The Paideia Proposal by Mortimer J. Adler: learning to be citizens

The Paideia Proposal: An Educational ManifestoThe Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto by Mortimer J. Adler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short manifesto gives a cogent overview of what public schooling should be setting out to achieve, the rationale for doing so, and how to get started.

In doing some research on education in the ancient world, I made a search of the word paideia on Amazon, and this was one of the books that came up. I’ve been a fan of Mortimer J. Adler for a few years now, and I was reminded of how I’d already intended to read this book sometime. So I bought a copy.

I’m glad I did. This crisp little print-on-demand paperback makes a powerful and impassioned case for the urgent need of reform in the American public-school system (the book was published in 1982). The argument is presented in four parts:

  1. the role of education in a democracy
  2. what form public schooling should take
  3. what are the best ways to learn and to teach
  4. what form postsecondary education should take

First of all: why paideia? What is it? This definition appears on the book’s dedication page:

PAIDEIA, from the Greek pais, paidos: the upbringing of a child. In an extended sense, the equivalent of the Latin humanitas (from which “the humanities”), signifying the general learning that should be the possession of all human beings.

Yes, this book argues for a return to providing young people with the beginnings of a liberal education (the book distinguishes between education and schooling: the former is a lifelong activity that doesn’t begin in earnest until maturity, while the latter is preparation for the former). The school system should dispense with all electives, vocational courses, and other kinds of “multi-track” schooling in favor of a unified program that provides exactly the same—high-quality—schooling to all. And the reason it should be the same is because it is teaching children who are equals, and who will grow up to be equal citizens of a democracy.

This point is key. As Adler says near the top of chapter 1:

Not until this century have we undertaken to give twelve years of schooling to all our children. Not until this century have we conferred the high office of enfranchised citizenship on all our people, regardless of sex, race, or ethnic origin.

The two—universal suffrage and universal schooling—are inextricably bound together. The one without the other is a perilous delusion. Suffrage without schooling produces mobocracy, not democracy—not rule of law, not constitutional government by the people as well as for them.

But what about the great differences between children—the differences in their circumstances, backgrounds, and inborn abilities? Mustn’t schooling take account of these? Yes: but only in the sense of providing help to those who need it in order to get through the curriculum. The author is emphatic that no child is to be written off as unsuitable to have a life of learning. If the United States takes Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” seriously, then it is bound to set up its schools accordingly. As Adler puts it:

Here then are the three common callings to which all our children are destined: to earn a living in an intelligent and responsible fashion, to function as intelligent and responsible citizens, and to make both of these things serve the purpose of leading intelligent and responsible lives—to enjoy as fully as possible all the goods that make a human life as good as it can be.

As parents, do we not want these things for our children? Do we not want them for ourselves?

The book goes on to provide an overview of how this is to be achieved. The 12-year course of public schooling should be arranged in a sequence of three phases, each devoted to a different goal:

  1. the acquisition of organized knowledge
  2. the development of the skills of learning
  3. an enlarged understanding of ideas and values

The boundaries between these are not hard and fast; there is more a shift of emphasis from the first through to the third goal as the student progresses.

These things are all discussed in more detail in the book—but not too much detail, for it is short. It is a manifesto, a call to action.

And will that action require a wholesale revolution of the education system? An endless battle in Congress with some compromised, watered-down version resulting after 10 years of wrangling? No. In 2 pages at the end of the book, the author provides 10 steps that can be taken by any school or any school district at any time to start walking the walk of liberal education. It can be achieved incrementally. But first of all it requires a change of attitude, a change of motivation.

As a (North American–I’m writing in Canada) society, we’ve become obsessed with wealth and celebrity as the only measures of success and achievement; they’ve become our proxies for happiness and fulfillment. Our political involvement as citizens has degenerated to culture wars; the life of the mind is taken over by reality TV and video games. In some sense, this is what we have schooled ourselves for. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Those who care enough about this will start taking action, and this book provides both a vision statement and a mission statement for revolution, as well as some practical steps.

The author and his Paideia Group care about whether we fully realize our human nature. The question is: do we care?

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