Interview with Mortimer Adler
BROADCAST: Jun. 18, 1993 | DURATION: 00:33:22
Discussing the book "A Second Look In the Rear-View Mirror: Further Autobiographical Reflections of a Philosopher at Large" (published by Macmillan) with the author Mortimer Adler. Program includes an excerpt of a September 21, 1959 interview with Robert Hutchins.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel After some 20 years or so, my guest once more is Professor Mortimer J. Adler, and of course his name is associated with the Great Books of the Western world of course, and so many in "The Syntopicon", and he's now chairman of the board of the Encyclopedia Britannica
Studs Terkel For years, of course I think of you when I was a student at the University of Chicago back in the '30s when Hutchins just came, you and he together, and the excitement, the ferment on the campus, and it's rather interesting that your new book, Part II of your memoir, "A Second Look in the Rear-View Mirror", has come out just about the same time as a wonderful biography of Hutchins by Milton Mayer, his old friend and whom you knew very well, and it's simply called "A Memoir". Suppose we hear the voice of the man with whom you were so closely associated all those years. It's Robert Maynard Hutchins, 1959, he had quite a few bruises by that time. It's 30 years after he was the boy president of the University of Chicago in 1929. This is 1959, he's talking about "What is a university?" and something called a folk institution. Suppose we hear his voice.
Robert Maynard Hutchins What I mean by a folk institution is that it is simply the result of the pressures exerted upon it to meet the immediate needs, desires, ambitions of those sections of the population that are powerful or with which the university wishes to ingratiate itself. What is, what is the trouble with private institutions? It is that they are after money. If you are after money, you have to appeal to the people who have got it, and the way to appeal to the people who have got it is to represent to them that you are going to do what they would like to have done.
Robert Maynard Hutchins Yes. You wouldn't think of having a radical professor, because this would disturb the people who have got the money that you are looking for. Therefore, your object must be to produce these fine, well-tubbed, ignorant young Americans who will fit gracefully into LaSalle Street and your object must be to have a group of specialists on the university faculty who, if they ever say anything about contemporary life, say it in a jargon that no LaSalle -- no resident of LaSalle Street or nobody who works on LaSalle Street could possibly understand. Now, I don't object to this. I'm perfectly willing to have it go on, but I want to point out what it that -- the gap it leaves in our national life, a gap that leaves in the contribution that America might make to the world. If you turn your institution into a simple representation of the complex of pressures exerted upon it, usually for, and you do this usually for financial reasons, then what you have lost is the centers of independent thought, the centers of intellectual illumination that this country requires now as never before in its history.
Mortimer J. Adler Reminded me of him so well. He was a -- he would say that again and again, he'd say, he said that the graduating class where he left the university, he said of them that, "You know better now than you're ever going to learn later, the world will spoil you. Remember what you learned here."
Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking as he said that, in your book, in your memoir, the rec-- the second memoir, "Second Looker" [sic], and in Milton Mayer's biography, you both call upon his commencement address.
Mortimer J. Adler Yep.
Studs Terkel "Your friends, your wives, husbands, your business, will corrupt you." He says "The worst thing about life is that it's demora-- I'm worried about your morals. Believe me," here's the part: "You are closer to the truth now
Mortimer J. Adler Well, that's what he told the graduating class, and he meant exactly that. He knew of, from his own experience. He knew how the world corrupted, corrupts people, by jobs and everything else. And he said precisely what he meant when he said that, "You're closer to the truth now than you'll ever be again." He had
Mortimer J. Adler Oh, it was entirely accidental. The most extraordinary accident. He had -- well, I'd written an article, or a book rather, called "Dialectic". It had a footnote in it. The footnote said that the logical processes here being described exemplified in the Anglo-American law of evidence. That was in 32 pages that C. K. Ogden had in his pocket a proof when it [unintelligible] to raise money for the Orthological Institute in London, and Hutchins saw that footnote which said this is exemplified the Anglo-- he wrote me a letter, said I understand that you're interested in the law of evidence, will you come to see me sometime this summer? So I decided that I'd put it off until I -- I wrote the footnote, I [didn't?] have the faintest knowledge of the law of evidence, so I got Wigmore out of the library, law library, five volumes
Mortimer J. Adler No.
Mortimer J. Adler Yes.
