Understanding the U.S.A.

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


In the interest of brevity, I am not going to summarize in detail the recommendations for the reform of our schools (K through 12) that my associates and I have set forth in The Paideia Proposal (1982) and in Paideia Problems and Possibilities (1983). 1 am going to assume that the readers of this article will have read these two very short books or will read them as background for what I wish to say here. However, I will restate briefly certain points made in these two books as they bear on the objectives of basic schooling for all the children of this land, on the framework of a required curriculum for all, and on the training of the future teachers for schools thus reformed.

The three objectives of basic schooling, which are the same for all in a one-track system of public schooling, are as follows, in an ascending order of importance: (1) preparation for earning a living; (2) preparation for the duties of citizenship; and (3) preparation for continued learning throughout the years of adult life after all schooling is completed, so that each individual can eventually become a truly educated human being, a condition unattainable in youth and one that fully realizes the potentialities of each individual.

In this article, I am mainly concerned with the second of these objectives — the contribution to be made by basic schooling to civic life, in which each individual fulfills the high obligations of the highest political office in a constitutional democracy — that of citizenship. We the citizens are the government of the United States. The office-holders in Washington are not the government. They are only the administrators of the people’s government. In Lincoln’s words, they are the servants of the people in any government that is truly a government of, by, and for the people.

To achieve the aforestated three objectives for all, the curriculum of the twelve years of basic schooling must be the same for all, with all electives eliminated (except the choice of an acquired second language) and with none of the worse-than-useless, highly particularized job-training left in the curriculum. That required course of study can be constructed in many different ways in different states and different school districts, but all, to be sound, should be constructed within a curricular framework that includes three different kinds of learning and three different kinds of teaching.

These three kinds of learning and of teaching are as follows, again in an ascending order of importance.

  • (1) The acquisition of organized knowledge in the fields of basic subject-matter (language, literature, and the fine arts; mathematics and natural science; history, geography, and the study of social institutions), aided by the kind of teaching that is didactic — teaching by telling, by the use of textbooks or manuals, classroom exercises and demonstration, and monitored by the ordinary types of tests. This is the only kind of learning and teaching that occurs, however inadequately, in most of our schools. When unaccompanied by the second and third kinds of learning and teaching it is a largely a stuffing of the memory rather than a development of the knowing and thinking mind.
  • (2) The development of all the intellectual skills, linguistic, mathematical, and scientific skills, all of which are skills of thinking and of learning, without which no one can possibly become an educated human being. This kind of learning cannot be aided by didactic teaching, by the use of textbooks, by ordinary class-room exercises. All skills, intellectual as well as bodily skills, are habits. Habits can be formed only by the repetition of the right acts and the elimination of the wrong acts. The formation of habits requires coaching — in the classroom in the way that it occurs in the gymnasium, the swimming pool, the playing field. This is a totally different kind of teaching from the kind of didactic teaching that goes on in most classrooms and during most of the school day. It calls for a different student-teacher ratio, different surroundings, different time allotments, and so on. Without coaching adequately pro-vided for all twelve years of basic schooling, our children will never develop the skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, observing, estimating, inferring, etc.
  • (3) The enlargement and elevation of the understanding of basic ideas and issues, to be begun in kindergarten and continued through all twelve years. This kind of learning, the most important of all, can be helped only by teachers who conduct seminars in the Socratic fashion, and teach by asking, not by lecturing or telling, and who moderate discussions in which the students actively engage in an intelligent and critical consideration of fundamental ideas and issues, based on the reading of important books (never textbooks, which are totally undiscussable) and other productions of human art (musical, visual, etc.).

At present, those who enter the teaching profession, as currently prepared for teaching by schools or departments of education, are poorly prepared for the second kind of teaching, and totally unprepared for the third. In addition, they are not themselves generally, liberally, and humanistically educated human beings. They have been educationally shortchanged by the kind of schooling they themselves have received, as well as poorly trained for the tasks they ought to be able to discharge.

To remedy these deficiencies, The Paideia Proposal recommends that the teachers of the future receive the same kind of general, liberal, and humanistic schooling that is here outlined for the first twelve years and, in addition, four more years of the same kind of schooling at colleges that overcome the present trend toward even more intense specialization in some narrow field of subject-matter, this to be followed by at least three years of in-service or clinical experience under the supervision of master teachers.

The primary concern in the preparation of the teachers of the future should be the development of Socratic skills — the skills involved in teaching by asking not by telling, and by leading discussions in which teachers sit around a table with their students, the first among equals, a better learner than their students and thus a leader in learning.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that any educational regimen that is mainly or exclusively didactic is like a diet that is mainly or exclusively fatty, with few carbohydrates and no proteins. Such an unbalanced diet imposes a burden of unhealthy weight on the body. Its educational parallel imposes an unhealthy weight on the memory, not the mind. It leaves the mind undernourished. What is learned is not really known or understood. Genuine knowledge of subject-matters can be achieved only by minds able to think, adequately coached in all the skills of learning, and only by minds that have their ability to understand stimulated by the discussion of basic ideas and issues, common to all fields of learning.

