Only Adults Can Be Educated

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Max Weismann interviews Mortimer Adler (1995)


Mortimer Adler was a high school dropout at age 15; yet for more than 60 years his name has been synonymous with education — teaching and learning. Now at 93 years of age he persists in exhorting us to understand the distinction between schooling and education, as well as, the importance of our lifelong obligation to continued liberal learning.

Before we begin, in all fairness I should point out that subsequent to dropping out of high school and following a series of events, too lengthy to recount here, he became (I suspect) the only person in this country ever to receive a Ph.D. without a high school diploma, a bachelor’s degree, or a masters degree.

I am honored to bring you this insightful interview on the Great Idea of Education with my dear friend, mentor, colleague, philosopher, teacher, author, and high school dropout.

WEISMANN: William F. Buckley, Jr. on his television show “Firing Line,” once introduced you as “Our nation’s pedagogue”; yet even with that appellation and your long career in education, I have heard you say that schooling is not education. This is at least a very provocative statement, particularly today when all over America parents are screaming about the poor education their children are receiving in schools. Please explain and help us to understand what you mean by that statement?

ADLER: I am going to begin my answer with an even more provocative statement, or should I say “fact,” and that is “only adults can be educated.” So before I answer your question, we must first discuss “adult education.” Let me explain. The word “education” has come to have so restricted a connotation that it is misleading. When most people think of education, they tend to think of the development of their children, not of their own development; they think of learning in school, not outside of school. A serious result of this is that the phrase “adult education” is generally misunderstood. Because we think of education as something done primarily with the young and in school, “adult education” comes to be a queer kind of thing, some-thing which you usually think of, if you think of it at all, as for the other person, not yourself.

In years of thinking and working in the field of education, the insight that I am going to try to communicate to you is one which is basic to the whole theory of education. It not only changes our conception of what should go on in the schools, and what should be done with children, but it also changes our conception of what each adult must do for himself to sustain his own life of learning.

I can hardly remember what I used to think when I had the mistaken notion that the schools were the most important part of the educational process; for now I think exactly the reverse. I am now convinced that it is adult education which is the substantial and major part of the educational process — the part for which all the rest is at best — and it is at its best only when it is — a preparation.

WEISMANN: We know only too well that words can be mischievous and treacherous. Those of us who are engaged in adult education have been thinking for some time of how to avoid using the words “adult education,” because in the minds of the general public they have such an unfortunate connotation. How can we correct this misconception?

ADLER: You are quite correct about words, and if by issuing an edict, I could get everybody to use words the way I would like them to, I would try to set up the following usage: use “schooling” to signify the development and training of the young; and “education” (without the word “adult” attached to it) to signify the learning done by mature men and women. Then we could say that after schooling, real education, not adult education, begins. This is my main point.

WEISMANN: From my own long experience I am sadly aware of the misconceptions in the minds of almost everybody which prevents this basic proposition from being understood. Would you indicate for us the major misconceptions that must be rectified.

ADLER: Most of us, and most professional educators, hold a false view of schooling. It consists in the notion that it is the aim or purpose of the schools — and I use the word “schools” to include all levels of institutional education from the kindergarten to the college and university — to turn out educated men and women, their education completed or finished when they are awarded a degree or diploma. Nothing could be more absurd or preposterous. This means that young people — children of twenty or twenty-two — are to be regarded as educated men and women. We all know, and no one can deny, that no child — in school or at the moment of graduation — is an educated person.

WEISMANN: Yet it seems this is the apparent aim of the whole school system — to give a complete education. At least this is the current conception which governs the construction of the curriculum and the conduct or administration of the school system; it is also the conception of most parents who send their children to schools and colleges.

ADLER: That is correct. This error about education being completed in school is widespread, as shown by the fact that most of us also hold a false view of “adult education.” I held it myself for many years. We think of adult education as something for the underprivileged, some poor people who were deprived in youth of schooling by economic circumstance or hardships. Perhaps they were foreigners who came to this country under difficult circumstances. Deprived of the normal amount of schooling, these people in later life, while they are working all day to support a family, go to night school to make up for their lack of schooling in youth. Night schooling or remedial schooling — to compensate for lack of sufficient schooling in youth — is, for a great many people, the essence of adult education. When they think of it in this way, they — the majority who are more fortunate — conclude that adult education is not for them, but only for the unfortunate few who lacked sufficient schooling in youth.

