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"Rules for Conducting a Discussion" by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler

Started by Recusant, August 20, 2010, 06:38:20 PM

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Quote from: Recusant
Quote from: humblesmurphWe talked about Adler in college.  My prof claimed he was a bigot.  Bigot or no, these seem like reasonable straight forward rules.  I'm glad you posted them. I would have never come across them otherwise.  This will help me improve my arguing style to extract more knowledge from discussions (and maybe piss less people off as well).  Thank you Recusant

You're most welcome!  I'm wondering on what grounds your professor accused Adler of bigotry?  In this article on the Democratic Paideia Project, the authors begin with a quote from Cornel West (certainly not somebody one thinks of as a bigot  ;)), and seem to find no conflict between his views and those of Adler. From the article:

QuoteWriting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and moved by the hard fought victories claimed by the feminist and civil rights movements, he [Adler] declared "we are on the verge of a new era in our national life."  As the result of these victories, he believed, "democracy has come into its own for the first time in this century. Not until this century have we conferred the high office of enfranchised citizenship on all our people, regardless of  sex, race, or ethnic origin."

This does not sound like the writing of a bigot.  I think that your professor was full of himself, and paradoxically, at the same time full of a particular agricultural by-product.

Yeah, I looked into that bigot claim after I posted that.  She might have been referencing this:

Wikipedia-Adler was a controversial figure in some circles who saw Adler's Great Books of the Western World project as Eurocentric and racially exclusive. Asked in a 1990 interview why his Great Books of the Western World list did not include any black authors, he simply said, "They didn't write any good books."

I don't think a single comment constitutes bigotry, but if she was referencing this, as a black author (her, not me) I could see why she would take offense.  Again, just guessing, she certainly didn't think any of her work should have been considered, but she found it hurtful that none of the Black authors she revered were seen fit by Adler to be included in this particular project.   Furthermore, the quote "They didn't write any good books" is an insensitive way to express what is likely a an honest opinion  if we take "good" to mean "good enough to be considered one of the Great Books of the Western World".   He's entitled to his opinion, I don't think that makes him a bigot.  However, I'm not inclined to agree with the assertion that this particular professor is full of anything, maybe just a little sensitive.  I wish I could remember her name, then I could just ask her.  Maybe I remembered the whole thing wrong.  Didn't mean to insult Adler, it was just an off the cuff remark.


Hey, I admit sometimes I'm full of it myself.  I'm not a professor who is standing in front of a class making damning remarks though, either.  I certainly didn't take your comment as an insult to Adler on your part; you made it quite clear that you were relaying the professor's thoughts. I'm not a particular devotee of Adler myself.  I read from the Great Books series when I was a kid.  The librarian was thrilled, because I was the only one who had touched them after they'd been sitting in the library well over a year.  I had no idea that Adler had been behind them until I saw the quote in the OP and looked into his background a bit.  He was not the sole figure behind the project; it was the work of a team.  He was a sort of front man for the project though.  In this essay he describes the process that the team went through in selecting the books.


[W]e chose the great books on the basis of their relevance to at least 25 of the 102 great ideas. Many of the great books are relevant to a much larger number of the 102 great ideas, as many as 75 or more great ideas, a few to all 102 great ideas. In sharp contrast are the good books that are relevant to less than 10 or even as few as 4 or 5 great ideas. We placed such books in the lists of Recommended Readings to be found in the last section in each of the 102 chapters of the "Syntopicon." Here readers will find many twentieth-century female authors, black authors, and Latin American authors whose works we recommended but did not include in the second edition of the Great Books.

To complete the picture of the criteria that controlled our editorial process of selection, it is necessary for me to mention a number of things that we definitely excluded from our deliberations.

We did not base our selections on an author's nationality, religion, politics, or field of study; nor on an author's race or gender. Great books were not chosen to make up quotas of any kind; there was no "affirmative action" in the process.

In the second place, we did not consider the influence exerted by an author or a book on later developments in literature or society. That factor alone did not suffice to merit inclusion. Scholars may point out the extraordinary influence exerted by an author or a book, but if the three criteria stated above were not met, that author or book was not to be chosen. Many of the great books have exerted great influence upon later generations, but that by itself was not the reason for their inclusion.

I apologize for insulting your professor.  I still maintain that she was wrong in her assessment of the man.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken


Adler is the one credited with the "They didn't write any good books" quote, not the panel that decided on the selections.  He may be a bigot, he may not be. It seems immaterial, but what I do find interesting is:

Wikipedia-After debates about what to include and how to present it, with an eventual budget of $2,000,000, the project was ready. It was presented at a gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City on April 15, 1952. In his speech, Hutchins said "This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind." The first two volumes would be presented to Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and U.S. President Harry S. Truman.

