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Willoughby: Schools and schooling – a philosopher’s debate with students

Tim WIlloughby
Legends & Legacies
Mortimer Adler participating in a seminar for the Aspen Insitute for Humanistic Studies, circa 1965. This photo is mounted on an 11" x 13" matte board; the photo itself is 7.5" x 9.5". It is signed by the photographer Margaret Durrance.
Margaret Durrance

This year marks Aspen Country Day School’s 50th year. My tenure there spanned 13 of the school’s early years. My memory connects the school with Mortimer Adler, an important post-Paepcke contributor to Aspen’s summer humanities history.

Around 1978, Adler visited ACDS as a guest speaker. I do not remember how it was arranged, or who arranged it, but I got to attend with my American History class. Perhaps that time of day worked for the guest. At that time the school spanned kindergarten through high school, but its total enrollment was small, especially for high school students. Only between eight and 10 students were enrolled per high school class.

Adler, a notable philosopher, lecturer, and writer, also edited the Great Books of the Western World and Encyclopedia Britannica. My students valued him as an old guy who provided a break from classroom routine. But I recognized him an Aspen icon, one revered by folks of my parents’ generation.

Robert Hutchins had recruited Adler to teach the philosophy of law to University of Chicago law school students during the 1930s. He taught a seminar about Western Philosophy to university board members and Chicago business leaders, including Walter Paepcke. After the Goethe Bicentennial, Paepcke wanted to duplicate the seminar in Aspen. He worked with Hutchins and Adler to launch a version of the seminar for the newly created Aspen Institute.

Adler would open the Aspen summer series with a lecture, and he led discussions. He also gave lectures for the community, and connected locals to the Institute in a direct and personal manner. My parents, aunts, and uncles participated, and owned sets of the Great Books. They used Adler’s Synopticon, a guide to how to read the books, to organize their lifetimes of reading.

It would have made sense for Adler to lecture ACDS students, but he had a different plan and goal. Adler, who wrote more than 50 books, had just published “Reforming Education: The Schooling of a People and Their Education Beyond Schooling.” He intended to engage high school students in a debate on the subject.

For him, the subject was not new. During the 1930s, while Hutchins attempted to reform the University of Chicago, he worked with Adler to create a better college curriculum. Both men, steeped in the classics, saw that experience as an important element of education.

But they were more interested in how students would learn essential skills. They felt college involved too much memorizing, and not enough critical reading, discussion and a deep understanding of the world’s accumulation of knowledge. They felt all students should have a liberal arts education, and proposed a change in sequence of instruction for liberal arts colleges. Adler elaborated on the idea in a book years later. High school should end after 10th grade. Students would then attend a four-year program that focused on those key learning skills, with a core curriculum that explores Western Civilization and its underpinnings. Next, students would hold jobs, experience the “real world” and economy, and mature. After that they would return to university and study a specific discipline.

The ACDS students engaged with him actively. Small classes sizes helped, but more importantly the students had been taught using the Socratic method that Adler championed. No strangers to debate, the students participated with confidence.

Not knowing what to expect, or perhaps owing to a preconceived notion, Adler schooled the kids in formal debate methods. He defined the (his) terms, postulated the alternative education sequence, and then opened the debate, not among the students, but with him.

At first, things did not go well for the students, Adler had laid out strict parameters, and rather than relax his superiority, he imposed it on them. Just high school students, some expressed their points circuitously. Too often Adler would cut them off before they could finish.

After a few of these false starts, a student raised a question to challenge Adler’s reasoning. It came after Adler belabored his position that students had to work before they would have the maturity to move on to the next level. He closely defined work as a paid job, and excluded internships and volunteer work. After all these years, I giggle when I remember that question, “What if you were paid to be a student?”

Rather than answer the question, Adler ruled it peripheral to the debate. The clock may have shown that it was time to end the debate, but students’ facial expressions said more. They had had enough of this famous philosopher. With pride in my students, I internally scored the debate ACDS one, Adler zero.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.


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