Ancora Imparo - I am still learning

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mortimer Adler and Socratic Dialogue

What is Socratic dialogue, and how can it effectively be used in an educational environment? Who was Mortimer Adler and what were his views? How does this author feel about Adler’s philosophy and about the use of Socratic dialogue? The following paper will answer these questions.

The quote regarding Socratic dialogue from this assignment reads, “The audience is blind but must never feel that way. The farther we go from the reality we know, the harder it is to create a mental picture. Never tell what should be shown nor try to show what needs to be told. And, last, the words on the page are only the beginning.”

The definition listed above is a good beginning when discussing the application of the Soctratic dialogue method into the classroom. However, this definition does omit one other important concept – the concept that not only must the audience (the students) be blind to the teaching; but they should also be lead into a discussion that will cause them to want to learn more. In other words, the facilitator of the discussion must ask questions that will cause the students to be interested in the topic. The website gives an excellent example of a teacher who used Socratic dialogue to teach his third grade class the concept of binary numbers.

The Socratic method can be successful when used in the classroom. Methods that encourage students’ critical thinking and analysis are much more important than directive teaching. Directive teaching reinforces the concept that teachers should be the ones with all the ideas. In this author’s opinion, Socratic dialogue and other methods of incorporating critical thinking is more student- centered in that they allow the students to learn and think on their own.

Because Socratic dialogue is more student-centered, it is ironic that educational philosopher Mortimer Adler encouraged its use in classrooms. Adler was one of the premier advocates of classical education – education based upon what students “need to know,” that stresses academics rather than vocation or interest (Dunn, 2005, pg. 44).

According to Classical Homeschooling’s website, Adler embraced a multi-disciplinary approach to education and encouraged students, through Socratic dialogue, to think for themselves. He insisted that thinking a concept out was of much more use to the learner than memorization (P.S.J.C., 2006, par. 8).

However, Adler also held to the idea that children should have no choices in how or what they learn. He advocated a teacher-centered, structured approach and completely rejected the ideas of progressive education founder John Dewey, who Adler met at Columbia University (P.S.J.C., 2006, par. 4). Adler believed that children should learn using “three modes of learning and three modes of teaching” (Dunn, 2005, pg. 44). Those three modes were: (1) “the acquisition of organized knowledge” (italics mine), (2) “the development of intellectual skills,” and (3) “the enlarged understanding of ideas and values” (Dunn, 2005, pg. 44). Aside from Socratic dialogue, Adler advocated the use of lectures and traditional textbooks. He also believed that students should be disciplined into learning in the way that he felt was appropriate for them to learn (Dunn, 2005, pgs. 44-45).

This author finds Mortimer Adler’s ideas a bit confusing. First, he advocates the use of Socratic dialogue to encourage critical thinking. That is understandable. He also encourages the use of multi-disciplinary studies over memorization, rightfully pointing out that children will remember what they have thought out more than what they have memorized. Then Adler’s thinking tends to shift from child-friendly to dictatorial. Students have no choice in what they learn (except to choose which second language they will study). He advocates the use of traditional means of teaching - lecturing and the usage of textbooks to ensure students are “where they should be” – to quote a popular idea from the back-to-basics education of today. And he even advocates disciplining students into paying attention to what they may not be interested in at all. Perhaps John Dewey had more of an influence in Adler than he cares to admit. Perhaps this is why he does advocate the use of some student-centered techniques, which
clearly would make learning more enjoyable. He, however, still is unable to leave behind many preconceived notions of what students need to learn by certain grade levels.

This being said, this author agrees with Mortimer Adler upon his ideas of the usage of multi-disciplinary classrooms and Socratic dialogue. However, these ideas are the exception. There are several reasons that this author disagrees with Adler. First of all, as a pastor pointed out in church this morning, God has a plan for every man, woman, and child. Not only this, but God gives every man, woman, and child a talent and a desire – a calling. The Bible is very specific about individual talents. Jesus taught in Matthew 25:14-30 that those who do not invest their tlaents in the work and calling of the Lord will lose those God-given talents. Where does this fit in with Adler’s philosophy?

Secondly, Adler’s philosophy that everyone should stand on equal academic
footing actually contradicts the methods that Christ used in His teaching. Jesus met people where they were. He did not value the educated over the uneducated. Actually, Jesus’ methods were quite the opposite. According to Matthew 11:12, God has revealed the wise things (spiritual matters, salvation) to babies. And I Corinthians 3:18 reminds, “Let no person deceive himself. If anyone among you supposes that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool [let him discard his worldly discernment and recognize himself as dull, stupid, and foolish, without true learning and scholarship], that he may become [really] wise” (Amplified Bible). Thus, God has chosen what is foolish in the eyes of the world to bring salvation and has made the wise foolish and the foolish wise. Who is Mortimer Adler (or anyone else, for that matter), to choose what “should be” taught when perhaps God has given the students a different calling? Again, where does the Bible fit in with Adler’s philosophy?

