Wisdom Swimming Upsteam in the Rapids of Modern Culture

The following article is from Kairos Journal and is a challenge to the prevailing notion that children should be sheltered from any real effort in the attaining of knowledge. Adler pushes against the idea that childhood is a period of “delight … [and] the indulgence of impulses.” Parents, take note, a child inebriated with electronic pacifiers at age 8 is not being set up for success at age 18.

Side note: Chuck Colson was present at Adler’s baptism, and wrote powerfully about the power of the gospel in Adler’s later life.

Learning is a Pain

mortimer-adlerMortimer Adler (1902-2001)

Philosopher and educator, Mortimer Adler wrote on everything from how to read a book to the existence of God; he sought to help people think clearly on any subject. This was partially the impetus behind his founding of organizations like the Institute for Philosophical Research, the Aspen Institute, and the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He was very quiet about matters of faith, but later in life he converted to Christianity and, in 1999, Roman Catholicism.

The following quotation about learning is from an essay published in the 1941 Journal of Educational Sociology. Adler saw a destructive dumbing-down trend in education and warned that there is never any learning without working.

One of the reasons why the education given by our schools is so frothy and vapid is that the American people generally—the parent even more than the teacher—wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain. Childhood must be a period of delight, of gay indulgence in impulses. It must be given every avenue for unimpeded expression, which of course is pleasant; and it must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty, which of course are painful. Childhood must be filled with as much play and as little work as possible. What cannot be accomplished educationally through elaborate schemes devised to make learning an exciting game must, of necessity, be forgone. Heaven forbid that learning should ever take on the character of a serious occupation—just as serious as earning money, and perhaps, much more laborious and painful . . .

Not only must we honestly announce that pain and work are the irremovable and irreducible accompaniments of genuine learning, not only must we leave entertainment to the entertainers and make education a task and not a game, but we must have no fears about what is “over the public’s head.” Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles. The school system which caters to the median child, or worse, to the lower half of the class; the lecturer before adults—and they are legion—who talks down to his audience; the radio or television program which tries to hit the lowest common denominator of popular receptivity—all these defeat the prime purpose of education by taking people as they are and leaving them just there.1


  1. Mortimer J. Adler, “Invitation to the Pain of Learning,” in Reforming EducationThe Opening of the American Mind (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988), 232-233, 235.

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