WEISMANN: Another false and very misleading notion about adult education is that it is something you can take or leave because it really is an avocation, a hobby that occupies a little of your spare time, something a little better than card games or television. On this level, adult education consists of classes in basket weaving, or folk dancing, or clay modeling — things of that sort. Even lectures about current events are of that sort. Aren’t these all wrong notions — wrong notions of the meaning of what schooling is or should be, and wrong notions of what fundamental education for adults should be? What is your prescription to correct these misconceptions?

ADLER: Perhaps the easiest way for me to correct these errors is to state the contrary truth, and tell you what every schoolboy does not know. Every schoolboy or girl, particularly at the moment of graduation from school, does not know how much he does not know — and how much he has to learn.

WEISMANN: Yes, but as this is perfectly natural, the children are not to be blamed for it, are they?

ADLER: Of course not, this is one of the natural blindnesses of youth. There is hardly an intelligent adult — a college graduate two or three years out of college — who will not readily and happily confess frankly that he is not an educated person, that there is much more for him to learn, and that he does not know it all. If we should find a college graduate three years out of college who does not know he needs an education, charity would recommend that we speak no more of him.

WEISMANN: I wonder how the college graduate, two, three, or five years out of college, who recognizes the fact that he was not educated, or that his education or training was far from complete in all the years of schooling, explains that fact?

ADLER: He usually has one or another incorrect explanation. If he is a gentle and generous person, he is likely to say, “The fault was mine. I went to a good school. The curriculum was good. I had a fine set of teachers. The library facilities and all the other conditions in my formal schooling were excellent; but I wasted my time. I played cards or took the girls out, or went in for extracurricular activities, or something else interfered with my studies. If only I had studied, I would now be an educated person.”

This, I assure you, is quite wrong. But, at the opposite extreme, there is the person who is equally wrong. He is less generous. He puts the blame on somebody else. He says, “It was the school’s fault. The teachers were no good; it was a bad curriculum; in general the facilities were poor. If all these had been better, I would now be educated.”

This opposite extreme is equally incorrect. The truth can be expressed only by what may seem to you for a moment to be an extreme or outrageous statement. But I must make it. Consider the brightest boy or girl at the best imaginable college — much better than any which now exists — with the most competent faculty and with a perfect course of study.

Imagine this brightest student in the best of all possible colleges spending four years industriously, faithfully, and efficiently applying his or her mind to study. I say to you that at the end of four years, this student, awarded a degree with the highest honors, is not an educated man or woman, and cannot be, for the simple reason that the obstacle to becoming educated in school is an inherent and insur-mountable one, namely, youth.

WEISMANN: You say that the young cannot be educated, youth being the obstacle. Why is this so?

ADLER: We should know the answer almost as soon as we ask the question. What do we mean by young people? What are children? In answer to your question, I use the word “children” for all human beings still under institutional care. I do not care what their chronological age is, whether it is fifteen or eighteen or twenty-two. If they are still within the walls of a school, college, or university, they are children. They are living a protected, and in many ways an artificial, life.

I repeat, what does it mean to be a child? What is our conception of being a child? It is obviously a conception of human life at a stage when it is right to be irresponsible to a certain degree. Childhood is a period of irresponsibility. In addition to being irresponsible, the child or young person, precisely because he is protected or safeguarded, is greatly deficient in experience. Most or all of the things that make us adults or mature occur after we leave school. The business of getting married, of having children, of having our parents become ill, or dependent on us, or die, the death of our friends, our business and social responsibilities — these are the things that age us. And aging is a part of what makes us mature. We cannot be mature without being aged through pain and suffering and grief. This kind of suffering children are spared, but they pay a price for being spared it. They remain immature, irresponsible, and unserious, in the basic sense of that word.

Let me indicate this in still another way. Teachers in colleges and universities have had the experience of having, in the same classroom, the returned GI, from military service continuing his education on the GI Bill of Rights, and ordinary boys and girls right out of high school. The difference between those two groups of students in the same classroom is like the difference between night and day. The actual ages are not too far apart — sometimes the GI is hardly more than a year or two older than the boy sitting next to him. But the one is a man and the other is a child. And the difference between a man and a child is a difference wrought by experience, by hard knocks. It cannot be produced by schooling.

WEISMANN: Does it follow, then, that precisely because they are immature, understandably irresponsible, not serious, and lack a great deal of experience, children in school are not educable?