The second reason looks to technological advances that will either replace or alter the function of teachers with regard to the first kind of learning. Audio-visual cassettes will in the future bring the best lecturers on every subject into the classroom by way of closed-circuit television. The classroom teacher who is present during such lectures should then function as the best listener to them, leading the students present in the difficult process of listening well, and following the listening by Socratic questioning and discussion of the lecture’s content.

Computers will be programmed to coach students in all the linguistic and mathematical skills, and they will serve this purpose much better than ordinary, teachers, even well-trained ones; for each student can have his or her individual mechanical coach, which cannot be achieved by even greatly reduced student-teacher ratios in this phase of schooling. Supervising this process of computer-coaching should be teachers who monitor that process and step into help where computers fail in one way or another.

These things being so in the future, the main preparation of teachers should be for the Socratic method, of seminar discussion. Technological devices will never replace the human mind in this kind of teaching or as aids to this kind of learning.

This brings me, finally, to schooling as preparation for citizenship and for civic responsibilities in our democratic society, which has at long last enacted universal suffrage (for females as well as for males, for blacks and Chicanos as well as the whites and anglos), and has safeguarded the exercise of that right, as it must be safeguarded in order for it to be effectively exercised.

This cannot ever be satisfactorily accomplished by traditional civics courses, taught didactically, using mainly informative and usually dull textual materials. Nor can it be accomplished by the didactic and textbook teaching of American history.

What is required here is the reading and discussion of the basic documents that throw light on the political principles of our democratic republic. I have in mind such documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, The Federalist Papers, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party Platform of 1912, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Message to Congress in 1944, and so on. These documents are not now read and discussed in the years of basic schooling. Most of our teachers have not read them and, on a first reading of them, would not be able to understand them or to lead intelligent discussions of them.

Let me conclude by mentioning two personal experiences that support what I have just said. In 1975, William Gorman and I, to celebrate the false bicentennial of this country’s existence (the true bicentennial will not occur until 1989), wrote a book entitled The American Testament. It consisted of a careful explication, line by line, word by word, of three short texts: the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address.

With that book in hand, we led seminars in which the participants were leaders in American life, all of them graduates of our most eminent universities. We learned from these seminars that these supposedly well-schooled individuals had never tried before to understand these three documents, absolutely essential to an understanding of the United States of America. A first level, and therefore inadequate, understanding of them, was achieved at the end of a two-hour discussion, but much more reading and discussion would be required for the fuller understanding that should be in the possession of every citizen of the United States.

The second experience I wish to refer to has occurred more recently when, in attempting to give teachers in various parts of this country some acquaintance with the Socratic method, I have conducted demonstration seminars. Some of these have had high school students as participants, with a gallery of teachers as observers. Some of these have had teachers as participants, with other teachers as observers. I have always begun a series of such seminars with two hours devoted to the Declaration of Independence. In that two hours, I have had time for no more than a consideration of the first five lines of the second paragraph. Without exception, I have found that neither students nor teachers have carefully read the Declaration at some earlier time and that their reading of it in preparation for the seminar was totally inadequate. If they had been asked to give an analytically penetrating interpretation of the first five lines of the second paragraph, they would have failed miserably.

At the end of two hours, they did achieve a rudimentary understanding of its basic ideas — the meaning of self-evident truth, the self-evidence of human equality, the meaning of unalienable (natural, human) rights, the scope of the rights that include life and liberty, the relation of all natural, human rights to the pursuit of happiness, the two meanings of the word “happiness,” only one of which makes sense of Jefferson’s phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” what is involved in the securing of natural rights by a just government, one that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and so on.

Not understanding these things, how can anyone be said to understand the United States of America? But understanding these things is far from sufficient for that purpose. All the other documents mentioned above must be carefully read, adequately discussed, and fully understood. For this to occur, both students and teachers must have some understanding of at least the following basic ideas: rights, justice, liberty, equality, wealth, property, state, society, government, constitution, democracy, citizenship, law, force, war, and peace.

I do not think I have to offer any evidence in support of the statement that the graduates of our high schools have not read these documents and do not understand the ideas prerequisite for understanding them. I regret to say that this statement holds true for the vast majority of the graduates of our colleges and universities, among whom are those who enter the profession of teaching.

This being so, what kind of citizens are we turning out of our schools, colleges, and universities? Certainly not the kind that our democratic republic deserves and that it must have if it is to prosper politically and economically. Those who do not really understand the fundamental principles and ideas that are the foundation of this country’s existence and development are its citizens in name only.

Originally published in the Journal of Teacher Education (August, 1983).

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=themorlib-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=0684841886 http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?lt1=_blank&bc1=000000&IS2=1&bg1=FFFFFF&fc1=000000&lc1=0000FF&t=themorlib-20&o=1&p=8&l=as4&m=amazon&f=ifr&ref=ss_til&asins=0020130503