Reminiscences of Mortimer J. Adler

Some reminiscences about Jacques, from my late dear friend and colleague, Mortimer Adler


My memory would have placed my first meeting with Jacques Barzun in the great books seminar that Mark Van Doren and I taught, but a recent conversation with Barzun has corrected that impression. Though he was a member of that group, he reminded me that we first met in the laboratory when he was a student in my class on Experimental Psychology. He also reminded me that, after the laboratory sessions were over, we rearranged the laboratory tables and played Ping Pong together. I donít think we have played Ping Pong since then, but we have kept in touch, even though his career at Columbia and mine at Chicago took us in different directions. In the last twenty years, we have again become more closely associated, in the work of The Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies and in the editing of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Like Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun went on to become one of the luminaries on the faculty of Columbia University, an internationally recognized scholar and author, a member of the History Department, dean of the Graduate Faculties, and provost of the University. While we have had our philosophical differences over the years, some of which still persist, they have always been overcome by the deep bonds of intellectual sympathy that unite us in our judgments about the sorry state of education and of culture in the United States, about the relation of the sciences to the humanities, and about one or another academic fad that gains attention and is in vogue for a short time.

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In 1977, I had lunch with Jacques Barzun, who had been a student of mine in the college at Columbia University and had become a lifelong friend. A Nation at Risk had just been published by the U.S. Department of Education. Jacques and I discussed that report. We agreed with its indictment of the failure of the schools and with its appraisal of the seriousness of the plight the United States faced in the future, if that failure were not remedied. But we dismissed as inadequate the measures proposed for correcting the situation.

The gloom we obviously shared led me to ask Jacques whether we should not try to do something about it. What can we do? he queried. My reply was: let us form a small group of teachers and educators whom we know to be sufficiently like minded about the need for drastic educational reform, and have them meet for the purpose of coming up with a better solution of the problem than the one outlined in A Nation at Risk.

To do this required some financing to pay the expenses of such meetings. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation had just come into existence. Their son, Roderick, was quarreling with its first Board of Trustees about his idea for MacArthur Fellowships. Rod, who had been a student of mine at the University of Chicago, asked me to help him persuade his colleagues on the Board to adopt his plan. I agreed to do so, and in return asked him to try to get the foundation to finance the meetings of the little group that Jacques Barzun and I had in mind. Rod attended all the meetings of the original Paideia Group, though he contributed little to the formulation of the plan. The prime contributors were Jacques Barzun, Clifton Fadiman, Richard Hunt, Theodore Sizer, Dennis Gray, and Alonzo Crim.

With two successive grants, amounting to a total of $150,000, we had the funds needed to invite persons to join the group and hold conferences at the Institute in Chicago, beginning in 1978 and continuing in the three years to follow. I cannot remember how the word paideia came to be used as the name for the group and its project of educational reform. One of the meanings of that Greek word is the general learning that everyone should have. Without being aware of that significance, many persons have had contact with the word, for it is to be found as one of the two roots in the English word encyclo-paedia. The two roots together signify the comprehensive circle of general learning.

The members of this group met frequently in the years 1979–1982. They wrote position papers and supplied ancillary ideas and formulations. In particular, I owe a special debt to Jacques Barzun for the work he did in editing my first draft of The Paideia Proposal (1982). As edited by Jacques Barzun, the other members of the group were willing to have their names attached to it, acknowledging that it was written on their behalf.

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After oneís family, comes oneís friends. Here, too, I have been extremely fortunate. In a sense, of course, one chooses oneís friends, but acquaintance with the individuals with whom one later elects to develop a friendship is a happenstance.

Two individuals whom I became acquainted with accidentally because they happened to be students of mine in my early years of teaching at Columbia University, Clifton Fadiman and Jacques Barzun, have developed into lifelong friends, and have also become the friends of my wife, Caroline. I cannot recount all the ways in which friendship with them has influenced my life and my work; I am grateful that they have grown old along with me and are still alive.

Max Weismann and Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001) founded the Center for the Study of Great Ideas.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial