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Mortimer Adler

I recently re-read Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book, subtitled “The Art of Getting a Liberal Education.” Originally published in 1940, Adler bemoans the demise of the liberal arts in American colleges. He credits this phenomenon largely to the neglect of requiring students to read what he refers to as the “great books.” The result, in his opinion, is not only an intellectual loss for society, but even worse, he foresees the eventual loss of individual freedom. Only free minds can foster free societies.

If Adler was discouraged at what American colleges were producing then, what would he think about the quality of education today? 

There was one statement in the book that struck me as particularly insightful, if not prophetic, for its current relevance. In a speech entitled, “Liberalism and Liberal Education,” Adler comments:

“I tried to show how false liberalism is the enemy of liberal education, and why a truly liberal education is needed in this country to correct the confusions of this widely prevalent false liberalism. By false liberalism, I mean the sort which confuses authority with tyranny and discipline with regimentation. It exists wherever men think everything is just a matter of opinion. This is suicidal doctrine. It ultimately reduces itself to the position that only might makes right. The liberal who frees himself from reason, rather than through it, surrenders to the only other arbiter in human affairs—force…”

These words so penetrate into the marrow of a primary problem today, not only in higher education but in society as a whole, that I feel they are worth some unpacking to really get at the essence of what Adler posits.

He distinguishes between true and false liberalism. A liberal education was traditionally understood to be an education that liberates the mind. That is, one studied the great writings of the great thinkers of the past so as to learn to first of all think properly. The assumption was that if one could clearly use his faculties of reason, he could think for himself. The educated man frees his mind from ignorance and can accurately evaluate what’s before him, separating conjecture from fact, propaganda from truth.

If true liberalism frees the mind, false liberalism enslaves it. It does so by hindering one’s ability to properly reason. Adler’s second point builds on this, addressing what has now become known as relativism. This doctrine ultimately teaches there are no mental or moral absolutes. Adler correctly points out that if there is no intellectual or ethical benchmark, then everything becomes nothing more than a matter of opinion. He calls this “suicidal.”

How so? Relativism is suicidal because it it gives feet to the philosophical notion “might makes right.” It doesn’t matter what the truth actually is. All that matters is what the majority deems preferable (democracy) or what the leader decrees compulsory (tyranny). When well-formulated and time-tested legal precedents are ridiculed and ignored, when the rule of law is no longer relevant, and when no one seems to know the difference, the masses will follow whatever is put before them. The reality today is fewer and fewer individuals possess the proper tools of mental evaluation.

Modern liberalism tends to promote the idea that everyone’s opinion is right, regardless. Though this might sound ideal, the fact is everyone can’t be right. Someone has to be wrong. (This would be an example of logical thinking). It might hurt someone’s feelings to be told they’re wrong, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are. Liberalism used to mean exercising free thought so as to come to reasoned conclusions. It meant there was indeed such a thing as a right position and it was the responsibility of an informed citizen to arrive at it. Now, modern liberalism has brought us to a place where all that matters is the individual’s “right” to not only have an opinion, but to insist that his opinion must be accepted as legitimate.

Adler’s next and slightly more subtle point is that there is a crucial difference between discipline and regimentation. True liberalism calls for a disciplined mind. The only path to free and informed thinking is the path of discipline. A liberal education is not bestowed; it is earned. In contrast, modern education promotes regimented learning. You learn facts and figures, and then you recite them in the form of a test. If you offer the “right” answers (according to what your teacher wants to hear), and do this consistently, you eventually receive a passing grade.

A degree no longer signifies the individual can think according to the traditional definition of the word. It doesn’t mean one can solve problems. It doesn’t mean one can arrive at his own conclusions. And, it certainly doesn’t mean the one who possesses an “education” is poised to stand on the shoulders of history’s intellectual giants. He might not even know their names, much less what they taught!

Finally, what strikes me most forcefully about Adler’s penetrative statement is that he does not hesitate to draw the correlation between false liberalism and tyranny. To the extent that classical liberalism gives way to its fallacious counterpart, liberty begins its inevitable slide into totalitarianism.