The Paideia Proposal

In my ongoing, self-quarantined quest to read some of the “classics” in ed philosophy, I’ve just sat down and read The Paideia Proposal.  Written in 1982 by Mortimer Adler, the PP was on Grant Wiggins’s list of ed classics, and I’d heard about it before.  I think I first read about it in grad school, when we read a chapter on ed philosophy.  There were six or seven basic philosophies laid out in the book, and the activity called for you to identify yours. 

Then I remember in class we all had to put our names on the board next to the one we fit with best:  Progressivism, Social Reconstructionism, Existentialism, Essentialism, or Perennialism.  I remember a lot of Essentialists.  No Existentialists.  I put myself in Perennialism, and, looking back today, I think that’s still where I fit most.  One of the representative works for that category was Adler’s Paideia, which my old book said, “renewed interest in perennialism.” Given that I felt that was where I come from philosophically, I was interested to read what Adler actually had to say. A few years ago I’d poked into his book, perhaps in a library, but I remember being quite underwhelmed, and so it wasn’t until this past week that I finally picked this book up again.

Suffice to say, I was again underwhelmed.  The PP is just 84 pages long and it is more — as it is subtitled — a “manifesto” that any real argument or explanation of perennialist principles.  It’s really an appeal to educators, parents, and school boards (there is a section at the end just for school board members) to institute a one-track classical education for all students.  This definitely feels to me like a book that became famous partly for what it kicked off or what it expressed as a general, widespread feeling — rather than for its insightful arguments or insights.  

From what I can tell, Adler was basically the last surviving member of the mid-century debates between figures like Robert Maynard Hutchins (on the side of the classicists) and John Dewey (the progressives).  By 1982, Adler, coming very much from the classical side, the UChicago Great Books model under Hutchins (who he quotes warmly a number of times in the book), must have really felt like an outsider for the past twenty years.  The 1960s and 1970s, dominated by more and more progressive and Romantic reforms, could not have been a worse time to be an advocate of classical ed.  I can’t think of a less popular thing to have done in say 1972 than to stand up and say, “You know what our young people should be doing?  Studying the great works of antiquity.” Definitely not getting invited back to the panel!  

But by 1982, things were different.  Ronald Reagan had just gotten elected, “Morning in America” was seeing the country turn more conservative, and there was a growing movement in education toward more conservative ideals.  A Nation at Risk was just a year away.  Essentialist reformers like Ted Sizer (who was part of the Paideia group) and E.D. Hirsch were gaining momentum with calls for more classical notions of school and curriculum.  The testing and accountability movements were hovering on the horizon.  Adler must have felt the time was right, the political winds were with him, Americans were tired of the constant experimentalism and wanted a more conservative educational approach.  

And conservative this is.  Adler calls for a single-track, classically-based curriculum for all students, the elimination of all electives (save one foreign language), and the ridding of the curriculum of any trace of training for any kind of specific job.  What’s interesting though — and I think prescient — is not only does Adler call for the traditional liberal arts curriculum, but he does so in the language of egalitarianism.  The knock on Perennialism or even classical education is always that — because it focuses on “great works” and an apparently western- and male-based curriculum, it is an elitist tradition.  It’s too scholarly, doesn’t acknowledge diversity, and does not do well at preparing students for the real world.  But Adler makes the argument — and I have to think this was new at the time — that such a classical education is both a democractic right, and a moral imperative.  Poor children deserve the same quality education as rich children, not just the same quantity.  He quotes Hutchins:  “The best education for the best is the best education for all.” There is no substitute for a classical education, was is both liberatory and an important tool to train citizens for active participation in democracy.

This argument is instantly familiar to me, of course, and my modern ears.  For one thing, I worked at a charter school in the mid-2000s that, I now realize, was almost entirely based on Adler’s principles.  It was a “Latin” school whose controversial founder and headmaster peppered his weekly letters with quotes from Hutchins and essentially earned his charter and his bulging enrollment waitlist by arguing that a classical education was a civil right for poor and minority urban students.  

What’s interesting (apart from the whole saga of his downfall and eventual sacking) is that I believe the real appeal of the Perennialist tradition for the minority students who attended his school was not the promise of an Aristotelian understanding of truth, but the promise of rigorous academic preparation with an eye toward college acceptance and social advancement.  When you are talking about a college’s approach to Perennialism — a St. John’s or a UChicago — I have to believe that you are talking about students who are more interested in learning for learning’s sake than in any specific preparation for the next step (see Saul Bellow’s wonderful 2000 novel Ravelstein, whose protagonist is a thinly-disguised UChicago professor Alan Bloom, for some humorous insights into the distinct lack of real-world application of some of the school’s studies).  But when you are talking about Perennialism at the secondary level, I think you’re talking less about the mental acuity and training that supposedly comes from studying great works and more about the academic rigor that the Perennialists market themselves with.  They are teacher centered, they are demanding, they have high standards.  Dewey’s Progressivism (often unfairly) gets the rap of being soft.  I think it was that Perennialist “rigor,” the whiff of back-to-basics that many Americans were looking for from their schools in the early 1980s that made the PP so appealing.

