Former U of C professor Mortiner Adler dies at 98

By Eugene Ford

As a faculty member at the University of Chicago several decades ago, Mortimer J. Adler helped develop the distinctive “Great Books” approach to education. Adler died on June 28 at his home in San Mateo, California, leaving an intellectual legacy that continues to be felt at the University, where some regarded him as a visionary and others as something of an imposter. He was 98.

“Adler had more influence on the University of Chicago than any other person, including Hutchins,” said Peter Temes, president of the Great Books Foundation, an organization that Adler helped found in 1947. “Hutchins was a great organizer, but the intellectual substance came from Adler. He advanced a fixed view on what to study.”

Adler was born in New York City to working-class parents. His father was a salesman and his mother taught grade school. At age fifteen, Adler dropped out of high school and found a job as an aide to a newspaper editor in New York. Two years later, Adler decided that he wanted to study philosophy, and enrolled at Columbia University. Though he completed the requirements for a bachelor’s degree in only three years, he never received a diploma because he refused, as a matter of principle, to take a mandatory swimming test. Despite his lack of an undergraduate degree, he was admitted into graduate study at Columbia and earned his doctorate in 1928.

Adler’s association with the University of Chicago began in 1930, when President Robert Maynard Hutchins offered him an associate professorship in the philosophy department. It was during this period that Hutchins and Adler first conceived the educational approach with which they — and the University of Chicago — came to be closely identified. Their idea was to use a series of “Great Books” — all pivotal works from the Western intellectual tradition — as the basis of scholarly inquiry and discourse.

In 1949, Adler teamed up with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke to found the Aspen Institute, a group based in Aspen, Colorado, that offers seminars modeled on the U of C’s Great Books program. Three years later, Adler resigned from his position at the University of Chicago to establish the Institute for Philosophical Research in San Francisco, where he worked as president and director until 1995.

Alder wrote dozens of books aimed at introducing the lay public to Western thought, including the seminal work “How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education.” With Hutchins, Adler arranged for Encyclopaedia Britannica to publish 443 of the Great Books, oversaw the creation of a compendium of “great ideas,” and founded a program that offered ordinary readers the opportunity to gather and discuss classic texts. Adler would continue his work with Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1970s, when he served as chairman of its board of editors.

“He believed that philosophy should be talked about in ordinary language and that there are right answers to questions,” Temes said. “Many professional academics didn’t agree.”

Adler’s egalitarianism disaffected many academics, but he put little stock in their views.

“I thumbed my nose at them, so why should they pay any attention to me?” he said in a 1982 newspaper interview. “They think you’re spoon-feeding if you write something free of jargon and footnotes. But you’re not spoon-feeding — you’re simply avoiding putting obstacles in their path.”

Others found fault in his unwillingness to include females and minorities in the canon of Great Books. No books by black authors appeared on his list of Great Books, he said, because “they didn’t write any good books.” Adler’s position in this debate never wavered, even as the groups that he had himself founded began to include, despite his disapproval, African-American, Hispanic and greater numbers of female authors on their lists of Great Books.

“The thesis that there are lessons to be learned from the authors of centuries ago still stands,” said Jim Spiegelman, Director of Public Affairs at the Aspen Institute. “But the idea that there are things to be learned from the writers of more recent time also applies. We’ve come to believe that it’s not one thing or the other.”