Book Review: The Paideia Proposal

The Paideia Proposal:  An Educational Manifesto, by Mortimer J. Adler, On Behalf Of The Members Of The Paideia Group

Some years ago I took a standardized test where I was asked to write at some length about the question of education in the United States and the principles that should animate it.  My comments were that our contemporary education system fails to effectively provide for the sort of egalitarian democracy that we claim to want as a society and that if we truly wanted to be a republic that we would focus on the need for all students in our educational system to grow up with the capacity for the acquisition of knowledge and the critical examination of the claims of media and culture that often would not bear scrutiny.  Although I thought that my essay was fairly fiercely worded, at least by the standards of my own discourse, I received very high marks for the essay, meaning that the readers of the essay were not offended by my criticisms of the contemporary educational system.  This manifesto, a short work of less than 100 pages, amounts to a longer and more strident argument along the same lines that I had made about the ideal education for a republic that wished to pay more than lip service to the goal of educating our people for the responsibilities of freedom and the discharge of our duties as citizens of a noble republic.  As this particular approach cuts against the contemporary grain when it comes to much of education [1], it goes without saying that I found much to appreciate about this book’s approach.

The contents of this book are striking and particularly intriguing.  The word Paideia itself comes from the Greek root pedo related to pedagogy (the teaching of children) and pediatrics (medicine with a focus on children), and in the context of this book and in the larger body of writing by its author the word paideia refers to the common knowledge of a wide variety of fields that should be the possession of every child growing up in the United States of America.  The book opens with a dedication to Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Robert Hutchins, marking this from the start as a book in the secular public school tradition, for all of its striking and somewhat radical approach.  The manifesto itself is divided into four parts.  The first part looks at the purpose of education in a republic, and points out rather sensibly that schooling is only a part of education and that being a truly well-educated person requires a lifetime of maturity and self-education after our formal education is ended.  After that comes a section on the essentials of basic schooling which require the same objectives and course of study for all, as well as discussions on the need to overcome initial impediments and deal with individual differences in a way that does not threaten the egalitarian aims of a common education system.  The third section looks at teaching and learning, setting the roles and training needed for teachers and principals and also examining the heart of the Paideia proposal in the establishment of a well-structured tripartite structure for education that aims at three goals for students:  the acquisition of information or organized knowledge, the development of intellectual skills like speaking, writing, and calculating, and the enlargement of understanding through discussion  and conversation.  The fourth section contains a discussion of what is beyond basic schooling, like issues of higher learning, the distinction between earning a living and living well, and the beleaguered state of our free institutions in the face of widespread ignorance among the people of our republic.

Nevertheless, although there is a lot about this book that is timely and flattering about this book in that it desires for all children in our nation an education that is strikingly Nathanish in being deep and broad and encouraging thoughtful reading and reflection and conversation, there are a few aspects of this book that are deeply troubling.  For one, the author’s solution the widely recognized problem of families that do not support educational efforts or that do not provide a context for the intellectual growth of their children is government intervention, which provides an ominous statist threat at the core of this proposal should families be judged by the authorities as being hostile to the aims of the state.  Additionally, this book was particularly troubling in what was not said in that in this book the need for our republic to be devoted to standards of godly morality was entirely absent.  To be sure, this total absence of moral education was likely due at least in part to the fact that the manifesto wishes to reform public education in a culture that shows no interest in allowing the state to be governed by godly morality, but that does not make this proposal any less ineffectual in light of the most threatening aspects of our contemporary cultural malaise.  To raise children to be intellectually sophisticated without having build up a godly sense of morality is to raise those who are culturally advanced but decadent and corrupt, and that is a terrible sort of abuse to inflict upon a child, far worse than allowing a child to remain in ignorance.  The fact that the Paideia group includes Jacques Barzun, author of From Dawn To Decadence, makes this absence of the threat of decadence in this proposal given the absence of moral education at its foundation even more striking and ironic.  To be sure, this proposal has much to offer it, but the absence of moral education or the need for it, and the belief that government knows best make this proposal little more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic given our society’s moral decline in recent decades.

[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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7 Responses to Book Review: The Paideia Proposal

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