A Salute to the General of Education: Mortimer J. Adler

A Salute to the General of Education: Mortimer J. Adler

The motto for the National Negro College Fund sends chills up my spine whenever I hear it: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” For a Christian, however, the message is even more challenging. The mind of a creature made in the image and likeness of an infinite, eternal, and personal God is a fortiori—Latin for “with greater force” or “all the more”—a terrible thing to waste.1 Because the human soul survives death, cultivating the life of the mind to the glory of God takes on an eternal dimension. The scriptural imperative of Matthew 22:37 calls us to love the Lord our God with all our being. This all includes, of course, God’s incredible gift of the mind.

Humanity’s intellectual abilities directly result from our being the crown of God’s creation. It is the Imago Dei, the image of God, that distinguishes us from the animals, and it is that same image that makes the life of the mind so important. Only human beings pursue, discover, and reflect upon such concepts as logic, science, mathematics, philosophy, morality, the arts, and God. It is left to human beings alone to be time and reality conscious, to philosophize by recollecting the past, recognizing the present, and anticipating the future.

The Bible instructs Christians to practice not only the moral virtues it delineates, but also intellectual virtues. Believers are exhorted to pursue “wisdom, knowledge, and understanding,” all of which are rooted in “the fear of the Lord.”2 Discernment, reflection, testing, and intellectual renewal are all biblical mandates that produce honorable character and innumerable blessings if Christians heed them.3 Of all people, the Christian who understands the implications of being made in the Imago Dei will value the “life of the mind.”4 Simply stated, the Christian’s endeavor to develop his/her mind represents an act of worship toward the infinite and eternal God who made sentient beings and everything else in creation.

The person who has done the most to help me value and pursue the life of the mind has just died. The distinguished philosopher and educator Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001), to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude, genuinely enriched my life. His promotion of the Great Books reading program encouraged me to pursue the Western classics, including, among others, works of literature, philosophy, science, and politics. That pursuit has put me in touch with such brilliant and passionate minds as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, and others. Adler challenged me, as he challenged all, to read the original writings of these great thinkers and glean the wisdom of their books—books which have truly stood the test of time. While some Christians are hesitant to read works by non-Christian authors, such as Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, I have been strengthened in my modest role as an apologist by pursuing a broad liberal arts education. This education exposed me to the rich marketplace of ideas that forms the intellectual history of Western civilization.

I have also benefited from a number of Adler’s own works. His books How To Read A Book (which I have assigned as a textbook in some college-level courses) and How To Speak, How To Listen have significantly enhanced my experience of reading and understanding of rhetoric. Adler taught me that even after earning a graduate degree I still had much to learn about the four types of reading: elementary, skimming, analytical, and syntopical. His books The Paideia Program, which promotes a truly classical public education, and Reforming Education have influenced the way I teach and the way I guide my children’s education. Because of Adler’s inspiration and example, my wife and I are all the more committed to doing all we can to help our children develop flourishing intellectual lives to the glory of God.

Adler, the longtime chairman of the board of editors for Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the author of some sixty books, has left an intellectual legacy that will influence many generations to come. Surrounded by a cultural flood of relativism, he tirelessly defended the absolutes of truth and morality. I hope you will reap benefit from his brief but provocative article on education. Those who would like to know more about Adler and his body of work may contact his Center for the Study of the Great Ideas at TheGreatIdeas.org.5 Those interested in Adler’s conversion to Christianity will want to read his brief spiritual autobiography in Philosophers Who Believe.6

Regarding stewardship of the human mind, Mortimer J. Adler emphatically asserts, “It is man’s glory to be the only intellectual animal on earth. That imposes upon human beings the moral obligation to lead intellectual lives.”7

  1. Gen. 1:26-27.
  2. Job 28:28; 34:4; Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10.
  3. Acts 17:11; Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 14:29; Col. 2:8; 1 Thes. 5:21.
  4. For evangelical Christians who want to seriously pursue the life of the mind, see Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) and J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1997).
  5. The Great Ideas Online (www.TheGreatIdeas.org) is published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. Max Weismann, Co-Founder and Director. 845 North Michigan Avenue Suite 950W, Chicago, IL 60611. Phone: (312) 440-9200. Fax: (312) 440-0477. E-mail: [email protected].
  6. Mortimer J. Adler, Philosophers Who Believe: The Spiritual Journeys of 11 Leading Thinkers, ed. Kelly James Clark (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 203-21.
  7. Mortimer J. Adler, Intellect: Mind over Matter (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1990), 185.