Mortimer Adler was a professor, philosopher, and educational theorist who lived in the twentieth century. He is noted for winning the St. Louis Literary Award, working on the Encyclopædia Britannica, and for pioneering the idea of “great books” in education. His best seller How to Read a Book (1940) was a guide for how to read the great books (Adler, i). Adler also embraced the philosophy of Perennialism, believing that education should be the same for everyone and philosophy should be mainstreamed into the public school curriculum. His Paideia Proposal proclaimed that children should gain three types of knowledge: organized knowledge, intellectual skills, and understanding of ideas and values (Adler, 122-124). Education should thus serve three purposes: teaching people how to use their leisure time well, to earn their living ethically, and to be responsible citizens in a democracy.
Adler’s greatest impact came not to public schools but rather to colleges and universities. His belief in the importance of Classical education led many schools to adopt the Great Books program, a core of key books focusing on philosophy and literature from ancient times to modern day. While he taught at Chicago and Columbia, Adler declared that all undergraduate students had to take at least one semester of the Great Books classes (Adler, 2000, p. xvii). Every modern literature-based college course owes its foundation to Adler’s literary beliefs.
Adler’s ideas about great books left a profound impact on universities around the United States. Today, over 160 colleges and universities offer semester courses on the Great Books. However, Adler is a controversial person in many circles because his book list is Eurocentric and written exclusively by white males. During his own lifetime, critics challenged Adler about his choice of authors, but he still convinced Encyclopædia Britannica to publish a 54-volume set of Great Books in 1954 (Adler, 1972, p. vii). Critics also attacked Adler for giving no direction on how to read these colossal works; a challenge Adler met by writing How to Read a Book in 1940.
Adler’s main premise about how students should be familiar with the “classics” is an excellent idea, but designing whole courses or even four-year programs around the Great Books is going too far. Yes, students should be exposed to the classics through their regular course work in high school and college so they can gain perspective in history, but the classics will not help students get jobs or succeed in life. Studying the classics encourages higher order thinking, but it lacks the practical viewpoint of life.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Adler, M. J. (1972). Great ideas from the great books. New York: Pocket Books.
Adler, M.J. (2000). How to think about the great ideas. Chicago, IL: Open Court.