ADLER: Yes. However, I do not mean they are not trainable. In fact, they are much more trainable than we are. As we get older, our nervous system becomes much less plastic. It is much harder for us to learn languages, much harder for us to learn shorthand, for example, or ice-skating. The child, in all matters of simple habit formation, is much more trainable than the adult, but the adult is much more educable, because education is not primarily a matter of training or habit formation. Though these are preparations for it, education in its essence is the cultivation of the human mind. Education consists in the growth of understanding, insight, and ultimately some wisdom. These growths require mature soil. Only in mature soil, soil rich with experience — the soul in the mature person — can ideas really take root.

WEISMANN: When you say adults are more educable than children, are you really saying that adults can think better than children?

ADLER: Yes, and I hope that our readers believe that this is so, because if they do not, then adults ought to stay away from the polls and send their children there instead. But if you really believe — as I certainly do without embarrassment or hesitation — that you can think better than a child, then you must also realize that you are more educable than a child. Basic learning — the acquisition of ideas, insight, under-standing — depends on being able to think. If adults can think better than children, they can also learn better — learn better in the fundamental sense of cultivating their minds.

WEISMANN: How would you respond to the person who may suppose that this is a novel educational insight: this insistence that education belongs to the mature, and schooling, at the level of training and habit formation, to the young?

ADLER: I would reply that except for our own century, all the great periods of Western culture have recognized and acted on the simple basic truth I have stated as my central thesis. If we go back to the Greeks, for example, I think I can show you in the works of the two great thinkers of antiquity, Plato and Aristotle, the presence of this fundamental insight.

In Plato’s Republic he outlines the ideal education of the best men to govern the ideal state. The course of study is as follows. Listen to its time schedule. From the beginning until the student reaches the age of twenty, the curriculum is confined to music and gymnastics. Here music stands for the cultivation of the sensibilities and imagination; and gymnastics stands for the acquisition of all the basic bodily coordinations. Between the ages of twenty and thirty there occurs training in the liberal arts, particularly the arts of mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), and the basic arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Then, at the age of thirty, the young person goes out into the world. He leaves the academy and undertakes civic duties or public responsibilities, thus becoming a little more mature. He returns to the academy at thirty-five, for the study of philosophy, or the contemplation of ideas. And this continues until the age of fifty, when his formal education is completed. Here is a time schedule which recognizes how slowly the processes of education take place and how maturity is required before the understanding of ideas can occur.

There is another indication of this in the opening chapters of Aristotle’s Ethics. He points out that you can train the characters of young men, you can form the moral virtues in them by reward and punishment, but, he says, you cannot teach them ethical principles. You cannot teach them ethical theory because they are immature. Lacking moral and political experience, being more or less under the influence of wayward passions, they cannot possibly understand moral and political principles, nor are they in a position to make sound judgments on moral questions. Think of how we violate this insight in our schools today. One of the major subjects for the young, soon after kindergarten, is social studies. Aristotle would not have thought it possible to teach these to young children because to understand the theory of society requires mature experience and judgment.

Perhaps I can communicate my basic insight by a reference to my own biography. When I went to Columbia College, and read the great books under an extraordinarily fine teacher, John Erskine, I read them very studiously. I thought I knew what they were about. I thought I understood them perfectly. To show you how young I was, let me tell you two things about myself. I recall quite clearly what my reaction was to Plato and Aristotle the first time I read the passages I have just reported to you. I was quite sure Plato was wrong that one could not understand ideas until after thirty-five or forty. He must be wrong, because there I was, at twenty, doing it. And Aristotle must be wrong that ethics could not be taught to young men. There I was, a young man who thoroughly understood the principles of Aristotle’s great book on Ethics.

I now know how silly I was at the age of twenty. I was fortunate enough to have to read again and again in the course of the next sixty-five years the same books I read in college. This experience of reading these books over and over again, during years when I was growing up a little, taught me how much such growth, through experience and living, is required for the understanding of the Great Ideas found in the Great Books. I have often looked at old lecture notes, or at notes written some years earlier in preparation for leading Great Books discussions. I realize then how far I have come. It is not that I have grown more intelligent, but simply that my capacity for understanding has changed, deepened a little, as a result of the intervening experience.

