Mortimer Adler is an American professor, philosopher, and educational theorist.
Born in 1902 in New York City, the son of an immigrant jewelry salesman, Adler dropped out of school at age 14 to become a copy boy for the New York Sun. He hoped to become a journalist, and decided a few years later to take some classes at Columbia University to improve his writing. While there he became interested in philosophy after reading the works of English philosopher John Stuart Mill. Upon learning that Mill had read Plato at age five, Adler decided to broaden his philosophical knowledge.
He was so absorbed in his studies that he failed to fulfill the physical education requirement for graduation. However, Columbia soon awarded him an honorary doctorate because of the quality of his writings. Adler went on to become a psychology professor at Columbia, where he worked throughout the 1920s.
As a professor at Columbia, he wrote numerous books about Western philosophy and religion, as well as his own works of philosophy. In his philosophical works, he avoided academic-sounding language in order to make his thoughts accessible to all readers. This practice is consistent with his belief that ‘philosophy is everybody’s business’.
He has written more than 50 books over the course of his life.
In the 1930s Adler became a professor at the University of Chicago, where he advocated the adoption of the Classics as a main part of the curriculum. The faculty was reluctant to follow his ideas, and reassigned Adler to the Law School. In later years, Adler helped to found the Institute for Philosophical Research at the University of North Carolina, the Aspen Institute, and the Center for the Study of the Great Ideas.
At his institutions, Adler focuses on making the study of Philosophy available to all people, not just specialists and the university-educated. At the Aspen Institute, for example, he teaches philosophy to business executives. He is currently a chairman of the Board of Editors at Encyclopedia Britannica and the director for the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago, as well as a senior associate at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.
Mortimer Adler is Perennialist who believes that philosophy should become part of mainstream public school curriculum. He believes that education should be basically the same for everyone, because children’s “sameness as human beings…means that every child has all the distinguishing properties common to all members of the species.” (Paideia, p.43) In his Paideia Proposal, which sets out his vision for American public schools, Adler says that children must acquire three different types of knowledge: organized knowledge, intellectual skills, and understanding of ideas and values. For each of these types of knowledge, there is a different teaching style. Organized, or factual, knowledge is to be taught through lectures, intellectual skills are to be taught through coaching and supervised practice, and understanding of ideas and values are to be taught through the Socratic method of discussion and questioning.
Adler believes in liberal, non-specialized education without electives or vocational classes. For him, education should serve three purposes: to teach people how to use their leisure time well, to teach people to earn their living ethically, and to teach people to be responsible citizens in a democracy. He believes that each person has the innate ability to do these three things, and that education should above all prepare people to become lifelong learners. Education never ends, in his view – age 60 is the earliest that anyone can claim to be truly ‘educated’, and only then if they have devoted their life to learning.
Philosophy and the arts are central to Adler’s educational vision. While he believes that every child should study math, science, history, geography, measurement, and other subjects in the lower grades, his plan for upper secondary school and college centers on students gaining insight into works of fiction, poetry, drama, art, and the like. This, way, Adler believes, students will gain an understanding of their own minds as well as the minds of others. Philosophy and art are for everyone, in his view. No one should be allowed to avoid them. College students, in Adler’s view, should be required to take a core of classes dealing with Western philosophy, politics, and religion. In short, everyone should be educated in the same way, towards an understanding of truth based on Western philosophy.
Although Mortimer Adler has written a plan for all public schools in the United States, his ideas have had the most impact at the college level. During the 1920s and 1930s, Adler’s belief in the importance of Classical education led a significant number of American colleges and universities to adopt ‘Great Books’ programs – cores of required classes that focus on key works of Western philosophy and literature. Columbia University, Adler’s alma mater, adopted a form of this program that endures today: all undergraduates are required to take one year-long class in ‘Masterpieces of Western Literature’ and one more year-long class in ‘Masterpieces of Contemporary Civilization’. In addition, students must take one semester in ‘Masterpieces of Western Art’ and one semester in ‘Masterpieces of Western Music’. Many other colleges use some form of the Great Books program, inspired by Adler‘s ideas.
In primary and secondary education, Adler’s ideas about great books of Western Philosophy seem to have influenced the education of prior generations more than the education of today’s children. Any literature curriculum that involved reading great works of Western literature and/or philosophy can be said to be influenced somewhat by Adler’s type of ideas.
Major Works of Mortimer Adler
London, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner and Co, Ltd., and New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.
with Jerome Michael: The Nature of Judicial Proof: An Inquiry into the Logical, Legal, and Empirical Aspects of the Law of Evidence (1931) New York, Columbia University Law School
with Maude Phelps Hutchins: Diagrammatics (1932), New York, Random House, Inc., 1935
with Jerome Michael: Crime, Law, and Social Science (1933), London, Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner and Co, Ltd., and New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company; reprinted with Introduction by Gilbert Geis, Montclair, N.J., Patterson Smith, (1971)
Art and Prudence: A Study in Practical Philosophy (1937), New York and Toronto, Longmans, Green and Co. Chapters 1-5; 12, reprinted with Introduction by Samuel Hazo as Poetry and Politics (1965) Pittsburgh, Pa., Duquense University Press
Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy (1978) New York, Macmillan Publishing Company; Bantam Books, 1980; Collier Books, 1991.
The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982) (On Behalf of the Paideia Group) New York, Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1982.
– The Human Equation in Dialiectic, Psyche 28 (April 1927), 68-82
– An Analysis of the Kinds of Knowledge, May, 1935. (mimeograph)
– The Crisis in Contemporary Education, The Social Frontier V (February 1939), 140-145
– Are the Schools Doing their Job?, Town Meeting, Columbia University Press, 4(March 6, 1939), 11-16
– Education in Contemporary America, Better Schools, 2 (March-April 1940), 76-80
– Progressive Education? No!, The Rotarian, September 1941, 29-30; 56-57
– The Great Books of 2066, Playboy, January 1966, 137; 224-226; 228
– The Joy of Learning, KNOW, 1 (1974), Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 18-21
– The Disappearance of Culture, (My Turn), Newsweek, August 21, 1978, 15
– Children Must by Taught how to Learn, Long Island Newsday, September 17, 1978
– Revising American Education, The Commonwealth, LXXVII (December 19, 1983), The Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, California, 380-381, 384
– Is Philosophy Worthwhile?, (1993) William F. Buckley, Jr. interviews Mortimer Adler about The Four Dimensions of Philosophy. Firing Line videotape