Sunday, March 8, 2009

Interestting, if only in theory (Review of Adler's "Paideia Proposal")

Here is a book review I wrote for philosopher Mortimer Adler's "Paideia Proposal," - a conservative work arguing for education reform. Adler is somewhat of a critic of "progressive educaiton" and advocates for a more "liberal arts" type of k-12 educaiton. For those unfamilar, Adler was also a vocal advocate of educating with the "great books" of the Western canon.

I agree with some of Adler's ideas about restoring rigor and discipline into educaiton, but I disagree with his very monolithic "one size fits all" approach, as well as his view that k-12 education should not utilize electives or vocational training. Even though I dislike many excesses of "progressive education," I see much value in a utlitarian approach to education that sees education for what W. James might call its "cash value" to students, rather than as an end in itself (which it can be to many, but will not likely be to all). In other words, Adler treats all students as if they are "bookish," managing to suggest that those who are not simply need to be molded to be so.


Mortimer Adler's "Paideia Proposal," ("paideia" means "education" in Greek) is a book which intends to offer a stern antidote to many "progressive" ideas in education. One might call Adler an educational conservative - an "essentialist" who believes that education is of value in itself (and should not be justified by its utilitarian value). Adler also believes in the value of a liberal arts education for all, the role of order and discipline in education, and the value of cultivating the intellect as the primary goal of k-12 education.

Adler's Paideia proposal "breaks" education into three types which students should receive in equal measure:

(a) knowledge acquisition: this is where direct teacher/student instruction goes on, and where the student learns to store and recall facts.

(b) developing of intellectual skill: this is where the student "learns by doing," and practices the skill under the teacher's facilitation.

(c) increase in understanding and insight: this is where students learn to evaluate, analyze, synthesize, and create ideas from ideas. Students engage in teacher-led discussion and reflections while learning "higher order thinking" skills.

I agree with these goals, but disagree much with Adler's approach. A key criticism I have of Adler's writing is that, like many philosophers of education, he speaks of students as they exist in theory rather than in practice, and tends to see them as a big monolithic group (while he says he doesn't).

Put differently and bluntly, if I had a child, I might be tempted to send it to a Paidiea school, but would be hesitant to suggest that every child should be forced into this model.

What makes the Paideia project unworkable in practice is Adler's insistence that "one size" of education "fits all." Alder does not believe in tracking of any kind, dismissing it as very undemocratic (by which he really means unegalitarian). He writes as if things like differences in intelligence (by the measure of IQ) do not exist. He repeats frequently the idea that "all children are educable," but turns it cleverly into "all children are capable of learning and absorbing the same stuff as all others." (He does bring this up as a possible criticism but dismisses the problem with high-sounding rhetoric, intimating that naysayers simply don't believe in equality.)

As a special educator, I think this idea of a "one size fits all" education is a pleasant sounding disaster. As one of my colleagues put it, "It is not a God-given right to comprehend Algebra II," by which he means that some simply learn slower, and are more limited than others. (I think Alder would realize his mistake when he put a child with Downs Syndrome, mental retardation, or autism into his Paidiea school.) Alder's point that we should challenge all students is well taken, but he doesn't seem to take seriously the FACT that students differ not only in "learning style" but in innate ability. To subject each child - regardless of ability - to the same curriculum is as unfair as hasty and strict tracking.

The other disaster in Adler's proposal is the idea that all K-12 education should be non-specialized and non-vocational. Under Adler's proposal, electives are essentially abolished and, as he says, we should "eliminate all the non-essentials from the school day." If it doesn't have to do with cultivating the intellect, we don't want it.

This would not only make school a positively dreary place for kids to be (eliminating any classes that might appeal to those not budding philosophers) but it would also lead the non-college-bound out in the cold. Alder suggests several times that all vocational training should take place post-high-school, meaning that school would no longer prepare students for a vocation at all, and those who can't afford to put off work after high school to receive additional training would be ill-prepared to start a career.

Like many schemes philosophers make about how to reform education, the Paidiea Proposal would make for some very interesting private schools. Like the Montessori method, this system might work for some or even half, but certainly not for all. Many students - those who might go into blue collar vocations - would likely do poorly in Paidiea schools. Adler might suggest that I am being pessimistic and "undemocratic," but I would charge him with utopianism and...being a theoretician rather than a statistician.

As long as differences in ability exist (and the fact is unfortunate), the Paidiea proposal, by expecting different abilities to access the same curricula, runs the risk of being as unfair as those he charges with excessive differentiation.


  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost and are now available.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

  2. for all the criticisms I have of Adler's program, and there are many in the post, I do think his makes an intersting idea for private schools, and if I understand correctly, there are several in existence.

    I would be curious to know what this "new discovery" is. Most "exciting discoveries" in education these days are made by motivational speakers like Eric Jensen and Flip Flippen.

  3. Kevin:

    You're right. Some (if not most) people just don't like liberal arts. I'm one of those kids who just couldn't/can't get Algebra, or even long division through my head for that matter. I think the key to a good education is and always will be freedom.

    Economic freedom is the obvious one, but the type of freedom educators don't consider enough is intellectual freedom. I had a friend who was getting 95+ in math, science, etc... and just barely passing english (with a tutor!). I'm problably something like the reverse (although it wasn't apparent to me or anybody else during highschool).

    Let the kids roam a little. The only things every kid needs to learn after basic math and english (along with, maybe civics and critical thinking) are whatever he/she takes an interest in.

    Make sure that you're presenting the subject matter you teach in a honest and provocative way so that they have a real chance of getting interested, even passionate about it.

    Curriculum's become irrelevant when you have someone bright and passionate about what they teach instructing you.