WEISMANN: Suppose that everything you have said is so. Suppose we agree with you that schooling should consist largely in the training of good habits in the young, and that education is principally learning by adults who are mature human beings. What are the consequences of this proposition?

ADLER: I think that they are very radical indeed, so radical that it would take almost an educational revolution to put them into effect. If it is true that education is primarily a matter for adults, then what we do when we send our children to school, how we understand why we are sending them there, what we do about ourselves after school, and how we understand the necessity for us to continue learning — all these things would follow.

WEISMANN: If I understand what you are saying, adult education, or education for adults, is necessary for all adults, not just for those who suffered deprivation in youth through lack of this or that part of formal schooling. It is not a matter of what is necessary for the other fellow; it is a matter which each of us must face for himself.

ADLER: That is correct. Let me now divide the consequences of this proposition into two parts: first, the consequences for the school system; and second, for adults. I should like, first, to make a few remarks as background for the consideration of the reforms which should take place in the school system. I assume, without any argument at all, that we are committed to a democratic society, a democratic government, and democratic institutions. And I assume without argument that you understand this to mean acceptance of the basic truth about human equality, which expresses itself in the political principle of universal suffrage. What distinguishes democracy from all other forms of government is the extension of the franchise to all citizens, men and women, without regard to race, creed, or color. The only just limitations on universal suffrage involve the exclusion of infants and children, the mentally incompetent, and criminals who have forfeited their political rights by acts of moral turpitude. No one else is justly excluded according to a democratic conception of government. The educational consequence of this political principle is that all children must go to school. Education must be universal and compulsory because, in a democracy, all children must be trained for citizenship. This means, I say, building enough schools and finding enough teachers to take care of the whole population of future citizens in our democratic society.

WEISMANN: We almost have succeeded in doing this in this country. We seem to have, in the course of this century, recognized the educational obligations of a democratic society. We have built a tremendous number of schools and trained a vast horde of teachers. We have poured great funds of taxpayers’ money into school budgets.

ADLER: That is satisfactory as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough. If you have children in school, or know anything about what is going on in most of the schools today, public or private, you will know that most of the children are not being democratically educated. Most of the children — I think I can even safely say more than 75+ percent — are, in fact, being given almost no education at all. They are being given vocational training. Vocational training is training for work or for the life of the slave. It is not the education of the future citizen, of the free man who has leisure to use. Liberal education, as distinguished from vocational training, is education for freedom, and this means that it is education for the responsibilities of citizenship and for the good use of leisure.

WEISMANN: What do you mean by the “good use of leisure?”

ADLER: Again I am using a word “leisure” that is generally misunderstood in this country, if not everywhere, in our times. Just as the phrase “adult education” is an unfortunate phrase because most people think that education is something that is done with children in school; so the word “leisure” is an unfortunate word, certainly for most Americans, because by “leisure” most of us mean spare time — the time one has to kill, the time one has to use up somehow because it is left over from the time needed for work and sleep. Leisure time, as most Americans think of it, is playtime or pastime, time to fritter away, to occupy with a variety of time-killing or time-consuming, unimportant activities. In terms of this conception of leisure, liberal education has no meaning at all. You might as well close all the schools down.

Let me give you another conception of leisure. Human life is divided into four basic parts, not three. Let me deal with work first. Work is that part of life which consists of the activities all of us must perform, if we have any self-respect, in order to earn and deserve our sustenance. Sleep is that part of life which is spent in recuperating from the fatigues of work. In this sense, no one deserves to sleep who does not work. Sleep is for the sake of work. Play or recreation or amusement is on the same level as sleep. It is not the same as sleep, but it is not much better than sleep.

Let us think for a moment of the word “recreation.” Recreational activities would seem to be for the sake of re-creating our energies, getting over fatigue, washing away the weariness that comes from labor. So, like sleep, recreational activities also are for the sake of work.

This leaves a set of activities through which we can discharge our obligation to acquire every human excellence which can grace a human person. These — and they are not play in any sense — are the activities of leisure. They are intrinsically good activities, for the sake of which everything else is done — for the sake of which we earn a living.

Education is not for the sake of earning a living. American parents and teachers have for many years thought otherwise, unfortunately. Most American parents send their children to school in order to help them get ahead in the world — by beating their neighbors. They think school is the place to learn how to make a better living — “better” only in the sense of more money.

