Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
In association with the The Adler-Aquinas Institute and Aquinas School of Leadership
Member of the Alliance for Liberal Learning

Friday, October 1, 2010

Education, Education Reforming Education . . .

That’s what we’re hearing a lot of these days in the media. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, when the word education is used these days, vocation is meant. Also, I’ve noted that curriculum is never mentioned, only teachers and more money. I submit that our parents and even grandparents received better schooling than we did--even with one teacher, a blackboard in a one room school. Just recently a new public school opened in Los Angeles, at the astounding cost of $578 million.

In my view, if schools did nothing but instill the desire to spend the rest of their lives learning and give them some of the tools for doing so, they would be doing their job.

Lastly in my view, the reason our schooling stinks, is primarily the fault of us as parents and citizens.

Here’s what my late colleague Mortimer Adler, has said on schooling:

For more than 70 years, a controlling insight in my educational philosophy has been the recognition that no one has ever been--no one can ever be--educated in school or college.

That would be the case if our schools and colleges were at their very best, which they certainly are not, and even if the students were among the best and the brightest as well as conscientious in the application of their powers.

The reason is simply that youth itself--immaturity--is an insuperable obstacle to becoming educated. Schooling is for the young. Education comes later, usually much later. The very best thing for our schools to do is to prepare the young for continued learning by giving them the skills of learning and the love of it. Our schools and colleges are not doing that now, but that is what they should be doing.

To speak of an educated young person, rich in understanding of basic ideas and issues, is as much a contradiction in terms as to speak of a round square. The young can be prepared for education in the years to come, but only mature men and women can become educated, beginning the process in their 40's and 50's and reaching some modicum of genuine insight, sound judgment and practical wisdom after the age 60.

This is what no high school or college graduate knows or can understand. As a matter of fact, most of their teachers do not seem to know it. In their obsession with covering ground and in the way in which they test or examine their students, they certainly do not act as if they understood that they were only preparing their students for education in later life rather than trying to complete it within the precincts of their institutions.

There is, of course, some truth in the ancient insight that awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. But, remember, it is just the beginning. From there on one has to do something about it.

And to do it intelligently one must know something of its causes and cures--why adults need education and what, if anything, they can do about it. When young adults realize how little they learned in school, they usually assume there was something wrong with the school they attended or with the way they spent their time there. But the fact is that the best possible graduate of the best possible school needs to continue learning every bit as much as the worst.

How should they go about doing this? In a recent book, I tried to answer the question, "How should persons proceed who wish to conduct for themselves the continuation of learning after all schooling has been finished?" The brief and simple answer is: Read and discuss.

Never just read, for reading without discussion with others who have read the same book is not nearly as profitable. And as reading without discussion can fail to yield the full measure of understanding that should be sought, so discussion without the substance that good and great books afford is likely to degenerate into little more than an exchange of opinions or personal prejudices.

Those who take this prescription seriously would, of course, be better off if their schooling had given them the intellectual discipline and skill they need to carry it out, and if it had also introduced them to the world of learning with some appreciation of its basic ideas and issues. But even the individual who is fortunate to leave school or college with a mind so disciplined, and with an abiding love of learning, would still have a long road to travel before he or she became an educated person.

If our schools and colleges were doing their part and adults were doing theirs, all would be well. However, our schools and colleges are not doing their part because they are trying to do everything else. And adults are not doing their part because most are under the illusion that they had completed their education when they finished their schooling.

Only the person who realizes that mature life is the time to get the education that no young person can ever acquire is at last on the high road to learning. The road is steep and rocky, but it is the high road, open to anyone who has the skill in learning and the ultimate goal of all learning in view--understanding the nature of things and man's place in the total scheme.

An educated person is one who through the travail of his own life has assimilated the ideas that make him representative of his culture, that make him a bearer of its traditions and enable him to contribute to its improvement.


  1. Excellent! To prepare or children for living and working in the future, we must introduce them to life-long learning. Thus learning how to read and write in all disciplines is crucial. At the same time, and perhaps even more important, learning the best ways to converse with one another about issues most likely requires not only changes in curricula but in approach as well.

  2. Excellent summary on the 'state of education' in this country.

    However, this does raise a couple sets of other, I would say, fundamental questions:

    (1) All this would mean that the nature and quality of the schooling is crucial to the formation of adult life-long learners, active citizens in a democracy, and worthwhile members of and contributors to a good society. So if schooling is the preparation for life-long learning and adult life, what is the nature of schooling and what should it be?

