Reforming Education (Mortimer Adler)

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RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Adler, Mortimer J. Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind.

Provocative writers make you rethink assumptions. Truly great writers make you a better human being at what you do. Mortimer Adler is a truly great thinker. This book is a collection of his key essays on education, what is wrong with it, and how to fix it. At the back of every essay is Adler’s commitment to the Great Books program.

We define education as “the process whereby the powers of human nature become developed by good habits” (Adler 17). An educated person is someone who is able to think through the Great Ideas. This means that no one will be an educated person upon graduation of high school or college. All we can reasonably hope to teach are the skills that prepare you to live as a free man. Intrinsic to Adler’s definition are a host of assumptions that will not be granted by today’s academic. Too bad for them. Adler assumes there is a human nature that can develop habits towards the Good.

Following that, if education prepares the free man for society, then there must be some end or goal that society should follow. A good education understands what is good for man at any time in place and/or what is good for man as he is a member of a particular society (44). As such, education cannot be severed from the virtues. Adler asserts that the “proximate ends of education are the moral and intellectual virtues” (60). The ultimate end is the good life.

A habit, accordingly, is a development “of powers or fulfillments of capacities” that “can be said to be good if they conform to the natural tendency of the power of capacity which they development” (61). From one, then, education is quite simple: identify the powers and capacities of a student and develop them towards the Good.

If schooling is simply the perfection of habits so that one may live a life of freedom towards some ultimate End, then we have to change the way we look at schooling. We simply need to make “young learners” rather than degrees (138). This requires revamping entire departments. For example, and here I speak as an English teacher, get rid of the English department. That’s the first step in bringing the humanities back to the center. English should rather be “The Great Books” plus rhetoric. Part of this is to get rid of the atomistic approach to teaching grammar. Also worth considering are the “three negations: abolish all departments, abolish all electives, abolish all textbooks” (163). If you can only pick one, choose the last one. There is no point in ever using a textbook in a humanities class.

The goal of the teacher is to be, as we saw in Plato’s Thaetaetus, a midwife to the student’s ideas. This requires the teacher to avoid the pitfalls of indoctrinating lecturing on one hand, and freestyle learning on the other. Rather, the teacher must cultivate the mind of the learner. The teacher is a cooperative artist, not a sole cause (171).

I don’t praise all of the book, though. Adler’s approach assumes not only the legitimacy of modern democracy, but even its totalizing approach. He’s consistent, though. If you believe in democracy (or representative government), which at its basic is extending enfranchisement to the whole, then it’s hard to see why public education shouldn’t be compulsory. Of course, I don’t think it is, but only because I don’t grant his major premise.
 

Andrew35

Puritan Board Sophomore
I stopped relying on textbooks a few years back. Wished I had done it sooner. They were a crutch.

One area where I disagree with Adler (and agree with Joseph Epstein): great books should not be bound in uniform, numbered volumes, but should span the shelves in all gloriously variegated sizes and colors -- and I have a personal fondness for cheap, worn paperbacks that I feel no guilt for marking up.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
I stopped relying on textbooks a few years back. Wished I had done it sooner. They were a crutch.

One area where I disagree with Adler (and agree with Joseph Epstein): great books should not be bound in uniform, numbered volumes, but should span the shelves in all gloriously variegated sizes and colors -- and I have a personal fondness for cheap, worn paperbacks that I feel no guilt for marking up.

Agreed. The binding did get a little better in quality over the years, but the format is terrible. I get why he did it, though.
 
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