Review: The Paideia Proposal by Mortimer Adler

This book as part of the movement that doesn’t appear to have gotten off the ground is an influential to me short story of what education could become. The book is fairly old so we can see how little effect the ideas have had on the education of children. For what the book lacks in results it makes up for in hope. Hope that somebody may look at this book and see the roadmap to fixing the education system.

When I started reading this book I thought to myself that it would be filled with either hyper-liberal pundits or jabbering-conservative creationist mumbo jumbo. It was neither. It was a book to tell you how we are ripping off our children within the education system. The basic principles I will shorten to this. All children should get the same quality education. There shouldn’t be shoe horns of excellence staunchly allowing some children the fit of a superb education and other children held back by society of ill prepared teachers. The general education systems must come into play and prepare children equally otherwise bad things happen. Since we have a lens to look at this created by the time since publication (1982) and today we can see the error of our ways. The book talks about tracking. As a victim of that system I am testament to the evil.

Tracking in school works on a few premises. If your parents did not go to college, if your grades are sub-par, if you have no relatives that went to college you should not have college preparatory classes wasted on you. When I left a semi-urban school where I had basically all “A”s in 9th grade for a suburban school and 10th grade I found myself in an interesting dilemma. The new school used a system called tracking and barred me from any college prepatory classes.  I got to take general education, math for consumers, and 9 semesters of metal and wood shop. I was shipped off in my junior year to the electronics course at a “skills center” and then “small engine repair” classes after that.  In other words I got a quite different education from my fellow students. Classism at it’s best. 

The Paideia Proposal holds this up for the violation of basic human rights that it has been. Teaching vocational skills in high school is a violation of the most sensitive of social contracts between the state and the student. In an age where the top jobs four years from now aren’t even known how can a vocational program hold sway in the learning system? Vocational programs have limited life spans that are measured in months. They need constant updating and vocational learners become slaves to that process of updating. If Vocational programs have limited life spans and we are teaching these topics to High School freshman. Do we now believe that child labor is just fine? Because that is the backwards meaning of that practice. 

Perhaps science, technology, engineering and math scores in America might not be so low if the general education systems actually taught general education. The day of industrial arts as a track for students is long gone. Welcome the days of STEM. Dr. Adler had some great proposals and many people listened to him. The reason his proposal was never accepted are likely found in the depths and recesses of high school teacher lunchrooms. Making kids smart challenges the society that values wisdom and intelligence. We can’t have authority being challenged in the prison systems we call high school now can we? That is why we’ve enacted zero tollerance.

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