These Great Books were trumpeted as the voice of the West.  Adler may call it "affirmative action", but it seems appropriate that there be some non-white male representation.  This looks like a celebration of white men, by white men, for white men.  Not one woman made enough of a contribution to be included?  Not one man that wasn't Caucasian?  It seems to me that instead of stating in a matter of fact way that "They didn't write any good books"  Adler could have conceded that there may have been some academic bias in the selection process.  The suggestion that this was a completely objective undertaking and that "affirmative action" would be the only way that non-whites or women could be included seems unlikely.  It seems more likely that he and his colleagues simply weren't familiar enough with certain schools of thought to include non-whites or females.  If the selection panel for the West's "meaning for mankind" actually contained some women and non-whites  and all the selected authors still ended up being white males, maybe folks wouldn't have called shenanigans in the first place.  Maybe then Adler wouldn't have been backed into the position of making such a statement as "They didn't write any good books".  If such were the case, maybe my prof wouldn't have been standing in front of a class making damning statements about the front man and defender of this whole undertaking.


Thanks for bringing Adler's statement to this discussion.  I looked at the article in which it appeared titled "A Curmudgeon Stands His Ground."  I think that the quote from Gates is particularly relevant:

QuoteHenry Louis (Skip) Gates, Duke University professor and perhaps the country's most influential and fashionable black scholar, lambastes the "Great Books" committee for a "profound disrespect for the intellectual capacities of people of color--red, brown or yellow.

"Here was a chance for Mortimer Adler and company to redefine what our notion of the great tradition really is. But rather than to confront the challenge of the 21st Century . . . they turned backward toward the 19th Century. That will be seen historically as a great mistake."

I agree that it seems the committee, and Adler in particular, were stuck in a mindset from an earlier time, and failed to understand that including other viewpoints would bring immense value to the collection. (There were four women authors whose writings made it into the "Great Books," but that does not excuse the overwhelming preponderance of white male authors, to the exclusion of just about any other voices.)

In the article, Adler sounds like an old man whose patience has worn thin defending the committee's choices, and who made a harsh and unjustified blanket statement. In light of his celebration of the advances made in the 20th century toward achieving the ideals of equality in the society of the US, I think that your professor was speaking from emotion rather than from an examination of Adler's actual views. He sounds to me as if he was not a man to mince words.  If he truly held bigoted views, I don't think that his statements would leave any doubt.  Toward the end of the article, he's asked about a specific case mentioned by Gates:

Quote[Gates' objection is presented:] "There is no way (you) could say with a straight face that (the black American sociologist, W.E.B.) Du Bois' 'The Souls of Black Folk,' the greatest work ever written by a person of color in his country, did not satisfy the three criteria of greatness."

[Adler responds:] "There's no question that Du Bois was a scholar. . . . But we left out all these white scholars of equal eminence."

In my opinion, his defense of the choices of the committee was wrong, but nothing that I've read by or about him so far suggests to me that Adler was a bigot.

I brought the piece in the OP here in case anybody found it useful.  I might be wrong about Adler.  If anybody can point to a sentence or phrase in "Rules for Conducting a Discussion" which has the remotest hint of bigotry, I'll swiftly delete it. (I'm positive that no such taint can be found, but the challenge might give people a reason to read it carefully.   ;))

Finally;  I really appreciate that you've given me the incentive to learn more about Dr. Adler, humblesmurf.
"Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and above all, love of the truth."
— H. L. Mencken



I appreciate this discussion.  I hope you'll excuse the derail.  At this point, I'm clearly just playing devil's advocate.  I have no opinion of Adler.  I like the rules, I'll check out the Great Books, and learn more about him. I'll be better for the experience.  I also appreciate you correcting me about the female authors.

Back to the bigot thing.  I think my prof defines bigotry differently than you.  It's a great thing to help other people in the ways that Adler has.  He has done great things for society as a whole and minorities specifically.  My prof may or may not have been aware of these contributions.  However, it is entirely possible to fiercely fight for the equal treatment of black people and hold a negative opinion of their intelligence.  I am bigoted against people who believe that Elvis is still alive, but I believe that they should have equal rights. Let's call them Elvisites.  All things being equal, I think that an Elvisite is dumber than  non-Elvisite.   That's not to say that all Elvisites are dumb, just dumber than their otherwise equal non-Elvisite counterpart.  It could be the case that an individual Elviste could be smarter than an individual non-Elvisite.  Adler could well be guilty of this kind of intellectual bigotry towards blacks, and nothing that I have read suggests otherwise.  

The intermingling of the races is one of the defining features of the West.  To include a white authored work with a prominent black character like say, Nigger Jim, in Twain's "Huck Finn", but not  include a single Black author strikes me as odd.  Why is Twain more equipped to deal with the race issue than Dubois?   The West as we know it today was literally birthed out of the wombs of women and built on the backs of blacks.  The mere fact that it wasn't  important to Adler that the stories of women and blacks be told in their own words in his "Great Books" could be construed as intellectual bigotry without an irrational appeal to emotion.


I'm guessing that Huckleberry Finn was included because in form it is widely recognized as the first modern novel, although I never really understood that argument.