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Mortimer Jerome Adler

Mortimer Jerome Adler

American philosopher-educator Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001) raised a stir in public schools, colleges, and universities over the place of classic works in the curriculum. For more than sixty years, his writings exposed to public scrutiny radical ideas about how to enlighten and educate the well-rounded individual. Whether admired, ridiculed, or detested for encouraging self-directed reading, he encouraged a healthy debate on learning and values.

Born to teacher Clarissa Manheim and Ignatz Adler, a jewelry salesman, in New York City on December 28, 1902, Adler emerged from an unassuming background. In his early teens, he considered becoming a journalist and worked as copyboy and secretary to the editor of the New York Sun. After reading the autobiography of nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill, Adler quit high school to direct his own education. He began by reading Plato. On scholarship, he earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Columbia University in three years, but left without a diploma because he refused to complete the swimming requirement. In 1983, the university relented and awarded him the long-delayed Bachelor of Arts degree.

The Rise of Genius

Skipping intermediate graduate work altogether, Adler wrote a dissertation on how to measure music appreciation and earned a doctorate in psychology from Columbia by the age of 26. His research became the impetus for a book, Music Appreciation: An Experimental Approach to Its Measurement (1929). During his last year at the university, he married Helen Leavenworth Boyton, mother of their two sons, Mark Arthur and Michael Boyton. After a divorce, a subsequent marriage in 1963 to Caroline Sage Pring produced two more sons, Douglas Robert and Philip Pring.

Adler began teaching psychology at the University of Chicago in 1930. Central to his classroom philosophy was a rebuttal of the prevailing notions of educational philosopher John Dewey, who had taught him at Columbia. Opposed to Dewey's focus on experimentation and the free selection of values that are applicable to the times, Adler published articles and books charging that such a belief system produced shoddy, poorly prepared thinkers and precipitated social unrest. Based on his understanding of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, he argued that students need to learn a set of fixed truths and values that have lasting and universal significance. His most famous and best-selling work, How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (1940), brought to public attention the gist of his educational plan.

Education Through Great Books

In 1946, Adler expanded his book into a full-scale revamping of learning. He established an alternative to undergraduate educational methods that centered on textbooks and lectures permeated with academic jargon and shallow academic trends, which students reiterated on subjective essay exams. In their place, he outlined a systematized reading schedule paired with discussion of great books. He surmised that, by mastering one worthy book per week, as proposed by Columbia University professor John Erskine, the average learner would acquire a suitable command of logic and of the major topics that impinge on human choices, such as honesty and goodness.

After convincing Robert M. Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, of the efficacy of a book-based curriculum, Adler overturned standard college courses and superintended the implementation of his program at off-campus sites. Under the leadership of a coordinator, readers of all ages from across the spectrum of educational and socio-economic backgrounds gathered for seminars and coursework on moral and intellectual issues. Although Catholic scholars applauded Adler's uncompromising absolutism, his Great Books curriculum never rose above the level of a passing fad.

Critics challenged the dogmatic selection of classics of Western civilization and proposed numerous worthy authors whom Adler omitted, notably non-white and female writers. Nonetheless, in 1954, he convinced Encyclopaedia Britannica publishers to issue a bound set of Great Books, a 54-volume collection of 443 works that presented no commentary or direction to readers. Adler's only challenge to students beyond their own discussion was the two-volume The Great Ideas: A Synopticon of Great Books of the Western World (1952), a 2,000-page index to the set that provided the location within individual titles of 102 subjects, including deity, peace, work, justice, equality, and citizenship.

