Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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

Toward the end of Mortimer Adler's discussion with William Buckley and Midge Decter, the conversation turned to teachers and their preparation--or lack of preparation--for leading seminars and discussions of great literature and ideas. At Veritas this year we are focusing training for secondary teachers on using the Harkness method, which is essentially a seminar approach, so this part of the program is especially interesting to me.

I particularly appreciate Dr. Adler's comments on  the value of seminar teaching for both students and teachers. Also, his criticism of reliance standardized tests to measure learning and of the over-emphasis on vocational priorities to the detriment of a well-rounded, liberal education for all is extraordinarily relevant today. Many parents--I think unwisely--make 'practical use' their reason for choosing a particular school for their children, as if there were anything more useful than a classical, Christian education that gives children the ability to thoroughly understand, appreciate, and live wisely in the world God has made.

[The discussion below is taken from the transcript of 'Firing Line' taped May 6, 1988, and telecast a few weeks later. The transcript is copyrighted by the Southern Educational Communications Association.]

Dr. Adler:...When the great books are well taught in a seminar, they are not taught as antiquities, they are not taught as objects of art, they are taught as raising moral and political problems which are just as pressing today as when they were written.

Mr. Buckley: May I--

Ms. Decter: You and Allan Bloom and William Buckley, I presume to say, and I, are all in agreement on that point, I think. The real question is what to do with this total chaos we face here.
Dr. Adler: What we do, Mrs. Decter, what we spend all our money doing and all our time and effort is retraining the teachers. They don't have the faintest notion what a seminar is, they don't know how to conduct them. We go to schools and take--We have seminars for the teachers, we have them conduct seminars, we have them in seminars. They come out of schools of education, out of college totally untrained and fro the most part totally uneducated. The reason why I just said to Bill earlier today that it will take 50 years at least to get the Paideia Program installed in our schools is that we have to have a new generation of teachers. Our retraining of the present teachers is slow and cumbersome and not very successful because they are too old. Only when the teachers come through the Paideia schools, come up, and then we get a better corps of teachers, you. It's going to take a lot of time.

Mr. Buckley: Well, let me ask you this. Is there reason to anticipate resistance by the teachers or quite the opposite?

Dr. Adler: The interesting thing, Bill, is that wherever we have done this effectively--and sometimes we don't do it effectively--the teachers applaud it, and the reason why they applaud it is that teaching as they do--

Mr. Buckley: It enlivens their life.

Dr Adler: The dull lives that they lead, it enlivens their life and it wakes their minds up--They begin to think, they begin to learn, and in my judgement, only a learning teacher is a good teacher. Only the teacher who learns by teaching really teaches. The others are just reciting lessons, not teaching at all.

Mr. Buckley: What is he learning, technique?

Dr Adler: Thinking. His whole mind, shall I say, is at work.

Mr. Buckley: Well, if he comes in knowing that Antigone is by no means the principal victim in the story, how does that teacher go on to learn through a seminar?

Dr. Adler: Well, in the course of a seminar I've seldom had a seminar where--

Mr. Buckley: Is it refinement of the arguments?

Dr. Adler: --the students don't raise questions that are difficult to answer, where their objections aren't worth considering, where something that I don't get an insight that I didn't have before because of the movement of the discussion, you see? And most of the teachers that we expose to seminars, as you say, their minds are enlivened, they find the seminar process as interesting teaching experience and a learning experience for them as compared tot eh recitation of lesson plans they do in other kinds of classes. So we have very little resistance--if there is any resistance to the Paideia Program, it doesn't come from teachers and principals, it comes from colleges of education. I will tell you that the greatest opponent of the Paideia Program in the United States is Secretary Bennett. His model high school I regard as a complete surrender to all the wrong things--

Mr. Buckley: Because of the elite factor?

Dr. Adler: Elite, because it depends on these lousy, silly test scores as a measure of what's going on, and they don't measure anything worth bothering with, because he has a core curriculum with many electives, because he allows vocational training for those destined for labor rather than destined for leisure and learning...

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