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Mortimer J. Adler (December 28, 1902–June 28, 2001) was born in New York City to Ignatz and Clarissa Adler. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx until the age of 15 when he left to become the secretary to the editor of the New York Sun. He began reading Plato at the age of 17 and resolved to become a philosopher. He studied philosophy at Columbia University, completing all program requirements in three years but did not graduate because he ignored physical education classes, a requirement for a bachelor’s degree. Despite the absence of a degree, Adler was appointed an instructor in psychology at Columbia in 1923. He was awarded a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1928 after writing a dissertation on the measurement of music appreciation. Adler joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1930 with appointments in philosophy, psychology, and law. He remained there until 1952.

During his tenure at Chicago, Adler, in conjunction with Robert Hutchins, president of the university at the time, began a program on the Great Books of the Western World. The project was a study of classic Western literary and philosophical texts, and included reprinting 443 Great Books in a 54-volume set. Adler wrote an accompanying “syntopicon” consisting of more than 100 great ideas. Each idea was introduced with a 10,000-word essay, followed by an outline of topics that was traced throughout the Great Books. In addition to his work with the Great Books program, Adler helped found the Institute for Philosophical Research at the University of North Carolina and the Center for the Study of Great Ideas. He was instrumental in founding the Aspen Institute in Colorado, which was dedicated to bringing together leaders from the worlds of business, literature, education, and the arts for in-depth conversations on a variety of subjects. Additionally, Adler was chairman of the Board of Editors at the Encyclopedia Britannica, a senior associate at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago.

The listing of Adler’s institutional appointments, however, tells only part of the story. Adler was a larger-than-life figure that inspired both critics and loyalists during a major portion of the 20th century. He was a prodigious writer who wrote more than 50 books delineating his vision of a society that is based on human rationality. Adler was a supreme advocate of books, believing that it was books and not teachers that taught. He felt that books were not just for philosophers and other academic specialists but also should be accessible to ordinary people. The books he wrote incorporated broad-ranging discussions of Western philosophy, democracy, ethics, religion, and how one should function in society.

How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education (1940) was a bestseller and has remained in print since it was first published. In Six Great Ideas (1981), Adler talked about truth, goodness, beauty, liberty, equality, and justice. Truth, goodness, and beauty, he believed, are the values by which we judge everything in nature. These are the ideas and thoughts about human conduct. Liberty, equality, and justice are the ideas that we act on, the ideas that relate one person to another. These are the ideas that govern our actions and are used to evaluate governments, laws, and societies. In The Conditions of Philosophy (1965), Adler discussed the theories of knowledge and truth. Truth, Adler said, consists in the agreement between what we think and what is in the world—what is real. In The Time of Our Lives (1970), Adler wrote of the importance of ethics. His concepts of democracy and the notion of good government are discussed in The Idea of Freedom (1958). These topics were revisited in Haves and Have Nots (1991) in which he acknowledged that equality of conditions is a precondition for democracy.

Adler’s influence has been felt throughout numerous aspects of American intellectual life, most especially in the realm of education. His advocacy for redefining college curricula is noteworthy. Adler thought that all students should receive the same education and the best way to accomplish this would be to have them take required classes in such subjects as Western philosophy, politics, and religion. He believed that no college student should graduate without the core knowledge that comes from a well-grounded liberal arts education. Students, he indicated, should be able to understand certain fundamental truths about themselves and others. In Adler’s opinion, this could only come from a deep awareness of the principal ideas found in certain works of fiction, poetry, drama, and art.

Adler’s ideas also permeated curriculum standards for public schools. He was a strong advocate for a rigorous liberal arts education in grades K–12, one that would enhance critical thinking and provide the skills necessary for students’ participation in a democratic society. Adler thought that education should be the same for everyone without electives or vocational classes. He was a strong advocate of having philosophy as a central component of public school curricula. Adler described his ideas for public school education in his book, The Paideia Proposal, which was published in 1982. Paideia, which is the Greek word for pais or paidos means the upbringing or nurturing of a child. The Paideia philosophy calls for the acquisition of organized knowledge, development of intellectual skills, and an expanded understanding of ideas and values, which can be achieved through Socratic questioning and active discussion of books (not textbooks), other works of art, and involvement in artistic activities. Adler indicated that students should be prepared to be lifelong learners. Rather than being differentiated, schooling should have classes that inspire and transform students. The Paideia philosophy calls for an interactive pedagogical approach that includes teaching in small seminars with didactic instruction at a minimum. Adler encouraged the use of coaching in which students learn by doing, as well as instructional techniques that include labs, cooperative learning, and project-based teaching and learning.

Contributed by Aida Barrera, The University of Texas at Austin

Buckley, Jr., W. F. 2001. Mortimer Adler is dead. National Review Online. June 28.
Farrand, M. n.d.. Mortimer J. Adler biographical sketch and partial bibliography.
Grimes, W. 2001. Mortimer Adler, 98, dies; helped create study of classics. The New York Times. June 29.

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