Book Review: The Paideia Program

The Paideia Program:  An Educational Syllabus:  Essays By The Paideia Group, edited by Mortimer J. Adler

Reading this book in many ways is like looking at a road not taken by our public educational system.  Faced with declining academic performance among the wide body of American youth, and the threat that an uneducated populace meant for faith in republican institutions in an age of rising economic instability, the cultured and sophisticated members of the Paideia group proposed a bold egalitarian appeal for the education of every child in the United States in a suite of skills and practice in a wide variety of fields that would allow for the wide possession of a common cultural and educational background.  In order to provide for this high level of universal education, these educational thinkers proposed for an elimination of those aspects of education that were designed to set up multiple tracks for students, including magnet programs, a focus on dumbing down education for jocks, a bogus focus on quickly obsolete job skilling, and the straightjacket of standardized tests that provide an easy test of rote knowledge but a poor test of long term and fruitful understanding.  Despite the clarity and passion and logic of the proposal, it has proven to be nearly entirely rejected by the educational system, which if anything is more segmented, more divided, and less attuned to the long-term educational needs of the citizens of a free republic than it was when the authors wrote this book.  Despite their best efforts, this book was too far against the current of our times for it to have made an impression so far on public education in our country, even though it remains an intriguing proposal on its own considerable merits.

The contents of this book are a somewhat detailed series of sixteen essays and a lengthy appendix that together take up almost 250 pages of material relating to the improvement of America’s public education [1].  The sixteen essays by a variety of people like Mortimer Adler, Charles Van Doren and his relatives John and Geraldine, Theodore Sizer, Jacques Barzun, and James O’Toole, among others, deal with a variety of subjects that can be divided into three parts.  The first part examines the three kinds of teaching and learning, with essays on the conduct of interactive seminars, coaching of intellectual skill development like calculating, typing, speaking, and writing, and didactic instruction of facts and information.  The second and longest part of the book examines the sort of subject matter that is to be taught over the twelve years of primary and secondary education in the fields of English language and literature, mathematics, science, history, social studies, foreign languages, the fine arts, the manual arts, the world of work, and physical education.  Throughout the authors show themselves resolutely opposed to a segmentation of students by their gifts and interests and focused on developing in all students a capacity for all of these areas of study and practice.  The third part of the book closes with a discussion of the Paideia school in how it should be structured, recognized, and how to avoid the contemporary mania for standardized testing.  At the end of the book there is a fifty-page appendix containing a great deal of repetition on the sorts of reading material that the authors expect students from 5 to 18 to be familiar with, an ambitious reading list that would be daunting for all but the most fond bibliophiles among us–although in full disclosure many of these works have been familiar to me since childhood through my own formal and self-education, and the works that the authors consider particularly important do not include any works of theology or biblical matters but include the vastly overrated political bloviation of corrupt antebellum political philosopher and South Carolina Senator Calhoun related to the concurrent majority.

There is a particular irony at the heart of this book and indeed at the heart of the Paideia proposal as a whole.  This book was written by people who wanted to increase the level of education for the American population as a whole to preserve the well-being of our republic by providing a universal basis of knowledge that was widely expansive and deep and that would give students the intellectual wherewithal to critically examine the affairs of contemporary life in whatever field they set upon as worthy areas of inquiry.  As they were seeking to craft this educational program for the public education system, it is rigorously secular, with no hint of moral or religious education that would threaten the godlessness of our corrupt educational and political elites.  However, this proposal works best as a model for home schooling and parochial education where a classical Christian educational system is being used, such as those bright high school students I have met as a result of my work in the past with various forensics societies, which has tended to create a bifurcated educational system where those whose families focus on godly education have a strong advantage over most of those students who depend on a public school education.  Rather than eliminating the division and segmentation of the education system, this book’s focus on politically responsible education has been most enthusiastically taken up by those which the authors of the book deliberately marginalize in their vain attempt to achieve universal acclaim and adoption by school districts which have largely proven themselves to be entirely unwilling to give all students an equal education and an equal chance which would fulfill the egalitarian promises of the liberal order the authors of this book wished to put into practice in our educational system.  Instead, the intellectual benefits of this book have largely gone to those who are opposed to the corrupt secular establishment where the authors of this book’s essays served as leading lights during the second half of the 20th century.  How are we to account for this rich irony?

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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