Mortimer Adler

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A black-and-white photo of Adler wearing a mortarboard hat and gown

Mortimer Jerome Adler (December 28, 1902June 28, 2001) was an American Aristotelian philosopher and author.


Reforming Education: No Quick Fix[edit]

  • For the educational establishment... test scores are treated as indications of the extent to which the required ground covering has been done. educationally significant. However, while they may be prognostic of a child's ability to get through school... they do not provide us with an appraisal of the child's progress in the long process of becoming a generally educated human being -- the advance made toward a more skillful, thoughtful, and cultivated mind.
  • Many... have the wrong expectation of the profit to be derived from schooling. They think that the only purpose of schools is to prepare their children to earn a living. While that certainly is an objective to be served, it is, in terms of human values, less important than preparation for citizenship and for leading a richly rewarding, good human life. Even with regard to earning a living, our high-tech economy, preparation for earning a good living is more readily secured by those who can read, write, speak, and figure well and who have learned how to think critically and reflectively, rather than by those given specialized job training...
  • A report of the Carnegie Foundation recommended the abolition of the undergraduate bachelor of science degree in education leading to the state certification of teachers. Schools of education should become research institutions at the graduate level of the university and not places for the training of schoolteachers. Those planning to enter the profession of teaching should have four years of general, liberal education at the college level, and then three years of practice teaching under supervision... the best teacher is one who learns in the process of teaching.
  • and other external indices of social success must become subordinate to the inner attainments of moral and intellectual virtue.
  • adequate reform of public education in our school system cannot be accomplished by anything like a quick fix. We suspect that anyone who thinks otherwise cannot fully understand the shape of an adequate reform or all the obstacles to be overcome in achieving it.
  • is only by struggling with difficult books, books over one's head, that anyone learns to read.
  • The books to be read should not be limited to those written in English.... Instead it should be devoted to the great works of history, biography, philosophy, theology, natural science, social science, and mathematics, as well as the... tradition of Western literature -- in English translation... Its aim should not be a survey of Western civilization, but an effort to understand the basic ideas and issues in Western thought.
  • Every seminar should involve at its conclusion the assignment of a short composition in which students would attempt to state how their understanding of the book discussed in the seminar was increased by their participation in the discussion.
  • ...our political democracy depends upon the reconstitution of our schools. Our schools are not turning out young people prepared for the high office and the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic. Our political institutions cannot thrive, they may not even survive, if we do not produce a greater number of thinking citizens, from whom some statesmen of the type we had in the eighteenth century might eventually emerge. We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical reform of our schools can save us from impending disaster... Whatever the price... the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater.

How to Read a Book (1940, 1972)[edit]

  • Too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.
    • p. 4
  • [Television, radio, and magazines] are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think.
    • p. 4
  • Montaigne speaks of an “Abecedarian” ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it. The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their A-B-C’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books. They are, as Alexander Pope rightly calls them, “bookful blockheads, ignorantly read.” There have always been literate ignoramuses, who have read too widely, and not well. The Greeks had a name for such a mixture of learning and folly which might be applied to the bookish but poorly read of all ages. They are all “sophomores.”
  • To avoid this error, the error of assuming that that to be widely read and to be well read are the same thing, we must consider a certain distinction in types of learning. ... In the history of education, men have often distinguished between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. ... Discovery stands to instruction as learning without a teacher stands to learning through the help of one. In both cases the activity of learning goes on in the one who learns. It would be a mistake to suppose that discovery is active learning, and instruction passive. There is no inactive learning, just as there is no inactive reading. This is so true, in fact, that a better way to make the distinction clear is to call instruction “aided discovery.”
  • It is obvious that teaching is a very special art, sharing with only two other arts, agriculture and medicine, an exceptionally important characteristic A doctor may do many things for his patient, but in the final analysis, it is the patient himself who must get well, grow in health. The farmer does many things for his plants or animals, but in the final analysis, it is they that must grow in size and excellence. Similarly, although the teacher may help his student in many ways, it is the student himself who must do the learning. Knowledge must grow in his mind if learning is to take place.

Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography (1977)[edit]

  • [I]f local civil government is necessary for local civil peace, then world civil government is necessary for world peace.

Quotes about Adler[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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