    (2) What is the social/cultural/political environment in which post-schooling life-long learning can occur, and even be nourished and developed? Or, does is it just up to each individual person to pursue learning on his/her own the best way (if at all) he/she can?

  3. (1) All this would mean that the nature and quality of the schooling is crucial to the formation of adult life-long learners, active citizens in a democracy, and worthwhile members of and contributors to a good society. So if schooling is the preparation for life-long learning and adult life, what is the nature of schooling and what should it be?

    That is spelled out in Dr. Adler's books, The Paideia Proposal and A Guidebook to Learning--both now available us as an eBook (pdf).

    (2) What is the social/cultural/political environment in which post-schooling life-long learning can occur, and even be nourished and developed? Or, does is it just up to each individual person to pursue learning on his/her own the best way (if at all) he/she can?

    Sadly yes, in this anti-intellectual and moral reltivitistic society that we live in.

  4. Where can one go to participate in a continuing education built on the approach of the Great Books?

  5. Where can one go to participate in a continuing education built on the approach of the Great Books?


    Do you mean online or real schools?


  6. Both. But especially where the approach is directed conversation rather than lecture.

  7. A Google search of Great Books Colleges and Great Books online discussions, will produce many options. The best known school for this approach is St. John's College, which Mortimer Adler played a major role in establishing. I suggest visiting their website:

  8. I notice that many mature people come to value a true education after they have lived long enough to understand what this means.

    Often these people had seeds of the great ideas planted many years prior, such as in a Jesuit elementary school. These seeds remain dormant until later in life but are never completely forgotten.

    Unfortunately, these late bloomers often feel that their prior education has left them unable to do much about their ignorance and so they admire the education of others from afar.

    This is why Mortimer Adler and the Center for the Great Ideas can play such a critical role in preserving culture. Making the great ideas accessible builds confidence that it is never too late to improve one's intellect, increase the chances of living a happy life and make contributions to humanity's future progress.

  9. Posted by Joseph Hamwee:

    Dear Max,

    I am following the exchange with much interest. Though not a US resident I live in the UK, another country where education is going through many problems. From that perspective, allow me to say that I agree 100% with the comments made by Terry Roberts.



  10. As noble as Terry Roberts and his Center maybe be in promoting Adler's Paideia Proposal, it is hardly adequate to talk about 'the message'. As is readily apparent, even as such a good educational proposal as Adler's may be, it takes much, much more than any 'mere' message for it to become a viable reality.

  11. Jaime,

    Have you been to the website to see the schools involved?


  12. Yes, I have seen the list of schools involved. On the surface impressive. However, how many of these are regular public schools, meaning not private or charter schools?

    My point is that a good idea or initiative, successful as it may be, is a matter of public policy and political will and not so much a matter of 'message'. This is what Aristotle pointed out was one Socrates' errors, thinking that all people need is knowledge (read 'message') and they will then do the right thing. If I understand his point correctly, I think Aristotle was right. Knowledge, although necessary, is not sufficient.

  13. Yes, Plato's Socrates was wrong on that score.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. But what is sufficient? Not emotional motivation. Not knowledge. Not will. Not even reason. I suggest what is sufficient is desire. The kind of desire we mean when we say we love wisdom and are thus philosophers. And maybe even deeper than philosophy? Yes. Beyond instinct, intuition, and insight is inspiration. It doesn't come out of us, but comes into us, thus completing our education.

  16. Not sure what the difference would be between will and desire. Can you explain?

    Also, even if desire is sufficient as you say, how does one acquire such desire? How do the many acquire such desire? And even if the one and the many both acquire such desire, how to they convert that desire into actual action? And even into public policy? I don't think it just happens. Or does it?

  17. @ Jaime: "Will" may address what we need as well as what we want. When we want something we don't need, we can want it, sometimes we must want it, sometimes we should want it. But when we want what we want, it is important to differentiate, as you correctly note in your questions, how this wanting is acquired. I do so by recognizing that I may selfishly want something and thus such a want is generated by me. Or I may recognize a want that seems at first to come from a source outside of me. I call this a desire. My deepest desires seem to be more than instinctual, more than intuitional, and even more than insightful. They seem inspired. How to acquire them, you ask? In my experience, such desires have been inspired by teachers, whether in person or in their writings. I found myself more and more desirous of learning the truth of matters. For example, is the principle of non-contradiction true? Answering the question doesn't just happen. It takes some thought, but the consequences are stunning. I could not bend this principle to my will, but I found myself desiring to know the consequences of agreeing or disagreeing with it.

