reward and sustain when read with attention and care.
See also Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge/Skills; Dewey, John; Essentialism, Perennialism, and the “Isms” Approach; Multiculturalism; Noddings, Nel; Paideia; Vocational Education