Mortimer J. Adler I [unintelligible] it, because most of it was filled with cases, and the opening parts of each chapter dealt with the main principles of the law. I started by reading through it, those opening chapters that gave me the principles of the law of evidence. I then went to, I decided to go up and see Hutchins at Yale, and on a Friday afternoon went to the law school and knocked on the door, and a young man in a tennis shoes and white ducks and a tennis shirt said, "Come in." I said, "I'm here to see the Dean of the Yale Law School." "That's me!" said Hutchins, and we talked for
Mortimer J. Adler But I was a born and bred New Yorker, I had never left the city, city streets really, [had lived in Patterson, New Jersey?], and the notion of living in a sleepy little town in New Haven was nothing that pleased me at all, so I turned him down. Whereupon he came down to New York and talked to the Dean of the Columbia Law School, who was Young B. Smith at the time, said, "I want -- you got a young man here that's very much interested in the law of evidence. I want you to have him teach the law of evidence with the man who's your best professor of the law of evidence." Jerome Michael. And Young B. Smith hired me.
Mortimer J. Adler Yeah.
Mortimer J. Adler Well, I wrote my P-- I wrote my dissertation when one evening from about five o'clock in the evening 'til about five or six o'clock the next morning, and when I went down to get "The New York Times", it was about 5:30, there was a headline in "The New York Times" saying "Robert Maynard Hutchins, age 29, has been made president of the University of Chicago." So I sent him a telegram at once, congratulating him, and then subsequent to that we met at the Yale Law School, [under?] the Yale Club in New York. Now, I think that that did a -- he said to me, "You know, Mr. Adler," always very formal, "Mr. Adler," he'd always say. "You know, Mr. Adler, I've been dean of the law school, but I haven't got any [thought to?] university or a college education. What happened, what was your college education like?" And I said, "I can't quite tell you, but there's one course, one course that I remember distinctly that really was the substance of my education." "What was that course?" he said. "The course of the Great Books. Erskine's seminar." Said, "Have you had a list of the Great Books?" I said, looking down at my briefcase in the
Mortimer J. Adler Columbia.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Mortimer J. Adler So I went down and got tho-- that list of books. And he looked at it, "Mmmm," said, "You know, I'm a graduate of Oberlin, Ph.D., I'm the Dean of the Yale Law School, now President of the University of Chicago, and I've already -- I haven't read more than two or three of these books! I think [throughout?] the University of Chicago, we'll teach them together." On the spot he made that decision, that he and I would teach in 1930, the entering class of freshmen, or selected freshmen. In that class.
Studs Terkel Well, you know, 1930, so it 1933, 1934, just finished, I am finishing the University of Chicago law school as a student, about a half a dozen [we decided?] to sit in, we could -- we were allowed to sit in, at these once a week sessions you and Hutchins had, tangling with a member of our law school faculty. So we had a man named Judge Hinton teaching evidence, and you and Hutchins debated him on evidence. He had someone else, a man named Charles Oscar Gregory who taught torts on some other -- you had somebody and -- discussing Zoroaster, and I always felt that the odds were a little uneven, you and Hutchins were so sharp as against this guy, I thought it was Muhammad Ali versus Woody Allen. You know, so it was that. But it was exciting. But of course and which leads to a big subject. You and Hutchins and the University of Chicago. There was a great deal -- rather unconventional approach to plan and the Great Books and especially your position with some of the established old members of the philosophy department. Suppose you recount that.
Mortimer J. Adler Well, I -- I was not yet 30, I was in the first year as Chicago, I was 27, 28, and the young rush in where angels fear to tread. So I was not polite politically. I spoke my mind. I told the Philosophy Department I wouldn't teach a course was, with Will Durant as a textbook. And so my, my stay in the Philosophy Department ended at the end of the first year, and I became a assistant professor of the philosophy of law in the law school. Eddie Levy, by the way, was in that first class I taught.
Mortimer J. Adler Who taught the law of contracts and I raised a course for those students in the college who were going to law school. It was called the Trillium, in a course of the liberal arts. We met for two hours on Monday morning, from Monday -- had two hours Monday afternoon, two hours on Wednesday morning, and Wednesday afternoon, and we read one with that class, we read one book for a whole year, read Plato's "Meno", taking it apart, learning how to -- in fact, I learned how to read by that exercise.
Studs Terkel By this matter of reading, you discovered that Hutchins' remarkable -- the facility for how -- since he -- as he said, he didn't read any of these books you talked about that comprised the Great Books courses eventually. What, he was an incredibly
Mortimer J. Adler Well, I'll never forget, in the course of that first year of reading some of the theological [treatises?] on God was assigned, and I was astounded at the fact that he read it and understood it perfectly on one reading! He had amazing intelligence. I know of no one who could read any book and get its meat as quickly as he could.
Studs Terkel Of course which leads to again a student at the University at the time, was very exciting. The '30s, the Depression just beginning and coming in, and as we heard his voice the beginning, he spoke of the need for independent thought and for academic freedom of course became quite a story there a couple of times.
