Mortimer J. Adler outlines in the article, “The Paideia Proposal: Rediscovering the Essence of Education,” American School Board Journal (July 1982) his ideas for a well-rounded educational program. He states that the objectives of schooling should be the same for every student. These goals give all children the chance to fully realize their abilities, teach them how to become responsible and knowledgeable citizens, and to support the future careers they may have. Adler supposes to accomplish these goals with 3 pillars of learning. The first is the acquisition of content and facts. Secondly, children practice the skills of many disciplines, such as laboratory science or oral debate. Lastly, they should learn to appreciate and contemplate the masterful works of others (p.21). In this model of education the teacher would be the guide to students exploring subjects within each pillar. These teachers would be committed to pursuing their own lifetime learning goals, mirroring for their students the example of an enlightened adult life (p.24). The 3 pillars would be continued into college and only then would specific training for jobs be added to the curriculum (p. 25). Adler believes that our society depends upon producing trained professionals who are also knowledgeable in a broader sense (p.26).
John Holt argues in this excerpt from his book Escape from Childhood (E.P. Dutton, 1974) that students should be put in the driver’s seat of their own educational school bus. He states that the exercise of choosing your own ways of thinking is so fundamental to our lives that there is not even a law on the books to protect it and that children are violated at a basic level by forceful schooling (p. 27). Holt fears that schooling standards will evolve to the point where everyone will have mandatory education through retirement. Giving students choices means that parents will partner with their children to make educational decisions. Under his system parents who desire certain educational goals for their children will not be able to use the threat of truancy to supplement their lack of authority. Holt describes school as an emotionally intensified mimicry of society, not a shelter from it. The flow of authority in school creates increased anxiety and dependence as you travel down through the educational food chain (p.30). Holt believes the power of learning should belong to the individual, no matter their age.
I agree with Adler on several points. A society such as ours that is run by and for the people requires a general level of education for the public at-large. If enough people receive an adequate and broad education, then we will have the participants in government and other fields to deal with the issues we face today and in the future. The concept of not tracking students could have the benefit of keeping children from feeling stereotyped as learners. Since many college students cannot decide on a major, I endorse Adler’s position on not choosing any special field until college or later.
Adler’s three-tiered education system covers the lower as well as higher learning domains. This will give students rote knowledge to apply to disciplinary practices in a variety of fields. They must have some foundational knowledge of a subject before it can be expanded upon. Science classes could learn facts about certain elements, practice performing experiments, and then watch exhibitions or read biographies of famous chemists.
Learned, not just trained, teachers can only elevate our current system of education. Many of the best teachers I know are really excited students at heart. An educator who continually explores new ideas will be ready to inspire knowledge and guide learners, not just force facts into students’ brains.
Holt seems to think that mandatory education is a human rights violation. It is the rare student that will reach her learning potential without outside influence. What if, as Adler suggests, a child’s family does not nurture his intellect (p. 20)? Will he really ever know what he is interested in learning if the options are not surrounding him?
Parents are charged with the care and protection of their children and sometimes that involves forcing them to do things they do not want to. Does it violate a child’s rights to make him brush his teeth? Even if he is excited about dental care, it would be neglectful to allow him sole discretion. Children have difficulty conceiving what activities will be beneficial to them in the long term. If parents negotiate decisions with children on education, how can they make definitive decisions in other areas such as health and safety?
Children do not enter the world knowing what they should know. From the beginning parents must teach, guide, and sometimes enforce unpopular rules for the good of the child. Students are depending on us as parents and educators to lead them in the right direction. While Adler may not give students enough credit in the decision-making process, Holt gives them far too much.