Mortimer J. Adler

Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902-2001) was an American philosopher, educator and author of books on many subjects. He was an academic, known particularly for his approach to education and efforts to popularize the study of philosophy.

Adler was born New York City in 1902 to irreligious Jewish parents -- his father was a jewelry salesman, and his mother a former school teacher. Educated in the public school system, at Manhattan's De Witt Clinton High School, he became editor of the school's newspaper, the Magpie, but apparently refused to accept the dictates of the school's principal. As a result he dropped out of school at the age of 14, finding work at the New York Sun newspaper as a copy boy, taking writing classes at night. He later enrolled in Columbia University where he discovered Victorian literature and thereafter became an avid pursuer of knowledge across a broad range of fields. After receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia, he taught there from 1923 to 1929 and then at the University of Chicago from 1930 to 1952, where he served as professor of the philosophy of law.

Adler subsequently established his own Institute for Philosophical Research in San Francisco, served as a director of the Great Books Foundation, Associate Editor of Great Books of the Western World, and an Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Adler was a great admirer of Saint Thomas Aquinas and contributed learned articles to many Catholic journals. Despite his Jewish upbringing, he become an Episcopalian in 1984 and then converted to Catholicism in 1999. He was acknowledged as a philosopher of Catholicism, despite his conversion to the faith only late in life. Aside from being a Thomist, he was also an admirer of Plato and Aristotelian philosophy.

Adler produced many books aimed at the popularization of philosophy among the public, several of which have become bestsellers. However, he was criticized by his academic colleagues who felt that his efforts involved an oversimplification of complex subjects.

Adler is known for his controversial ideas in the field of education. In 1982 he authored the Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, which advocates a program for learning in the public school system. Adler believed that the major advances in American society included universal suffrage and universal schooling, but these should be supplemented with a focus on the quality of education for all students. Since the publication of the Paideia Proposal, the National Paideia Center has promoted Adler's approach, advising schools on how to best adapt the program to suit their learning environment. The program supports a rigorous and accessible schedule of learning based on the notion that education is a lifelong endeavor, with the didactic teaching of factual subject matter, intellectual coaching that produces the skills of learning, and Socratic participatory questioning in class discussion. Paideia aims to furnish students with the acquisition of organized knowledge, skills in language and mathematics and an understanding of basic ideas and issues.

Adler also advocated the study of great works of classical literature among adults. This was achieved by his involvement in the creation of adult study groups, in the formation of St John's College in Maryland, and through his involvement in Encyclopedia Britannica's series, the Great Books of the Western World published in 1952. Consisting of 54 volumes (though this was later expanded), the series included works from a wide range of subject areas, including fiction, science, mathematics, religion, economics, ethics, politics, drama and philosophy. The series was criticized by some for being Euro-centric and not including any black authors.

Two of the volumes in the series were entitled, A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas. These list 102 ideas which Adler and his team regarded as important in the development of the western world. The publication took Adler over a decade to compile, due to difficulties involved in identifying the source and appearance for the ideas.

Adler's educational approach stemmed from his broader philosophical support for Aquinas and Aristotle. Known as educational "perennialism," Adler's approach was that society needs to return to perennial truths in order to solve its modern day issues. Therefore, by adopting this approach in the educational sphere, these truths will become the foundation for general conduct.

Adler was awarded a diploma by his old school, DeWitt Clinton, in 1983, as well as a bachelor's degree from Columbia University -- he had been denied the degree in his youth owing to his inability to pass the college's swimming requirement. During his lifetime he received honorary doctorates from ten colleges and universities, as well as the 1990 Charles Frankel Prize from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education
Mortimer J. Adler.
Simon and Schuster, 1967
The Capitalist Manifesto
Louis O. Kelso; Mortimer J. Adler.
Random House, 1958
Ethics: The Study of Moral Values
Mortimer J. Adler; Seymour Cain.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1962
Democracy and the Public Library: Essays on Fundamental Issues
Arthur W. Hafner.
Greenwood Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4. "Mortimer J. Adler's and Robert M. Hutchins's Vision of the Great Books"
Freedom: Its History, Nature, and Varieties
Robert E. Dewey; James A. Gould.
MacMillan, 1970
Librarian’s tip: "Freedom as Natural, Acquired, and Circumstantial" by Mortimer J. Adler begins on p. 68
Aesthetic Experience and the Humanities: Modern Ideas of Aesthetic Experience in the Reading of World Literature
Francis Shoemaker.
Columbia University Press, 1943
Librarian’s tip: "Mortimer J. Adler" begins on p. 142
What Happened to the Great Ideas?
Berlau, John.
Insight on the News, Vol. 17, No. 32, August 27, 2001
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