Viewpoints

Adler’s Legacy

While some University of Chicago students consider the Core curriculum to be a badge of honor marking intellectual prowess, many others are more inclined to regard it as a bothersome hurdle to jump. Over the last few years, the academic climate at the University of Chicago has seemed more comfortable to the second group than the first. Administrators have shaved off the third quarter of course requirements in just about every discipline, mainly in order to give students an opportunity to take more elective classes and begin coursework in particular fields of interest sooner.

The death of Mortimer J. Adler, a Columbia-trained philosophy professor who, more than any other, developed the text-based approach to liberal arts education at the University of Chicago, occasions some reflection on the ways in which the Core program has changed since its inception.

As Adler envisioned it, a liberal education amounted to engaging the Great Books in a rigorous, Socratic environment. Adler was often criticized for excluding works written by females and minorities from his list of Great Books. By all accounts a man with firm, even stubborn, confidence in his own convictions, Adler unfortunately never found the notion that Black or Hispanic or female writers produced works of merit comparable to those of the West’s intellectual giants to be a very convincing one. Despite his objections, however, the scope of the Great Books program has expanded to include the literature of non-Western traditions.

At the time of his death, then, the vitality of the Great Books methodology Adler helped develop in the 1940s is shrinking in one sense, but widening in another. Even as the scale of the Core’s demands are reduced, the breadth and depth of the Great Books on which it centers are becoming more diverse, and potentially more rewarding