Mortimer J. Adler I think the most remarkable thing he did, it was the faculty never understood what he wanted in the way of a college. In fact, he never really got it at Chicago. St. John's in Annapolis, and [Santa Fe?]
Mortimer J. Adler Yeah. Mostly. We thought of it in Chicago, but it was done in St. John's. He I think more than anybody else appreciated the need for a required, required program. He had no use for the elective system at all.
Studs Terkel You know, as we're talking, that we can lead to all subjects, of age and maturity and what is lost and what is gained, because that's part of your memoir here, "Second Look", because I always think of young Mortimer Adler, this "enfant terrible," this guy, young Mortimer Adler, who challenged John Dewey, you know, we'll come to that, and then Mortimer Adler today and what you have that you didn't have then. Let's take our first break here, and we'll resume, my guest Mortimer J. Adler and the book is his most recent one, "A Second Look in the Rear-View Mirror", which is memoiristic, but in conjunction with a very beautiful biography of maybe the definitive one of an, a couple of good ones, but this is one by Milton Mayer, who is a marvelous journalist was, wrote for "The Progressive" magazine for years and a very dedicated Quaker who stuck his neck out many times during rough moments, who was an aide to Hutchins, and the book is called, simply called "Robert Maynard Hutchins: A Memoir", and we'll resume after this break. [pause in recording] So resuming with Mortimer Adler, I was thinking, in the beginning of your, early in the book, the recent one, "A Second Look", you speak of age and the imagination. The imagination is as powerful as ever.
Mortimer J. Adler But one become more temperate, one I think recognizes the maturity, recognizes the frailties that are everybody, as a result I think that I would be less -- more patient today than I was then. I was very impatient. Very impatient.
Mortimer J. Adler Yeah.
Mortimer J. Adler Yeah. I was a student of John Dewey's at Columbia. But Hutchins, I think what most people didn't realize about Hutchins was the speed and facility of his wit. One story about him is he met Paul Shorey on the campus one day. And Paul Shorey said, "Mr. President, I understand that you and Mr. Adler read all of the, Dante's 'Divine Comedy' in one week, but at Harvard, a university graduate, we spend a whole year studying that. How can you cover the 'Divine Comedy' in a week?" "Oh," said Hutchins, "See, our students are bright."
Mortimer J. Adler Or what he said to the -- at a White House, White House tea party for the justices of the Supreme Court, when he was told by either was it Mrs. Justice Reynolds [sic - McReynolds] or Mrs. Justice Van Devanter, "I understand, Mr. Dean, at New Haven, you are teaching the young men what is wrong with our decisions." "Oh, no," said Hutchins. "We let them find that out for themselves." Now, that kind of wit was not understood by most of
Studs Terkel "Find out for your--" of course, he also was good before, at the Walgreen quiz, too, and that other inquisitions to which you were subjected because he defended the freedom of all those who were most unpopular, even those who were communists. He defended their freedom to teach, provided they did not impose their philosophy on students. And he took a beating. I mean, I mean real one.
Studs Terkel But back to Hutchins and you, that moment we're talk-- was an exciting moment. There was a great deal of disagreement with you and Hutchins by others, but what was there was a sense of ferment on the campus. Could never say apathy on the campus.
Mortimer J. Adler I would say that the University of Chicago campus between 1930 and 1943 was the most exciting -- there was no excitement like that at Columbia. This campus was one in which the, intellectual matters were being debated all the time. It was a very exciting campus. Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah. And what it is, I remember of course aside from the Hutchins plan, and perhaps you could talk about that, you know, the attempt to knock out the departmentalism. Anti-specialization. I use the word more generalist, isn't that the idea?
Mortimer J. Adler Generalist, no question. He thought that the college should give students a general education and should do it by the end of sophomore year. His notion of taking the last two years of high school and the first two years of college and make that a unit. He wanted a educational system or rather that was 8, 4, 4 instead of 8, 8, 4.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel So what is the word he said? He said, "These guys don't know -- do we, are we training in a sense trained seals?" And one of the comments he made to -- well, he made it to many [to have it?], but he made to Milton Mayer was, "A democracy needs -- the essential is an educated citizenry."
Mortimer J. Adler Oh,
Mortimer J. Adler Matter of fact, when this country was founded, well, it was not a democracy, it was an oligarchy of the property owners. The non-property owners were disenfranchised, but the men who were citizens in the first years of our republic were all well-educated. They were all men who had read and studied a great deal. Not only Jefferson, but Adams, and the people in New England, a democracy cannot simply, cannot work with an uneducated electorate. We have that now.
