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Mortimer J. Adler

Mortimer J. AdlerAKA Mortimer Jerome Adler

Born: 28-Dec-1902
Birthplace: New York City
Died: 28-Jun-2001
Location of death: San Mateo, CA
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Philosopher, Encyclopaedist

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: How to Read a Book

Mortimer J. Adler was an American author, educator, and philosopher who championed the repopularization of the Great Books and Great Ideas curriculum of study. A prolific scholar, he was the author or editor of more than fifty books, including editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His Synopticon was an exhaustive index of the most significant ideas put forth within Western Civilization. Other highly influential books included How to Read a Book (1940) and How to Think About War and Peace (1944). Deemed controversial and somewhat eccentric for his zealous classics-based approach to education, Adler was a world federalist and an idealist who described his most influences as Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Mortimer Jerome Adler was born December 28, 1902 in New York City. His father was an immigrant jewelry salesman, and his mother, a schoolteacher. At age 14 Adler, already working as a copy boy at the New York Sun newspaper, Adler dropped out of high school. However, hoping to work his way up to journalist, he eventually began night classes at Columbia University. It was there that he read the works of John Stuart Mill and became interested in philosophy. More importantly, because he was impressed that Mill had learned Ancient Greek by the time he was three and had thus read Plato by the time he was only five years old, Adler became fascinated with acquiring a similar erudition, and with discovery just what was so important about Plato, and by extension, other great classics.

Adler received a scholarship to Columbia where he effortlessly completed his B.A. course of studies in Philosophy, with the exception that he never bothered to show up for P.E. (which he deemed "a nuisance"). And on this technicality he was denied his degree. Undaunted he enrolled in the graduate program where he so impressed the faculty with his knowledge of the classics and of philosophy that he was allowed to join the staff and was subsequently granted his Ph.D. --all without having first received his B.A.

While a staff member Adler worked with the man who had first turned him onto the classics, John Erskine. And he continued to be a participant in Erskine's Honors program, which was devoted to the study and discussion of the great classics. Interestingly, at Columbia Adler also become familiar with John Dewey against whom he would later rail with great passion, claiming that Dewey's brand of intellectualism was entirely too objective. Students, said Adler, needed also to be grounded in the Great Ideas embodied within the great classics -- specifically truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice. Dewey's problem, said Adler, was that he had never read Aristotle.

Adler would later go on to be a vocal champion for the value of classics based education. And for the idea of integrating science, literature, and philosophy, especially through drawing forth the centuries long dialogue of ideas on and between these disciplines within the great books. Thus current scientific theories and assumptions are shown to be not dry truths handed whose existence is inevitable, but rather part of a larger and very lively dialogue of evolving perspectives and understandings. And finally, Adler advocated for immersing young people into this environment of debate, hypothesis, and enquiry by evolving them in active discussion groups. Rather than simply memorize facts, they were asked to seek genuine understanding of the material under study.

As Adler's advocacy of this educational approach grew, he also devoted himself to creating a consolidated overview of the major ideas contained within the classics and their relation to one another. He published Dialectic in 1927, summarizing the great philosophical and religious ideas of Western Civilization. Along with Robert M. Hutchins he edited the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World (1952), put out by Encyclopedia Britannica, for whom he had become an editor. Adler then tackled a proposed two-volume companion index of the great ideas contained within these books, the Syntopicon. The project, which he expected to finish within one year, ended up taking ten years to complete, involving the labors of thirty indexers and sixty clerical helpers.

Other Adler/Britannica projects of note include the 10-volume Gateway to the Great Books (1963), the 10-volume The Great Ideas Program , the 20-volume The Annals of America, and 32 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Working on his own, Adler also produced Propaedia, an outline of all human knowledge. When he was not writing, editing, or teaching (first at Colombia, and later at the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina), Adler found time to serve on the board at Britannica and the Ford Foundation and to co-found the Institute for Philosophical Research, the Aspen Institute, and The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. In 1952 he became Director of the Institute for Philosophical Research.

Underlying all these efforts was Adler's zeal to reform education and reintroduce an emphasis on the classics as the core of undergraduate humanities studies. This goal, and the more far-reaching ambitions that preceded it, put him at odds with many at the University of Chicago as the educational trend was then away from this approach. Adler himself later said that he would like to see the studies of the classics, much of the undergraduate B.A. curriculum, brought down into the high school level. And that undergraduates would be then freed (and intellectually better prepared) to focus on their own area of specialization, their own career field.

Adler passed away in June of 2001, but not before the torch of his ideas had been passed to countless home schooling families who, fed up with educational mediocrity and various other woes, have taken education into their own hands. True, some of these are merely hoping to bypass subjects like Evolution and Sex Ed., but many others are seeking to rebel against exactly what Adler described: a preoccupation with standardized testing and the short term memorization skills it emphasizes at the expense of deeper understanding and true intellectual engagement (a love of learning, a yearning to know). Adler's best legacy to these groups, besides his outlines and indexes of the great books and great ideas, are his tracts The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982) and The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus (1984).

Adler's achievements in his own words can be perused in his memoirs, Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography (1977) and A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (1992). Adler was also captured on film in a PBS documentary of one of his Six Great Ideas seminars at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, and in the associated interview with Bill Moyers.

Father: Ignatz Adler (immigrant jewelry salesman)
Mother: Clarissa Manheim (schoolteacher)
Wife: (married twice)
Son: Mark
Son: Michael
Son: Douglas
Son: Phillip

    University: Columbia University
    University: PhD, Columbia University (1928)
    Professor: Philosophy of Law, University of Chicago

    The New York Sun

Author of books:
How to Read a Book (1940, nonfiction)
A Dialectic of Morals (1941)
The Revolution in Education (1958, with Milton Mayer)
The Conditions of Philosophy (1965, lectures)
The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes (1967, lectures)
The Time of Our Lives (1970, lectures)
Philosopher at Large: An Intellectual Autobiography (1977, memoir)
Aristotle for Everyone (1978)
How to Think About God (1980)
Six Great Ideas (1981)
The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982)
How to Speak, How to Listen: A Guide to Pleasurable and Profitable Conversation (1983)
The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus (1984)
Ten Philosophical Mistakes (1985, philosophy)
A Second Look in the Rearview Mirror (1992, memoir)


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