This is not the meaning of school or of education. No one has to go to school in order to earn a living. Our grandfathers did not. Perhaps we need schools to train men for the learned professions, but not for the ordinary jobs of an industrial society. The basic tasks of an industrial society can be learned on the job. There is no need for vocational training in the schools.

WEISMANN: Then, if I understand what you are saying, we need to go to school, not in order to learn how to earn a living, but in order to learn how to use the life for which we are going to earn a living — to learn how to occupy ourselves humanly, to live our leisure hours well and not play them all away or seek to amuse ourselves to the point of distraction or boredom.

ADLER: Precisely, we need to learn how to do well what we are called upon to do as moral and political agents, and to do well what we must do for the cultivation of our own minds.

These are the aims of liberal education. Liberal education must be begun in school. If you understand what democracy is and what leisure is, and that to be a free man is to be a man of leisure as well as a citizen, then you will realize that all children not only should go to school, but should also be given a liberal education there. I would go so far as to say that all vocational training should be removed from our schools. I would even go further and say that by liberal education for all the children I mean education for all up to what is now regarded as the Bachelor of Arts degree.

WEISMANN: When you say this, I have the image before me of large audiences of school teachers. On their faces I see horror. They tell me, as I am sure they have told you, that it is easy for us to say these fine things. You and I have never faced the ordinary school classroom with the ordinary assortment of children, of whom you say should go on to college and receive their degree of Bachelor of Arts. If we had their experience, we would find, as they have found, it almost impossible to accomplish with a majority of children even the beginning of what you mean by liberal education. It was all right, they say, to try to provide liberal education a hundred years ago when we had a much smaller and a more select school population. How would you respond to them when they say, but now that we have democratically taken all the children into school, it is no longer possible to give that same kind of education?

ADLER: I would reply that as we made the transition from our colonial society, which was aristocratic, to our present society, which is democratic, we must undertake to give the same kind of education that was given then in the eighteenth century to the small governing class (the Thomas Jefferson’s, the Alexander Hamilton’s, the John Adamses, the men who wrote the Constitution and the Declaration) now in the twentieth century to the large governing class (all the citizens of the United States today). Nothing else will do. Nothing else is democratic.

WEISMANN: Would you admit that in one respect the teachers are right. Children are containers of different sizes. They do not all have the same capacity.

ADLER: Yes, but the question is not one of the amount of education to be given each child, for no child can receive more than his capacity permits. The question has to do with the kind of education to be given each child, according to his capacity.

Let me illustrate this with a simple metaphor. Let the child of low intelligence and weak natural endowments be represented by a pint container; and the child of extremely high endowments and intelligence, by a gallon container. According to the democratic concept of education, you must put into the pint container whatever kind of liquid you put into the gallon container, even though only one pint can go here and a gallon there. It will not do to put cream into the gallon container and, say, water — dirty water, at that — into the pint container. Vocational education is the dirty water we are now pouring into our pint containers. Liberal education is the cream we are giving the few.

WEISMANN: But don’t you think that school teachers, parents, and the country in general have been misled on this point because the problem is so difficult to solve?

ADLER: Yes, but the teachers took the wrong turn, though the easier one, when they were first faced with the problem at the turn of the century. They discovered that they did not know how to put cream into the pint container. Instead of doing what was required of them — taking the time to face and solve this very difficult problem of finding pedagogical techniques, methods, or means for putting cream into every container, large or small, they backed away, and accepted vocational training for the great majority of children as the much easier thing to do. This profound mistake must be corrected. We must give liberal training, training in the liberal arts, to all the children who are going to inherit the rights of citizenship and free men in their adult years. As Jacques Maritain pointed out many years ago, “If a liberal education is not made available to every person, political democracy is a delusion, and the aristocrats who argue that only they need a liberal education and everyone else a vocational one or none at all are right.”

WEISMANN: Would you explain what you mean when you speak of liberal training for children?

ADLER: I do not mean a great deal of learning because I do not think that liberal education can be accomplished in school. As I’ve said, I do not contemplate the production of educated men and women at the age of sixteen. I recommend only these two things. First, our children should be disciplined in the liberal arts, which means the ability to read and write and speak and think as well as they can. Second, our children should experience some intellectual stimulation and be enticed by learning itself. I would hope that somehow the feast of knowledge and the excitement of ideas would be made attractive to them, so that when they left school, they would want to go on learning.

