Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mortimer Adler on teaching ('Firing Line' 1988), pt. I

While boxing up books this past week in preparation for new carpeting,  I came across a transcript of 'Firing Line', the William Buckley program that ran for many years on television. In this particular episode Mr. Buckley interviewed Mortimer Adler (editor of the Great Books of the Western World, and promoter of the 'Paideia Proposal' which was designed to encourage democratic, liberal arts education in K-12 schools) about the Great Books program. As a public school teacher at the time I had become very interested in the Paideia plan (as had some of my administrators) and had taken the Great Books discussion leader training, as well.

I had ordered the transcript of the interview because of some of things that Adler had to say about reading and teaching great literature. Re-reading the interview this week I was struck again--as I had been in 1988--by the vision Adler holds out of what education really is all about. While not a Christian approach to education, the classical methods and goals he and Buckley discuss are often very consistent with what we're trying to do. And the cautions, as given below, are worth hearing, as well.

In the part of the program I'll quote below, Mr. Buckley and Dr. Adler were joined by a Ms. Decter, an 'author and editor'.  They were discussing the seminar (discussion) method of teaching great books.

Ms. Decter: One of my children happened to go to St. John's, where there are these great seminars about the great books for four years. And I visited for a weekend, and we sat in a seminar discussing Antigone. And they all sat together in this great seminar form which had been refined to the point where they all sat together with two seminar leaders discussing with one another Antigone for an hour, and at the end of it I thought I was going to go right out of my mind. And I walked out of there and said, 'Will no one tell these kids what Antigone is about?' Because they didn't know what it was about, and they were telling one another--they were having a seminar. It was the most pretentious, empty thing I had ever seen.

Dr. Adler: Many of the St. John's seminars, I am sorry to say that you're right. I have the same criticism. A good seminar--and they are hard to do--one not only that is enjoyable in itself but where everyone's understanding, the teacher's as well as the students', increase. If no one's understanding increases, it is a terrible waste of time. It's endless chat. And I have conducted Antigone with fifth graders and sixth graders, not with college students, with marvelous results. But you have to ask the right questions. Some of the young instructors at St. John's think that they should not ask leading questions. That is wrong. They should ask leading questions. They think they are only to be used as chairman of the conversation which is not correct. I am as critical of some of the St. John's seminars as you are. But don't hold the seminar down. Those are bad seminars, and I agree with you about that. 

Mr. Buckley: These are accretions on a curriculum that in the '30s was very good...

Ms. Decter: But surely this is an elitist form of---
Dr. Adler: No. I beg your pardon.

Mr. Buckley: I'm glad you asked that question. [laughter]

Ms. Decter: ...I didn't mean socially elitist. I meant intellectually elitist.

Dr. Adler: Not even intellectually elitist. The tragedy of Antigone, the problem that Antigone raises is a problem that every human being faces. The question I want to end up with in any discussion of Antigone, is, is that kind of problem with faces Creon having to change his mind about a difficult decision about his son and his fiance is a problem that can happen to any human being, and the children--young children of any age are very, very sensitive to the possibility that tragedy can enter anyone's life. The seminar on Antigone must end with their being conscious of the fact that tragedy can befall anyone.  It isn't for the kings and captains and statesmen only. The great books are not worth a darn unless they touch you and your life right now. I'm interested in their raising problems for you right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment