Mortimer Adler Term Paper

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Mortimer Adler

Few heirs apparent of both modern day philosophy and orthodox Christianity exist, unless one considers Mortimer Jerome Adler. Adler was a well-respected philosopher and educator, with influence in the religious sector as well as the educational reformation movement. To consider the many and varied courses of interest Adler followed, a thorough understanding of his background must be cited. Potentially, Adler's most significant contribution was to education, as a result of the summation of his valuable life experiences, intellectual genius, and integration of philosophy and classical literature.

Adler was born in New York City on December 28, 1902, to immigrants Ignatz Adler, a jewelry salesman, and Clarissa Manheim, a schoolteacher. Despite dropping out of school at the age of fourteen, Mortimer Adler gained an interest in journalism while working as a copy boy at the New York Sun, later taking writing classes at Columbia University. It was during his time spent at Columbia that he took up reading classical literature (Bertucci, 2000).

Adler began reading Plato when he was fifteen, pursuing a curiosity of Western philosophy, and continued at Columbia on a scholarship. His personal interest and dedication to philosophy and classical literature earned him a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia; he skipped receiving his high school diploma, bachelor's degree, and master's. Adler's distinct reputation gained him a teaching position at Columbia. However, he preferred to lead discussions in classical literature and was greatly influenced by John Erskine, a fellow teacher, who taught on Western classics. Erskine was not the only influence on Adler at this time as John Dewey, another professor and philosopher at Columbia, and the designer of the Dewey Decimal System, shifted Adler's philosophy on education and stimulated his opposition to Dewey's philosophical basis (Bertucci, 2000).

Adler held great value in Aristotle's theories of universal truths, which disagreed with Dewey's scientific and pragmatic perspective. Adler considered Dewey's rigid compartmentalization of course curricula as disagreeable to the educational experience. He, instead, promoted the interconnection of all courses (i.e. literature, science, religion) for the optimal liberal arts education. It was this commitment to his philosophical ideals of education that later prompted him to become involved in educational reform. (Bertucci, 2000). In the meantime, Adler went on to become a professor at the Univeristy of Chicago, and later started the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago in 1942. He was listed in the Who's Who in America as a noted philosopher. He also pursued an editorial career with Encyclopaedia Brittanica as the editor of the fifteenth edition, as well as serving several other distinguished roles with Brittanica, and wrote and edited the classics collection series titled Great Books of the Western World (Muck, 1990). He wrote over fifty works, the first of which was Dialectic in 1927, a discussion of Western philosophy and religion (Bertucci, 2000), continuing to write and edit on philosophy and educational reform until his death at the age of 98 (Colson, 2001).

Adler became ill and bedridden in 1984, which influenced his faith in Christianity. This didactic change from his previously pagan position, rooted in philosophical truths, proved to be yet another diverse aspect of Adler's philosophical pursuits (Colson, 2001). As Adler philosophically reasoned, "Articles of faith are beyond proof. But they are not beyond disproof. We have a logical, consistent faith...[in] Christianity...But there are elements to it that can only be described as mystery'" (Muck, 1990). While Adler's philosophical theories, religious influences, and advancement of the discussion of classical Western literature define the framework of the man, it was the sum of these parts that led to his distinctive contribution to educational reform.

Adler's work in the educational forum paved the way for many future efforts in educational reform, and proved to be his legacy. It was his earlier relationship with Dewey that stimulated his greatest opposition to the progression of education. Dewey's pragmatic view of education encompassed a perception that schools served the good of the state for the purpose of socializing children. He also believed that professional educators alone should determine the directives of education, backed by government authority, and without social intervention. Thus, he did not consider that the people were capable of making satisfactory decisions on education. Adler, however, believed in classical education and the influence of social construction, emphasizing a curriculum based on Western literature and philosophical principles. He stressed the unchanging value of truths: "There are universal truths about what constitutes a good education, for all men at all times and places simply because they are men'" (Colson, 2001). His philosophical vision for education defended the past framework where classical works in literature through the ages, mingled with the sciences, philosophy, and religion, brought, what he perceived, as the optimal level of education. Thus, Dewey's scientific method of educational delivery and curricula formation, which was growing in popularity in the schools, was considered by Adler to generate "moral and intellectual chaos," with reformation necessary and immediate.

Adler's promotion of classical works, especially in his published book How to Read a Book, in 1940, did advance a movement in the American homes of reading classical literature, which in turn stimulated the rise of Western classics in the classrooms during the 1950s (Bertucci, 2000). Adler, in his book, A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher at Large (1994), considered the need for educational reform, with an emphasis on the incorporation of works done by classical and contemporary thinkers to be integrated in the curricula. He also stressed the assimilation of religious studies alongside philosophical ones (a convergence he did not himself partake in until his later years), as religion in itself created its own controversy and is worthy of solid discussion.

A core emphasis in curricula reformation, promoted by Adler, was the complete restructuring of how knowledge was dispersed and theories taught. His view that philosophy and the literary classics are embedded in all subjects underlied his theory that educational pursuits should follow a great dialogue on all subjects in one forum. Rather than studying distinct subjects, as in Dewey's compartmentalized fashion, Adler believed that the core curriculum should be more generalized to integrate all subjects into one course of studies. From there, the student could augment his studies with an emphasis in his choice of subjects that follow a chosen career path. He proposed that this integrated form of education should begin at the elementary education level and continued on through undergraduate studies, with a B.A. degree awarded at the time of successful completion of such studies, around the age of sixteen.

The next level of education, in the universities, should then allow for a specialization to be added to the curriculum (Bertucci, 2000). It was the dialogue aspect, and the synthesis of subject matter, that carved Adler's distinct perception on educational reform.

Adler's view of the "great educational experience" necessitated a connection of curriculum and knowledge through dialogue. Experiencing the "whole of a liberal education or certainly the core of it,'" required, "highly civil conversations about important themes and in a spirit of inquiry,'" as he stated. This dialogue could come about through conversations on references, quotations, refutations, and other methods of evaluating the philosophical and literary truths based in the subject matter. In 1982, Adler published his work, The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, which described his theories on educational reform in the classroom. His ideas on dialogue were introduced as the Socratic method where discussion groups would be stimulated by the combination of didactic learning through lecturing and skills instruction through coaching, with the method and emphasis on the Socratic method increased through grade levels. In the face of declining performance measures among students, Adler's method proved to be successful in the institutions that utilized it. In those schools, the educational attitudes, skills, and understanding were improved (Bertucci, 2000). It…[continue]

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