In school they must be given, not learning, for that cannot be done, but the skills of learning and the desire to learn, so as adults they will want to continue learning and will have the skills to use in the process. So much for the Bachelor of Arts degree. This is what the degree meant in the thirteenth century when it was first instituted. In the thirteenth century the baccalaureate did not signify an educated man. On the contrary, the meaning of the word itself is “first degree” or initiation, and the certificate indicated that a young person was now ready to start learning. He could now be admitted to the university to study law, or medicine, or theology. He was certified as a trained student, not as an educated person. It is this kind of liberal schooling we must again restore.

WEISMANN: Let us turn now to the consequences of this basic educational proposition for adults. Here, too, the consequences are serious. If my understanding of what you’ve said about the relation of schooling to education is right, then education is necessary for all adults — just as much for those who have gone through colleges and universities as for those who have not gone beyond elementary school. The person who has had more schooling has some advantage in the long process of learning, but actually all adults, as they begin their adult life, are on much the same footing as far as the goals of education are concerned. Please explain this, to be sure we understand the difference between education — that is adult education — and schooling.

ADLER: There are three remarkable differences between the education which takes place in adult life and the kind of thing that goes on in the schools at any level. In the first place, adult education must be voluntary. You cannot compel adults to undergo a course of study or a process of learning because, if you have to compel them, that means they are not adults. It is proper to compel children to go to school or to compel their parents to send them. The common good of the republic and the individual good of the human beings who are its citizens require it. Adults are responsible for their own welfare and they participate in their own government. Therefore they must engage in education voluntarily, not under compulsion.

The second characteristic of education in adult life is equality among all those involved. Let me explain. In the schools you have teachers and pupils, and the relation between teacher and pupil is one of inequality — not simply because the teacher knows more than the pupil (let us assume that is the case), but because the teacher is mature, a grown-up man or woman, whereas the pupil is a child. And I hope you all agree with me that grownups are better human beings than children. For if you do not, then there is no point ever in saying, “Oh, grow up,” as if you were admonishing somebody to improve.

Most people may not agree with me because they suffer from the widespread American illusion that the best thing in the world to be is a child. Nothing could be further from the truth. A child is the most imperfect of all human beings. Our job is to make him an adult. Except for those progressive schools where teachers mistakenly try to become equal with their pupils by getting on the floor with them, and by asking their opinions about everything, the classroom situation is one in which the teacher is superior.

Now in adult learning situations, we do not have teachers in this sense, or if we have, as we do in the Great Ideas and Great Books classes, discussion leaders as well as participants in discussion, we do not admit inequality. The leader may know a little more about the book under discussion than the other persons participating in the class, but that is not the point. The point is that he is one mature human being talking with others, and that is a relation of equality. It is quite different from what goes on in the schools, or should.

WEISMANN: But as you’ve indicated, most Americans think of adult education as schooling, and therefore misunderstand it. They think it puts them back into a position of inferiority. They think it consists in going to school, sitting under a professor, listening to a lecture.

ADLER: That is not adult education; that is a perversion of it. That is putting schooling into adult life where it does not belong. Adult education, or basic education for adults, involves a relation of equality among all the persons participating.

The third characteristic of education for adults is the most important. Basic education in adult life, which succeeds all the years of schooling, is and must be interminable — without end, without limit. Any part of schooling involves a fixed number of years. In this country we have eight years of elementary school, four years of high school or secondary school, four years of college, three years of professional (medical, law or engineering, etc.) school. This is quite proper, for these spans of time, these terms of years, are intended to provide time for a course of study embodying a subject matter or discipline to be acquired by the student. It is proper that he be certified when and if, upon examination, he shows himself competent. It is proper for a person to say, “I completed my legal education in three years,” or “I have completed my four year college program.” But think of an adult human being saying, “I have been going on with my learning for the last five years, from thirty to thirty-five, and now I have completed my adult education.” No more preposterous words can be uttered. For if anyone were to say, at the age of thirty-five, “I have now completed my adult education,” all you could respond is, “Are you ready to die?”

What are you going to do with the rest of your life, if you have completed your adult education at the age of thirty-five. As you listen to these words, you know how silly they are, because you know now that adult education does not consist of a course of study or a subject matter to be mastered in a fixed number of years, something to take an examination on and pass, and then be finished with it forever. That is not the point. Adult education, once begun, is interminable. Nothing but a serious illness relieves any adult of his responsibility to continue learning year after year, every part of every year, until the end of his life.

