The Paideia Proposal is a K–12 educational reform plan proposed by Mortimer Adler. Adler was a prolific author, and references to the Paideia plan for educational reform can be found in a number of his books listed in the references below.
The Paideia Proposal is a system of liberal education intended for all children, including those who will never attend a university. It was a response to what Adler characterized as the United States' antidemocratic or undemocratic educational system, a holdover from the 19th century, when the understanding of universal suffrage and basic human rights fell short of 20th century expectations. Adler further believed that a system oriented primarily for vocational training has as its objective the training of slaves, not free men, and that the only preparation necessary for vocational work is to learn how to learn, since many skilled jobs would be disappearing.
As the Paidea Proposal developed, the original Paideia Group gave way to a National Center for the Paideia Program. That organization, which eventually became the National Paideia Center, formulated a Declaration of Principles.
- All children are educable;
- Education is never completed in school or higher institutions of learning, but is a lifelong process of maturity for all citizens;
- The primary cause of learning is the activity of the child's mind, which is not created by, but only assisted by the teacher;
- Multiple types of learning and teaching must be utilized in education, not just teacher lecturing, or telling;
- A student's preparation for earning a living is not the primary objective of schooling.
Adler stressed that the proposal is much more than just a return to the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. It is not simply a return to the values of classical civilization, but a return to what is of enduring value. It is a democratic proposal intended for the education of all, and not an elitist program as some have alleged. He also believed that individual differences, especially with respect to the natural endowments and natural environments from which children come, must be compensated by remedial or supplementary instruction and preschool tutoring, as needed.
He proposed a curriculum framework within which each state or school district could pluralistically vary constituent areas of study. The curriculum of the Paidea Proposal was divided into five broad categories, with the first three being conventionally intellectual. The fourth involved manual skills (not for a vocational purpose, but to acquire the mental agility of learning with one's hands), and the fifth category introduced students to the world of work:
- Language, Literature and the Fine Arts;
- Mathematics and Natural Science;
- History, Geography and Social Studies;
- Physical Education (12 years), and Manual Training including cooking, sewing, typing, machine repair (6 years);
- A general introduction to the world of work (last 2 years).
Teaching and learning styles
The essence of the proposal involved three necessary types of learning and respective types of teaching: knowing what, knowing how, and knowing why: One of these was lacking from present-day practice after kindergarten and first grade.
Didactic instruction (traditional lecturing) was by and large the primary mode of teaching being applied in the traditional system. Its purpose was for the acquisition of organized knowledge or facts. Adler placed the least value on this form of knowledge, arguing that it generally fades away with time, asserting for example that he had forgotten almost all of the information imparted to him in this fashion.
Coaching is performed so that the student may acquire skills, such as reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem-solving, estimating, measuring, and exercising critical judgement. Skills are habits, not memories, thus are much more durable than memories, especially memories not based upon understanding. Skills must also be maintained to remain sharp, and are less durable than the understanding achieved through the Socratic method.
The Socratic method (extended discussion) is the only path to understanding basic ideas and values. This cannot be acquired through didactic teaching or coaching. The basis of discussion cannot be textbooks, but must be works of art and books that deal with ideas and values. Adler states that our teachers are totally untrained for this. The seminars would be constructed in two dimensions. In the vertical dimension, the teacher would provide and order questions aimed at the development of understanding ideas (not for covering predetermined ground). In a horizontal dimension, discussion would be open to all possible answers from students in response to the questions. If a seminar is too open in both dimensions, or focused primarily within the horizontal dimension, it may become loose and undirected. When it is directed and controlled in both dimensions or focused primarily on the vertical dimension, it becomes didactic and dogmatic. Seminar styles would vary widely depending on subject matter and participants, but Adler felt that any teacher who follows his prescription and is also a superior learner, cannot fail to allow his students to also become inspired and lifelong learners.
- Reforming Education, p. 309
- Adler, Mortimer J.; On Behalf of the Members of the Paideia Group (1982). The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-684-84188-6.
- Adler, Mortimer J.; On Behalf of the Members of the Paideia Group (1983). Paideia Problems and Possibilities: A Consideration of Questions Raised by The Paideia Proposal. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. ISBN 0-02-013050-3. (pbk.)
- Adler, Mortimer J. (1984). The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus: Essays by the Paideia Group. ISBN 0-02-013040-6.
- Adler, Mortimer J.; Geraldine Van Doren (1988). Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-500551-0.