Adler’s Columns: An Overview of the Paideia Approach

by Dr. Robert M. Woods

About twenty years ago, several events converged that led me to discover the life and work of Mortimer Adler, a leading figure in the revival of classical education in the twentieth century and one of the fathers of the modern Great Books movement. First, I heard an audio recording of Mortimer Adler in which he was interviewed about a range of topics, including education. Around that same time, I was asked to start an honors program for Faulkner University, a religious liberal arts college in Montgomery, Alabama. After some research, it seemed most fitting to design and offer an honors program that was centered around a Great Books–based liberal arts education. Continuing to study the work and legacy of Mortimer Adler over the past two decades has keenly shaped my philosophy of education. Reading and discussing the Great Books with students of all ages and various teachers has been a true pleasure that has left me with a sense that I owe a debt to Mortimer Adler.

Currently in classical Christian education circles, many know of Mortimer Adler or at least have heard of the Great Books, but not as many have benefited from a more direct interaction with Adler’s many books and ideas. According to Mortimer Adler, education is an embodied and highly engaging process whereby people grow into a fuller expression of what it means to be a human being. Adler’s vision of the goal of education, for example, is very similar to that espoused by most classical Christian schools. Education, when done well, provides and cultivates intellectual and moral virtues that equip humans with what is necessary to be happy. Education, at its best, enables us to pursue the goods of life and in turn the good life. It teaches us how to live well.

In my recently published book, Mortimer Adler: The Paideia Way of Classical Education, I examine Adler’s life and philosophy along with the foundations, characteristics, and practical applications of his proposal for what we term a Paideia approach to classical education. I wanted to write this book in part as an expression of my appreciation to the important service rendered by Adler, as well as to serve as an introduction to this Paideia approach. Here in this post, I will briefly sketch the outlines of Paideia education and then highlight how this style of learning can influence the entire family, reaching beyond the classroom setting.

In its most robust sense, a Paideia education is a way of life that encourages a pursuit of wisdom and, as far as possible, a meaningful human existence. That being said, while the Paideia approach is complementary to, and in many ways parallel to, the ideals of what we now know as classical education, the two are not always synonymous. The primary distinction between much of classical education and Adler’s Paideia approach is a shift from merely lecturing to a focus on primary sources that calls for a more direct, robust interaction between students, teachers, and the works themselves. Suffice to say, the Paideia approach highly esteems the Great Books and Great Ideas and calls for real participation in the Great Conversation. Priority is given to teaching in a highly engaging manner that is more intellectually beneficial to students as well as teachers.

Adler’s Paideia approach proposes three columns of instruction: didactic instruction (lectures), academic coaching (development of skill), and the Socratic seminar (discussion). In addition to meeting the lofty goals of authentic learning, on a more practical level there is some convincing research that gives insight into how Adler’s three columns, when implemented effectively, ameliorate standardized test scores, improve end-of-grade test performance, enrich reading and math skills, and provide a fuller understanding of the subject being studied. By using this approach, teachers and students can gain a richer and more meaningful understanding of all that is studied. One should imagine the three columns as many do the trivium (the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric). They are best envisioned and practiced in relationship to one another where each mode of teaching reinforces the others.

Adler’s Paideia program should be seen as a wonderful spark that partially ignited what has become a blazing fire of educational reform. Even in 1983, Adler was imagining how private and religious schools could benefit from the Paideia approach and, more importantly, have the freedom to implement this approach more readily since government bureaucracies would not encumber these endeavors.

This is Brazil.
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli / Unsplash

In order to fully understand Mortimer Adler’s hope and vision for how a full Paideia education could influence the entire family, it is helpful to turn to a little booklet entitled The Great Ideas Program Family Participation Plan, published in 1959. Adler considered quality family time as time spent together reading Great Books and discussing them—a spiritual investment for the whole family and a good for society as a whole. Adler called the family to recognize that activities should not center around amusement but rather around education, and stressed that these amusements were fleeting distractions that can often be unwholesome. Engagement with constant mere entertainment does not help us to grow as human beings. Instead, Adler calls for an extremely high level of parental involvement. It is difficult to imagine such a challenge being issued to the nuclear family today! Adler, in this unique booklet, describes something that may never have come to exist across society, but he provides a model for us to see how there can be pockets of resistance of learning and teaching where this kind of intellectual flourishing occurs.

I think of Mortimer Adler as an experienced master guide and academic cheerleader. He and others he worked with have given us some amazing tools and resources that can aid us in our quest for the True, Good, and Beautiful. Adler’s Paideia approach to teaching and learning continually stresses lifelong learning as a key goal. He and more than twenty other like-minded educators and philosophers, known as the Paideia Group, strongly adhered to the notion that education and citizenship were intricately bound together. They echoed the classical Greek idea that an ill-educated people ultimately becomes a mindless mob easily manipulated by a range of sociopolitical powers. A Paideia education stresses lifelong learning as relevant to citizenship because it is a core aspect of what it means to live as a wise and learned good citizen.

It is my hope that by exposure to Adler’s philosophy and influence, more people within classical Christian schools and homeschool settings will see how we can benefit from the use of his three columns to enrich our study of the Great Books and Great Ideas and in turn pursue a life well lived.

Dr. Robert M. Woods

Dr. Robert M. Woods holds a BA in biblical studies and ministry from Point University, an MA in religious studies from Barry University, and a PhD in humanities from Florida State University. After developing and chairing the Great Books Honors College at Faulkner University for over fifteen years, he is now the headmaster at Veritas Christian Academy in Fletcher, North Carolina. He also enjoys consulting and speaking about how to implement Adler’s Paideia approach in classical schools.

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