  18. John--appreciate your explanation, though not sure that the difference between 'will' and 'desire' is commonly understood as you pose it. In any event, am still not clear how 'will' or even 'desire' moves from being just that into action, to translating or putting into effect some kind of social policy change, which is what public education is - social policy.

    Moreover, your explanation focuses exclusively on the person as an individual. Is there also some kind of collective 'will' or 'desire' also? If so, how is that collective 'will' or 'desire' acquired? And more importantly, assuming it is acquired - or even truly exists - how is it then translated and implemented to change public policy for such social issues as education?

  19. @Jaime: You ask a lot of a guy! But this demonstrates your desire, my friend, for answers. Desire has moved you to action --- at least to the point of discourse. You may cut off your desire by an exercise of your will at any point, but seeing how your desire keeps coming, I sense it has been there for some time. It may be your individual desire, but it is met in the social setting of our community of philosophers. When we talk about it, we are taking a form of action that may lead to social policy changes that are acted out in that form of policy that deals with how we pass on the wisdom of one generation to another. This is education, in part an accumulation of wisdom examined over the ages, in part the techniques found best to lead students out of themselves and into the vast world around us on the horizontal plane, and finally, I believe, in best part into the discoveries found through dialectical reasoning among those exploring the vertical levels of truth. Because you seem to be most interested in a "will" analysis on the individual and now the collective level, I fear you are stuck at the level of the purely political and horizontal level. It would thus seem important for us to explore how education fits into your ideas of social justice and what you see as justice itself. If you believe we can achieve justice only by action that requires will power, we will be going down one path that may leave us on the horizontal plane (might-makes-right?). However, if you truly desire to explore education within the context of social justice, we may have to look beyond what our wills may produce in the active exercise of power and consider what our minds can reach by the active exercise of desire that moves toward what we love by being attracted to it (right-makes-might?). For example, love of country comes to mind. If we truly love our country, we may ask what kind of education do we want, do we desire, that best fits that love? To me this is what the Center for the Study of Great Ideas is promoting, with a steady drum-beat for its many years of existence.

  20. Dear John--thanks for your elaborate and thoughtful response. I do have a couple of things to address and/or clarify.

    First, am not so sure that mine is a 'will analysis of the individual'. Although it is important to try to understand how 'the individual' makes decisions. In other words, what are the bases of these that undergird 'the individual's' thoughts, beliefs, and actions, the crux of the matter I am trying to raise is the nature of the collective will.

    Second, am definitely not sure that I am 'stuck at the level of the purely political and horizontal' as you suspect. Both are relevant and important. The reason for my emphasizing the political (and 'horizontal') is that it seems to have been ignored or neglected in discussion up to that point.

    And finally, yes, there is definitely a connection between education that leads to wisdom (or more accurately, its love and pursuit) and education that leads to social justice. I would propose that these cannot, if rightly understood, be separated, but instead go hand-in-hand.

  21. @ Jaime:

    Given options, like which door to open, we may make choices based on odds, as in the famous (or infamous) Monty Hall Problem where the issue is posed as follows:

    Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice?

    Given evidence and rules, we may make judgments based on our application of the rules to the evidence provided, as depicted in the movie 12 Angry Men.

    Given an issue concerning what action we want to take in the future, we may make decisions that involve something more than making choices or making judgments, as depicted in the movie Casablanca.

    While statistics seems to be the science that helps us make choices, and reason helps us make judgments, I have for years, as an individual, asked what is the best way to make decisions, distinguishing them from making choices and making judgments?

    - MORE -

    Enjoy and thanks in advance for participating.

  22. So I always start with how I, as an individual make decisions, before moving on to the community within which I live and work.

    If you want an answer concerning the so-called "collective will," [], I'm not sure I have an answer because I long ago reject Rousseau's analysis of the Social Contract.

    So it may help if you would tell us what you mean by "collective will." Thanks.

  23. All those are ways of making decisions, and there are probably many others (a full moon, Mars aligned with Jupiter, etc, etc).

    More seriously, this is what the ancient Greeks more insightfully identified as the virtue of prudence, or practical wisdom/judgment. As a virtue it can be nurtured and developed.

    As far as collective will is concerned, it is the (for the most part) concerted will of a group. In public policy decisions such as education, it is this collective will that determines 'the state of education'. This will can be active (or 'pro-active') or it can be passive, by default allowing 'the state of education' to be in the condition it is in.

    This is similar or somewhat analogous to the theological notion of the sins of commission and of omission.