WEISMANN: Even though I recognize that what you are saying must be so because it is absurd to say, short of death, “I’ve finished my adult education,” some may not fully understand why it is absurd. Will you explain why this is so?

ADLER: There are two reasons: one in the nature of the human mind itself, and one which derives from the goal of learning. Let me take the second first.

What is the real end of learning? What is the ultimate goal toward which every part of schooling or education is directed? I think you all know the word that describes it. It is wisdom. We would all like to be a little wiser than we are — to have a little more understanding, a little more insight, a little more comprehension of the human situation, of the conditions of our lives, of the world in which we live; to know better the difference between good and evil. But how long does it take to become wise? The answer is, a lifetime. Certainly we all know that we cannot become wise in youth. Nothing would be more preposterous than the supposition that a boy or girl graduating from college could be wise.

Nor can you ever have enough wisdom, or too much. No matter how wise we become little by little in the course of a lifetime, we are always less than perfectly wise, nor are we ever as wise as we can be. Hence, if wisdom is the ultimate goal of the whole process of learning, then that process must go on for a lifetime. For any of us to attain even the little wisdom we can acquire in the course of our whole life, there is no stopping short. We can never become wise enough to say, “Now I can stop learning or thinking.” Wisdom is hard come by and is slowly won. That is one reason for the interminability of adult education.

The other reason for the interminability of adult education lies in the nature of the mind itself. The human mind is not a muscle. It is not an organic thing, in the sense of an ordinary bodily organ. But it is a living thing. And like any other living thing, there are certain indispensable conditions of its vitality. Think of the body, for instance; think of muscles and body tissues in general. Everyone knows what basic things must be done with and for the human body to keep it healthy, alive, and in repair. You must first of all feed it regularly. No one supposes you can feed the body today or this week, and keep it alive and healthy next week or month or year. In addition, you must exercise it regularly. Everybody knows how a body unexercised, a body that is forced to lie in bed day after day, atrophies. Strength is sapped, muscles grow weak, almost collapse.

What is true of the body is true of the mind. The care and feeding of the mind is just as important as the care and feeding of the body. The mind unfed weakens just as the body does. The mind not sustained by the continual intake of something that is capable of filling it well or nourishing it, shrinks and shrivels. And the mind unexercised, like a muscle unused, atrophies, grows weak, becomes almost paralyzed. Hence, just as we know that we cannot support the life of the body this week on the basis of last week’s feeding, so we ought to realize that we cannot support the life of the mind this week on last week’s reading, much less last year’s reading, or the reading done in college.

The process of keeping the mind alive and growing is as perpetual and continual a process as that of keeping the human body alive. But whereas there are limits to the body’s growth, the mind, unlike the body, can grow every year of our lives. Until there is a real physical breakdown, real decrepitude, the human mind can grow. The only condition of its growth is that it be fed and exercised. Yet these are the very conditions most of us do not provide for our minds.

Let me add just one more thing that may help to clarify the point. Recently, giving a lecture in Chicago, I had occasion to point out most graphically the need for the actual continuation of learning year after year. I was giving a lecture on a fairly difficult philosophical subject, one about which I had written a book in 1940, and in 1941 a very elaborate essay. In order to give a lecture on this subject, I had to spend a whole week reading my own book and article, and trying to understand what I thought then. I am sure that in those years I had these thoughts, this analysis, this reasoning, at my fingertips. And now I had to work a week to recapture them.

This proves that no learning stays with you unless it is used. In the intervening years I had done little thinking on that particular subject, and, consequently, years later, I could not pull the ideas out of my mind as if they had been put into a safe deposit vault or a storehouse, ready to be pulled out. The mind is simply not like that. The only ideas we have at our disposal are the ideas we are living with right now. The thoughts we do not revive by thinking them over again, the ideas we do not resuscitate, die very quickly. By some effort we can breathe life into them, and we must breathe life into them, if they are once more to be lively ideas for us, not dead ones.

Anyone who supposes that he has a set of ideas left over from college days which he can carry around with him the rest of his life, to pull out of a drawer when he wants to use them, is supposing something that simply is not the case. Any ideas we want to think with, we must re-think. We must give life to them by the use we make of them.