The other thing I think is interesting is the way that Adler’s approach in this book — educational conservativism paired with a message of liberal social progressivism — became the blueprint for the major, major reforms and bipartisan consensus of the NCLB era that has dominated education from 2002 until the present day.  Ted Sizer is one thing — yes, he wanted to strip down the curriculum to the essentials, but he also wanted to a lot of Progressive-sounding things like replacing final exams with presentations of learning.  There’s a lot of Dewey in Horace’s Compromise.  Just look at how Sizer’s ultimate real-life model, Dennis Littky, idolized Dewey and was nearly run out of a conservative town for his apparent Progressive educational subversiveness.  Not exactly a conservative.

But Mortimer Adler in Paideia?  This sounds a lot like NCLB.  It hits both sides of the aisle.  On the one side, the left, you’ve got all the democracy talk.  You’ve got the whole, “a quality education is a right” argument.  But it’s coming from someone whose proposals are clearly conservative: the swerve back to classical ideals, the insistence on paring down the comprehensive high school, even the implicit goal of teaching objective truth and even values.  E.D. Hirsch tries the same argument in Cultural Literacy.  In a way, you have to make the egalitarian argument if you want to push the classics in a democracy.  Anyway, this sounds to me a lot like Ted Kennedy holding hands with George Bush in 2001 and passing NCLB.  It’s Compassionate Conservativism, it’s educational triangulation (“it’s the test scores, stupid”).  

Sure, by the time we got to the 2000s, the whole proposal had morphed into something different.  It wasn’t about timeless content anymore.  In fact, it wasn’t even about content at all — it was more about a Progressivist notion of “skills.” But it was, ironically, about a narrowing and focusing of the curriculum — in this case, down into just the two or three most basic, most tested subjects.  And it was based on the same assumption that a vaguely academic, liberal arts education was the most important lever for social and economic advancement in our society (if not mental training and personal enlightenment).

As a result, I was a bit turned off by this work.  It felt less like it was about teaching students to search for answers to contemporary social and existential problems across time and circumstance in the best works that humans have produced, and instead more about pushing traditional academic learning on all students, which I disagree with.  The best example is Adler’s absolute banishment under his proposal of any kind of vocational training.  Adler believes vocational education is nothing more than a dead end and which he believes should be replaced by a set track of liberal learning that teaches students — even those not bound for college — the more important skills of how to learn rather than teaching them specific, soon-to-be-obsolete technical skills.

This is a familiar argument, one that I find incomplete now that I have read Dewey.  For one thing, it seems to me that students do some incredible learning in technical programs.  Many of them really blossom and begin to finally take their work seriously — which, ironically, begins to teach them skills of how to continue learning in earnest in a way that traditional “classroom” learning never did.  Adler completely misses Dewey’s expansive, generous vision of technical education in “Democracy in Education.” I’ll spare the summary of this — I have already blogged before about it — but essentially it says that technical education is vital because of its ability to meet students where they’re interested — provided it helps students move beyond mere skills training and into the realm of liberal learning so that they can “direct their own fate” no matter what their employment is.  The word that keeps coming to mind when I think about Dewey is “situational” — I think of it the way that Bill Bellichick talks about “situational football” and does not seem to have a consistent “style” — he morphs and changes based on the players he has and the opponent he faces.  That’s Dewey.  Adler’s philosophy — that every student learns the same curriculum — sounds like just the opposite.

Looking back at my old grad school textbook, it’s telling that under each philosophy there is a section devoted to a school that practices that philosophy — and some philosophies are not apparently represented in any public school, only in private schools, or, in the case of Perennialism, a private college (St. John’s).

To what extent is Perennialism a shaping factor in our schools?  And to what extent should it be?  I have always been in favor, when designing my lessons, of shaping them around one or two “timeless” essential questions:  Where does discrimination come from?  What does it mean to be in love?  What is the best way to live?  This is a Perennialist orientation at least.  Modern works and ancient works all try, in my view, to answer these timeless questions.  The extent to which they do is the extent to which they endure.  Some books, or films, or speeches do this better than others.  These works touch eternity; they are the ones we as humans return to again and again.  Think of the famous line from Invisible Man:  “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” 

I reject the idea that the times we live in are unprecedented in any of the important ways.  The questions we face now have been faced before and we would be wise to study the ways they have been addressed in the past.  This is not to say we are just endlessly repeating history or that nothing is original, only that I do not believe human beings fundamentally change much; there is, I have always believed, an elemental human nature.  This is part of what draws me to the educational philosophy of Perennialism.  

At the same time, part of what I consider timeless about education is its contingency.  It is very much important to take into account time, place, and circumstance.  You must see the trees as well as the forest.  This is what draws me to Deweyian Progressivism.  There is something timeless about it, too.

Anyway, this has gotten far afield of Adler.  To tell the truth, I do not see much in here that I will return to, but I appreciate it as a landmark moment of revival of the debate between traditional and progressive ed that had seemed settled for twenty-some years finally erupting again.  That said, it’s an ominous book for me, containing as it does (in my view) echoes of the coming storms of NCLB and the ESSA, the villainous figures of democrats and republicans allied on a vision of traditional ed for progressive purposes, all tightly controlled, tested, and evaluated by the powers that be.  I’ll reread Horace’s Compromise again in a few years, but not Paideia.