Mortimer Jerome Adler dropped out of high school when he was 14 to work as a copy boy for the New York Sun. He took writing classes at night and discovered the works of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, John Stuart Mill and others. He studied philosophy at Columbia University, and though he failed to meet the physical education requirements for a bachelor's degree, he stayed at the university and was eventually given a teaching position and even awarded a doctorate in philosophy.
Adler was appointed to the philosophy faculty at the University of Chicago in 1930, where he met its president Robert Hutchins, with whom he founded the Great Books of the Western World program. He sat as Chairman of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica for many years, and influenced many of the policies of the 15th edition. He also founded the Paedia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of important works (as judged for each grade).
On May 2, 1927 Adler married Helen Leavenworth Boyton. The couple had two children: Mark Arthur and Michael Boyton. However, they were divorced in 1961 and two years later, in February of 1963, Adler married Caroline Sage Pring. Douglas Robert and Philip Pring were born to them.
Adler took a long time in his own life to make up his mind about theological issues. But when he did, a Time
writer says that Adler "became a bulldozer for truth." He was a student of John Dewey, and "he bombarded Dewey with lone letters pointing out ambiguities and contradictions in his lectures." Influenced by the philosophy of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, Adler affirmed his belief in absolute and universal truths and values, charging that the failure to recognize their existence results from the application of the scientific method in areas where it is inappropriate. He argued that pragmatism, with its view of the scientific method as the preeminent model for all useful thought, creates moral and intellectual chaos, an effect that Adler considered apparent in progressive education.
Adler long strove to bring philosophy to the masses, and some of his works (such as How to Read a Book
) became popular bestsellers. He also fought against the pragmatism of Dewey—the dominant influence on twentieth-century American thought and education—for over fifty years. His attempts made him a popular philosopher at large but alienated him from many members of the academic community. Mortimer Jerome Adler died in San Mateo, CA on June 28, 2001.
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