Every adult who has had the best liberal training we can give in school years needs education which will continue throughout all the years of adult life. This is a large order, large in two senses: if we really mean every adult citizen, that is a large number; and if we really mean all the years of adult life, that is many years. The whole school system, from kindergarten through college, only occupies sixteen years; and yet, if you began the education of adults at twenty-two or twenty-five, that would involve at least fifty or sixty years more of learning.

WEISMANN: That is a large order. How can we solve a problem of such magnitude?

ADLER: We cannot solve it unless we have some conception of what adults must do in order to sustain their minds, keep them alive, keep them growing, not just for four years, but for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty — until the end. The program must be something that treats adults as adults, not as children in school; something they can do voluntarily; something that fits them as adults or mature persons. With all these requirements in mind, I mention the Great Ideas and the Great Books programs as fully and properly fitting all the circumstances of the case.

WEISMANN: Explain why this is so, and why the Great Ideas and the Great Books?

ADLER: First of all, the great books are great because they are inexhaustible. Unlike most of the things we read and could not possibly stand reading a second time, because it would bore us stiff to do so, the great books are indefinitely re-readable. My own experience in re-reading them, many of them ten or fifteen times, only to find them each new and more significant than before, is sufficient evidence for me that they are inexhaustible. Because the great books can be read over and over again, this relatively small body of literature is large enough to sustain a lifetime of learning.

Secondly, the great books are intended for the adult mind. They were not written as textbooks for children. The great books are for adults in the sense that theirs is the level at which adults operate and think. I do not mean that we should not — in fact, I firmly believe that, for the liberal training of children in school, we should — start young people reading the great books in high school or in college. Not because they can understand them at that age; but because, beyond the obvious fact that students must be taught to read and these are good books for the purpose, they must be read several times to be read well, and it is a good idea to accomplish a first reading as early as possible.

In the third place, the great books deal with the basic problems, both theoretical and practical, of yesterday and today and tomorrow, the basic issues that always have and always will confront mankind. The ideas they contain are the ideas all of us have to think about. The great books represent the fund of human wisdom, at least so far as our culture is concerned, and it is this reservoir that we must draw upon to sustain our learning for a lifetime.

Suppose there were a college or university in which the faculty was thus composed: Herodotus and Thucydides taught the history of Greece, and Gibbon lectured on the fall of Rome. Plato and St. Thomas gave a course in metaphysics together; Francis Bacon and John Stuart Mill discussed the logic of science; Aristotle, Spinoza, and Immanuel Kant shared the platform on moral problems; Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke talked about politics. You could take a series of courses in mathematics from Euclid, Descartes, Riemann, and Cantor, with Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead added at the end. You could listen to St. Augustine, Aquinas and William James talk about the nature of man and the human mind, with perhaps Jacques Maritain to comment on the lectures. In economics, the lectures were by Adam Smith, Ricardo, Karl Marx, and Marshall. Boas discussed the human race and its races, Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey the economic and political problems of American democracy, and Lenin lectured on communism. There might even be lectures on art by Leonardo da Vinci, and a lecture on Leonardo by Freud. A much larger faculty than this is imaginable, but this will suffice.

Would anyone want to go to any other university, if he could get into this one? There need be no limitation of numbers. The price of admission — the only entrance requirement — is the ability and willingness to read and discuss. This school exists for everybody who is willing and able to learn from first-rate teachers, though they be dead in the sense of not jolting us out of our lethargy by their living presence. They are not dead in any other sense. If contemporary America dismisses them as dead, then, as a well-known writer recently said, we are repeating the folly of the ancient Athenians who supposed that Socrates died when he drank the hemlock.

WEISMANN: As we are out of time for now, I would like to thank you for sharing your insights with us and for your contributions towards a better understanding of basic general education and ask that you give us a closing comment on this important matter.

ADLER: The aim of education is to cultivate the individual’s capacities for mental growth and moral development; to help him acquire the intellectual and moral virtues requisite for a good human life, spent privately in a noble or honorable use of free time and publicly in political action or service.

Our schools are not turning out young people prepared for the high office and the duties of citizenship in a democratic republic. Our political institutions cannot thrive, they may not even survive, if we do not produce a greater number of thinking citizens, from whom some statesmen of the type we had in the eighteenth century, might eventually emerge.

We are, indeed, a nation at risk, and nothing but radical reform of our schools can save us from impending disaster. Whatever the price we must pay in money and effort to do this, the price we will pay for not doing it will be much greater.

[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]

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