A Man of Ideas

Despite rejection by his generation's noted scholars and educational leaders, Adler fought the skepticism, subjectivism, and relativism that he believed sapped human interaction of meaning and substance. He issued an astonishing list of works intended to restore philosophy to a central place in public education, including How to Think about War and Peace (1944) and How to Think about God (1980). The topics of his writings ranged from capitalism, industry, racism, politics, jurisprudence, and criminology to the arts, science, theology, and scholasticism. To encourage humanistic thinking as the cornerstone of a satisfying life, he furthered the ordinary reader's understanding of Homer, Plato, St. Augustine, David Hume, and Sigmund Freud. At the same time, he ignored or refuted modern thinking by such philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Packaged Basic Principles

Adler pursued a variety of modes to express his concepts. He served as consultant to the Ford Foundation and wrote an autobiography, Philosopher At Large: An Intellectual Autobiography (1977). To clarify misconceptions, he refined his original Great Books program in 1990. Despite these efforts, he produced only unsubstantiated success contained in individual testimonials from satisfied pupils and teachers. Overall, his insistence on self-directed education never achieved the level of student enlightenment that he had originally envisioned.

Late in his career, Adler published The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982), which offered to public educators "a unique concept of teaching great works to children. He joined commentator Bill Moyers for a PBSTV series entitled Six Great Ideas (1982). In 1990, he founded the Center for the Study of Great Ideas and lectured at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Still highly respected for his wisdom and enthusiasm for learning, he directed Chicago's Institute for Philosophical Research and chaired the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica until 1995. At the age of 93, he issued an overview, Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995). His insistence on quality and depth of learning for all students earned him an Aquinas Medal, an alumni award from Columbia University, and the Wilma and Roswell Messing Award from St. Louis University Libraries.

Assessing Genius at Work

At the time of Adler's death on June 29, 2001, in San Mateo, California, his belief that "Philosophy is everybody's business" was still influencing educators. Analysts of the twentieth century accorded him guarded praise for denouncing wasteful, destructive educational trends, including student-centered elective programs and vocational training. Others were more critical of his influence, particularly his dismissal of female and non-white authors from lists of recommended readings that he based entirely on "dead white males." For his whites-only choices, African-American author Henry Louis Gates accused him of "profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color."

In Adler's defense, proponents of Paideia and of Great Books curricula have found useful advice for turning unproductive classrooms into opportunities for in-depth reading. His followers have advocated Socratic learning over textbooks and homework and have supported charter and magnet schools and home schooling, the emerging educational trends of the late twentieth century. Without endorsing or defaming Adler's revolutionary educational philosophies, critic William F. Buckley, Jr. summarized his unique intellectual gifts: "Phenomena like Mortimer Adler don't happen very often."


American Decades, Gale Research, 1998.


America, September 18, 1982; July 23, 1988.

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American Scientist, March-April 1992.

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Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1983; March 25, 1987; November 27, 1988; March 20, 1989.

The Christian Century, January 28, 1981; June 3, 1981; May 12, 1982; April 22, 1992; April 22, 1992.

Christianity Today, November 21, 1980; November 19, 1990.

Library Journal, June 1, 1980; April 15, 1981; April 1, 1982;August 1982; April 15, 1983; November 1, 1983; March 15, 1984; October 15, 1984; April 1, 1985; March 1, 1986; May 1, 1987; April 15, 1989; February 15, 1990; February 15, 1990; October 1, 1990; April 1, 1991; October 15, 1991; August 1992; May 15, 1993; June 1, 1994; November 1, 1994; June 15, 1995.

National Review, February 6, 1981; May 27, 1983; November 19, 1990; July 23, 2001; August 6, 2001; October 1, 2001.

Publishers Weekly, January 11, 1980; March 6, 1981; January 29, 1981; July 23, 1982; March 4, 1983; July 29, 1983; August 24, 1992; May 24, 1993; April 17, 2000.

Saturday Review, January 1982; February 8, 1985; March 8, 1985; January 17, 1986; January 27, 1989; February 23, 1990; August 17, 1990; February 8, 1991; September 27, 1991.

Time, September 29, 1980; June 22, 1981; September 6, 1982;May 6, 1985; May 4, 1987; July 9, 2001.

U. S. Catholic, August 1980; October 1980; August 1981.


Biography Resource Center, (October 22, 2001).

"Center for the Study of Great Ideas,"

Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2001. □

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