Anika Prather: The Greatness of Mortimer Adler

My journey into the realm of studying and teaching Great Books has been a profound and challenging one, initiated by my parents' endeavor to establish a classical school in the early 2000s. Witnessing the hurdles they encountered in establishing such a school in a predominantly Black neighborhood has imparted invaluable lessons to me. Among these lessons, one stands out: every aspect of this work must be underpinned by a logical, theoretical, and historical foundation. As a Black woman, I recognize that endorsing books often devoid of the voices of my community or women as the "Greatest Books" requires more than mere assertion. In a nation with a history marred by the captivity and oppression of my ancestors, it is imperative that this work be grounded in objective criteria rather than subjective emotions or personal opinions.

This realization led me to embrace the teachings of Mortimer Adler. His theoretical, philosophical, and historically grounded approach resonated deeply with me, providing a framework to continue his work in contemporary times. Adler's meticulous process, involving over 40,000 hours of reading and cross-referencing texts to uncover common human themes and experiences, known as The Great Conversation, intrigued me. Unlike approaches that exclude diverse voices, Adler's criteria for inclusion in his Western Canon demand that authors engage with existing works, irrespective of their background or appearance. While acknowledging Adler's assertion that the Western Canon should reflect the dominant culture of America, I recognize the inherent diversity within this narrative, reflecting the amalgamation of perspectives, cultures, and traditions that characterize the American story.

Adler's intention in curating his Western Canon was not to create a collection of books that excluded certain voices. While he may not have explicitly considered works from diverse authors as part of the Great Conversation, his criteria for inclusion were not based on the author's background or appearance. Instead, Adler's rule required authors to engage with existing works in the canon, demonstrating a connection to the texts of ancient Greece and Rome. This approach allowed for the expansion of the canon without arbitrary selection based on race or ethnicity.

Despite Adler's emphasis on reflecting the culture of the Western world in his list, it is essential to acknowledge the diverse perspectives that contribute to the American story. While inspired by Western culture, America incorporates the traditions and experiences of people from various backgrounds, whether they came to America by choice or force. By adhering to Adler's criteria, we can continue his work in expanding the canon to encompass a broader spectrum of voices, enriching our understanding of history and culture.

Some may argue that including writings from diverse authors could detract from the humanistic essence of the canon. However, works like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man illustrate how non-European voices shed light on experiences often overlooked in traditional discourse. The Western Canon's current focus on the human story of white people highlights its racial bias. Nevertheless, Adler's criteria provide a concrete way to address this issue, allowing for the inclusion of diverse voices without compromising the canon's integrity.

In essence, Mortimer Adler's approach to curating the Western Canon offers a pathway to expand it inclusively. By ensuring that works engage with existing texts and contribute to the ongoing dialogue, we can embrace the richness of diverse perspectives and continue the tradition of the Great Conversation.

Chinua Achebe's writings serve as a testament to the transformative potential of Adler's Great Books. Rather than rejecting the canon, Achebe utilized it as a platform to tell the story of his people, the Igbo, to a global audience. This exemplifies the unifying power of Adler's approach, providing a blueprint for expanding the canon in a manner that celebrates our shared humanity and diverse experiences.

In essence, Adler's Western Canon represents a metaphorical embrace—an inclusive narrative that embraces all voices and perspectives. Far from being exclusive, it serves as a unifying force, drawing us closer together through our shared humanity as expressed in the pages of these timeless texts. Thus, I firmly believe that Adler's Great Books are truly "great" in their capacity to embrace and unite us all.

Anika T. Prather, PhD, is Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America. She has served in public and private schools for over 20 years as a teacher, school leader and consultant. She is the founder of The Living Water School, a unique Christian school for independent learners, based on the educational philosophies of Classical Education and the Sudbury Model. 

Dr. Anika T. Prather
Assistant Professor
The Catholic University of America

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