While Harvard ponders again the meaning of a "liberal education" and the Faculty devotes almost all its meetings to critical discussions of the concentration-distribution system, a book has appeared with a strong indictment of modern education and a striking remedy for the ills that affect it.
The book is called simply "How to Read a Book," and it is by a professor at Harvard's great intellectual rival, the University of Chicago. The author is Mortimer J. Adler, associate professor of Law at Chicago, and right-hand man of President Robert M. Hutchins.
He claims that students are simply not being educated at the country's best colleges, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Yale, California--not even at his own Chicago, where he and Hutchins have attempted his ideal of reading the "great books" with students.
Unless education is radically reformed both below and at the college level, Adler states, "the bachelor's degree mast remain a travesty on the liberal arts from which it takes its name. We will continue to graduate, not liberal artists but chaotically informed and totally undisciplined minds."
He feels that the "art of reading" must be revived if college is going to be worth anyone's while. Not even the well-known Chicago Plan (similar to a scheme advanced last year by the Student Council here and now being looked into further, which would require surveys of the humanities and the natural and social sciences to restore a missing "common content" to a Harvard degree)--not even this supplies the discipline and content which Adler thinks should be the possession of an educated man.
He believes that St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland is the only college which is educating in the sense in which he uses that word. There the degree is awarded only after four years of reading the world's great books chronologically, and four years of science in the same order, with laboratory work, to show how modern scientific knowledge developed.
Scholars Often Not Educated
The author calls the book "a light book about heavy reading," and it really is aimed more at the layman than at the scholar. He has given up the idea of reforming education through working on the scholar and hopes that the desired change will come about by making the non-academic person better educated than the scholar.
This should not be too difficult, he says, because the modern college teacher is crippled by "devotion to competence in some field of specialized research" and "undue magnification of the scientific method and its latest findings."
Attacking popularizations and summaries of good books while showing that the great books are no more difficult than others, Adler states that "not by making books less like books, but by making people more like readers, must the change be effected. The plan behind the People's Library is as blind to the causes of the situation its sponsors are trying to cure as the people are at Harvard who complain about the rampant tutoring schools without realizing that the way to remedy that evil is to lift Harvard education above the level where the tutoring schools can prepare the students more efficiently for examinations than the Faculty can."
Contending that democracy depends for its existence on communication between men on common problems and that discipline is a source of freedom, Adler links reading the great books with the democratic ideal in the statement that "right action" is the proper end of a liberal education.
He cites the conversion of Walter Lippmann '10 to the view that the classical discipline, which the founding fathers of this country shared, must have been good, since they obtained from it the idea of the liberties they put into the Constitution and which we "are in danger of losing."
At the end of "How to Read a Book" Adler publishes the list of classics of ancient and modern thought which are known by the slogan "the hundred great books." A whole section of the book is devoted to the rules of proper reading.
The author will be in Boston this weekend to speak at the Ford Hall Forum.