Studs Terkel He says "The whole business about education in universities," says Hutchins some 25 years after he was, after he had been president, after he left I should say, "The whole business of education in a university can be summed up in a question 'Has the institution any vitality?'" We come to the -- that's what I was looking for. On the campus back in those days when he was there and you were there, and your antagonists were there. Even that battle to me as a student was very exciting.
Studs Terkel So this leads again to the subject of you, you say a long time ago. I think of Mortimer Adler and then, you're still putting forth, through the years you've put forth various books, "The Syntopicon", I'll ask you about what you have in mind for the 21st century. For -- what's the Paideia Project?
Mortimer J. Adler That's a, an education reform movement that tried to correct what is wrong with our basic grade K through 12, attempt to introduce the St. John's kind of seminars into the Socratically conducted seminars into our public schools. That's the Paideia Project. And I take it is succeeding, but slowly.
Mortimer J. Adler The book I'm going to write next year, book I'm writing now is a book entitled, "Art, the Arts, and the Great Ideas", but the book I'm writing next summer is a book entitled "A Philosophical Dictionary for the 21st Century".
Studs Terkel Which leads to, before that, finding that thing I'm looking for, Hutchins' commencement address for the year 1935, the sequence we didn't mention, and it's very beautiful and moving one, about knowing more at this moment, closer to truth than you ever were before. I'm going to ask you a question perhaps; we know there's a great deal of talk about multiculturalism and some of the University of Chicago professor wrote bestsellers rather attacking it after a fashion. I'm referring of course to Allan Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind". What -- I'm trying to understand how multiculturalism, that is, literature and cultures of other worlds can, can denigrate Western culture.
Mortimer J. Adler It can. The -- I think the multicultures emphasis in the schools of New York, for example, or in Chicago, is wrong. Our culture is Eurocentric. No question about it. And I think the best parts of our country are transcultural. See, the only thing that is multicultural are matters of opinion, matters of taste. Cuisines are multicultural, habits of bowing, habits of dancing, habits of all those customs, but anything that is true, physical science, mathematics and technology were, were at the truth, they're transcultural.
Mortimer J. Adler Absolutely!
Mortimer J. Adler I think we live -- this century, in this century in which science is dominant, most people think that science is knowledge, and that the only real knowledge we have of anything is science, and that philosophy is a matter of opinion, prejudices and so forth. That book is an attempt to show that if we were to be deprived of philosophy, as we are I think for the most part, if there were no philosophies taught in schools, there were no books written by, by, we would lack four things. The scientists have a very superficial understanding of reality, and metaphysical understanding is much deeper and gives us understanding that scientists can't give us. Vision, we would lack all true and false or judgements, like the direction of morals and political philosophy.
Mortimer J. Adler We would lack an understanding of the great ideas. And think of all the causes that are philosophy of, philosophy of logic, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of history, philosophy of religion, all these philosophy ever causes, that's the categorical part. The category of the kinds of subject matters of
Mortimer J. Adler No,
Studs Terkel "Of the 21st Century". And that, and may I mention of course I'll do a program, a full, on Milton Mayer's quite wonderful, moving and witty, very funny guy. Memoir of Robert Maynard Hutchins, who is perhaps one of the most -- you know, Hutchins
Mortimer J. Adler Let me add one thing. The bravest and wisest thing Hutchins did at the University of Chicago was to create an independent college faculty, a college faculty the members of which did not, didn't have seats in the graduate school. Otherwise, almost all universities, the teachers at the undergraduate school belong to graduate departments and are specialists. But if you want generalists in the college faculty, you must not have them in, members of any department.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel That's why those kids going to the campus, the regular undergraduate school, found things so exciting. Having a teacher like Robert Morss Lovett, that old boy who was under attack and who stuck to his guns and Hutchins stuck to him.
Mortimer J. Adler That's
Studs Terkel One of the most moving sequences in the book, perhaps you could finish with that, of Hutchins' principle and courage, is when -- we should point out that Robert Morss Lovett was under attack by the niece of, of Walgreen, the girl said he was teaching communism in school [sic - it was the girl's uncle, Charles Walgreen the pharmacy mogul, who made that accusation], and there was an investigation and a quiz, and then, and some of the trustees wanted Robert Morss Lovett, this old independent, marvelous teacher fired, James Weber Linn, one of the old professors, very beloved, went to see Hutchins, Hutchins didn't know any of this, "If you allow the trustees to fire Lovett, you will have on your desk tomorrow morning the resignations of 20 tenured professors," and Hutchins said, "No, I won't. My successor will." And that to me is what it's about. He'd rather be sacked himself than sack this independent man. That tells it all to me.
Mortimer J. Adler That's
Mortimer J. Adler Right!