Lastly, and tied in with the first two, how does Adler’s philosophy of not allowing choices coincide with God’s creation of free will? God does not force His will and purpose on anyone. God created every human being with the free will to choose what (s)he will be and do. Is it right, then, for parents and educators to force their own will upon children and not allow them the God-given gift of free will to decide some things on their own? This author has worked with children in various settings. Each child has his/her unique learning style. There are children who love learning in a traditional way. In fact, this is exactly the author’s learning preference. But, then, there are other children who are hands-on learners – those children who cannot sit still at a table or desk to listen to a lecture or read a textbook. Is Adler stating that either of these is wrong? As
mentioned in the first objection to Adler’s philosophy, God created everyone with
distinct interests and talents. Is the child who would prefer to dig up worms and walk in the woods and hike in the mountains less worthy of following his/her God-given interests than the child who prefers to read and study academically? According to Adler and those who follow his methods, this child is. All children should learn in the same way. All children should sit like little soldiers, hanging on every word a teacher says. All children should conduct themselves in a way that shows their gratitude for such an education. This author asks is this truly the way Jesus would have handled education today?

Perhaps the saddest aspect of all is many Christian educators will follow in the footsteps of Mortimer Adler in the name of Christianity. After all, does the Bible not tell us to train and discipline our children? What is perhaps most tragically ironic is that the few Verses in Proverbs that are used by traditional educators, parents, and disciplinarians to advocate the use of strictness with children are so often misinterpreted. For instance, the word “rod” found in many Passages in Proverbs actually refers to a shepherd’s rod – a rod of guidance, not a rod of beating. Apply this interpretation of education. Educators can beat the children using formulas and philosophies that ensure children learn “what
they need to know” or they can guide the children into the discovery of God’s calling upon their lives.

Christians educators often proclaim, along with Mortimer Adler, that more
progressive methods lead to “moral and intellectual chaos” (P.S. J.C., 2006, par. 5). Perhaps, just perhaps, however, Dewey and other pragmatists and humanists show more Christ-like caring for children than their Christian counterparts. This author finds it horrifying that it is all too often non-Christians that display Christ-like tendencies. All too often, Christians are too busy promoting “what needs to be taught” instead of “what should be done when representing the name of Christ.” Perhaps it could be said that humanists often do the right things for all the wrong reasons and Christians do all the wrong things for the right reasons.

In conclusion, Mortimer Adler and his use of Socratic dialogue in the classroom is certainly a topic that requires much thought – one that brings out an educator’s passion for the passing on of knowledge from one generation to the next.


Classical Homeschooling Magazine. (2006). Mortimer J. Adler: Reforming Education.
Retrieved May 20, 2009, from

Dunn, S. (2005). Philosophical Foundations of Education. Columbus, Ohio: Pearson,
Merrill Prentice Hall.

Garlikov, R. (no date given). The Socratic Method: Teaching by Asking Instead of
Telling. Retrieved May 20, 2009, from


Mama Lavender said...

You really rocked this one out! I found it very soundly written and powerful. A strong conviction to renew my focus to spend more time loving my little student rather than 'teaching' - thanks for reminding me to listen to my heart!!!

unschoolermom said...

I'm glad you liked it! This one was a very powerful assignment for me!


sheri said...

What was the assignment and for which school. I am doing a somewhat similar assignment right now.
You did a great job, and your writing helped me understand a bit more about the subject I need to write about.

kelly said...

Thanks for the alternative perspective. As a fellow LU student (currently working on my assignment for this same class) I found your opinions interesting and challenging. However, I would suggest a couple of things that you might want to consider on a personal lever concerning this topic. 1. not all Christians who advocate Adler's methods do it with a bible in hand beating people over the head with it. 2. Adler did not have a contradictory view of teaching (advocating both a Socratic method and rigid instruction) but perhaps it was simply a balanced view that held closely to a traditional classical education which valued both discipline AND self-expression. 3. Adler and (in my personal opinion) those that support his work, do not believe that requiring children to develop a basic level of mastery in a given subject contradictory to their calling as an individual. There is a time and place for everything and just as God has given each person an individual calling he has also given us a corporate responsibility to one another and to our community (Matt. 28:19, 1 Peter 3:16, Proverbs 22:6, Matt. 25:14-30, etc.) Children must be taught not only to follow their personal calling but also to be responsible and accountable for the abilities that God has given them. Though a child might not enjoy mathematics, if God has given that child the ability to understand it, he is accountable to God and his community for making the most of that ability. Last of all, as one who came out of a home that advocated "unschooling" (I was "unschooled" from 2nd through 12th grade) I personally believe that it is deeply lacking. I have chosen to teach my own children using a classical method and I work very hard to find the balance between developing each of my children’s individual abilities and encouraging them to develop perseverance and personal discipline in academics. I'll have to let you know in a few more years how it all turned out, but so far so good. haha :-)