By the time Mortimer Adler put together the Paideia group in the early 1980s, Jacques Maritain and John Dewey were long dead. But their philosophical connections to the counter-intuitive alliance of Adler and Theodore Sizer make it worth taking a moment to think about things they held in common. In spite of their profound differences and the fact that they sometimes wrote in direct opposition to each other, Maritain and Dewey took a similar critical stance against what they saw as shortcomings in American education in their time and against those who argued that the primary purpose of schooling should be the conveyance of marketable skills.
The way Dewey saw it, education to meet the supposed needs of business leaders would be explicitly vocational, inevitably tracked and antithetical to the advancement of democracy. As he famously wrote in Democracy and Education, “Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education” (Dewey, 101).
To Dewey, education had a normative function which was to promote a sense of identification with the community. More than mere majority rule, democracy was cooperative living built on shared and communally-developed values. Dewey invokes Aristotle ( of all people) whom he says,
was right when he said that “any occupation or art or study deserves to be called mechanical if it renders the body or soul or intellect of free persons unfit for the exercise and practice of excellence.” The force of the statement is almost infinitely increased when we hold…that all persons, instead of a comparatively few, are free. For when the mass of men and all women were regarded as unfree by the very nature of their bodies and minds, there was neither intellectual confusion nor moral hypocrisy in giving them only the training which fitted them for mechanical skill, irrespective of its ulterior effect upon their capacity to share in a worthy life. He was … right also when he went on to say that “all mercenary employments as well as those which degrade the condition of the body are mechanical, since they deprive the intellect of leisure and dignity,”—permanently right, that is, if gainful pursuits as matter of fact deprive the intellect of the conditions of its exercise and so of its dignity (Dewey, 299).
In other words, education for work, as opposed to education for citizenship, is an affront to human dignity, while education for associated living is the birthright of all members of the community. As democracy was the new ideal, the same intellectual development once considered the dominion of elites was now the right of all.
Jacques Maritain was also opposed to schooling for mere employment and said that the purpose of education is wisdom. Indeed, to subject even college students to specialized training is an assault to their human dignity:
In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all, so as to complete the preparation of youth before he enters the state of manhood. To introduce specialization in this sphere is to do violence to the world of youth. As a matter of fact, a young man will choose his specialty for himself and progress all the more rapidly and perfectly in vocational, scientific or technical training in proportion as his education has been liberal and universal. Youth has a right to education in the liberal arts, in order to be prepared for human work and human leisure. But such education is killed by premature specialization. (Maritain, 64)
Thus, Maritain and Dewey both argued that education should be aimed at forming whole persons capable of participating as members of democratic society and that all persons are due the opportunity to develop to their full intellectual capacity. These aims need not preclude preparation for work but they precede it in importance.
Of course I’m glossing over a whole bunch of important differences in the ways Dewey and Maritain understood truth, morality, tradition and transcendence. It’s no small thing, for example, that Dewey’s normative values were socially constructed while Maritain’s were based on natural law.
Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” In her book on the drafting of the UDHR, Mary Anne Glendon tells of how after World War II despite many disagreements about rights and values among the disparate cultures and ideologies represented by the leaders of war-weary nations, a way was found to agree on that particular verbiage. Glendon quotes Maritain who said,
“Yes, we agree about rights but on condition no one asks us why. “The only feasible goal for the UN he maintained, was to achieve agreement “not on the basis of speculative ideas…but upon the affirmation of a single body of beliefs for guidance in action.” (Glendon pgs. 77-78)
Maritain’s characterization of how drafters of the UDHR got over abstract philosophical differences in order to achieve a purposeful and actionable standard of conduct offers some insight on the relationship between Mortimer Adler and Theodore Sizer. Both Sizer and Adler were appalled by the expansiveness of the curriculum in most American schools, by what they perceived as an abundance of vocational education, by the degree to which students were tracked into more and less intellectually focused courses, and by a general lack of intellectual rigor.
Adler, who was more from Maritain’s tradition and Sizer, who was more from Dewey’s both favored a radically paired-down curriculum, emphasizing depth of understanding over breadth of knowledge. They advocated high quality liberal (non-vocational) education for all. In most cases, students were to be evaluated authentically through performances and presentations that demonstrated proficiency with key understandings and skills. Didactic instruction would be relegated to a relatively small proportion of teaching time so as to make time for individual and small group coaching and Socratic questioning – often in formal seminar discussions of important texts. Acknowledging that this kind of learning would not work for students taking many electives and sitting in rows through seven, eight or nine large forty-minute classes; or for teachers with 125 or more students, they proposed that instructional time be dramatically restructured and that teacher assignments be limited to no more than eighty students. Secondary teachers would be expected to shed some of their identity as specialists and learn to think of themselves as generalists and even as counselors.
It was a remarkable consensus between educators from different intellectual traditions who agreed upon a response to the problems in American education being identified in popular works at that time including Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, Powell, Farrar and Cohen’s Shopping Mall High School and E.D. Hirsch Jr’s Cultural Literacy for Freedom. Despite all the well-publicized disagreements among reformers of that time, there was a consensus that, whether from ability group tracking imposed by school officials or from student choice among an endless number of options, American schools had become an unfocused mess and that American democracy was suffering from too few schools with a common core curriculum…
Dewey, J. (1922). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The MacMillan Company.
Glendon, M A. (2001). A world made new: Eleanor Roosevelt and the universal declaration of human rights. New York: Random House.
Maritain, J. (1943). Education at the crossroads. Yale University Press.