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What We Can Learn From Two Great American Teachers

06/28/2012 04:44 pm 16:44:26 | Updated Aug 28, 2012

Great teachers don't often make it into the history books. A recent Web search for "100 greatest teachers" turned up a lot of sites about golf gurus but nothing like what I was actually seeking. In this, and subsequent posts, I intend to offer brief portraits of some of history's greatest teachers. Of course, the list will be idiosyncratic, reflecting my own personal biases and beliefs. But my goal is to provide insight into the important role that educators play in shaping society.

I thought I would start with two teachers from opposite sides of the political spectrum who happened to share the same last name. More importantly, they shared a deep belief in the value of the individual and the ability of each of us to grow through learning.

Mortimer Adler was a conservative Catholic convert who taught philosophy at the University of Chicago. Adler believed in the power of great books and ideas to enrich the life of everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances. He fiercely opposed vocational training in high schools because it relegated poor and working-class children to second-class citizenship and closed the door to their intellectual advancement.

Adler's best-selling Great Books of the Western World, a 54-volume series he co-edited in the 1950s, brought philosophical inquiry into American homes. His belief that every person could better him or herself through reading and reflection effectively made Adler the nation's teacher. His now-classic text How to Read a Book insisted that every individual could learn to think critically and read analytically.

Alfred Adler was born in Austria in 1870 and was one of Sigmund Freud's early supporters. A socialist, Adler believed psychoanalysis could help human beings achieve a more humane and healthy society. He eventually drifted away from strict Freudianism, however, and turned his attention to the role that feelings play in everyday life. Specifically, he was concerned with feelings of inferiority in children. He realized that feelings of inferiority could severely hamper a young person's ability to mature and life a productive life.

Alfred Adler immigrated to the United States where he became a popular lecturer. He enlightened a generation of parents, teachers and caregivers about the long-term, psychologically damaging effects of corporal punishment and the benefits of a more thoughtful approach to childrearing. Adler was as against coddling and pampering as he was against physical abuse, but he made it clear that parents were responsible for much of the bad behavior of their own children. Hitting a child, he said, practically guaranteed to turn that child into an angry, wounded criminal.

Neither Mortimer nor Alfred Adler was perfect. They were both influenced by the prejudices of their time: Mortimer Adler was blatantly ethnocentric in his view of "Great Books," and Alfred Adler was what we would now call heterosexist (he argued that homosexuality was a developmental failure). Nevertheless, they were two teachers who believed deeply in the ability of the human spirit to triumph over weakness and ignorance. All in all, they helped usher in a more humanistic, compassionate age.

In a time when compassion and understanding are in short supply, and when anti-intellectualism is on the rise, we would all do well to remember some of the lessons of these two great American teachers. From Mortimer Alder, we are reminded that all people deserve the opportunity to learn how to think for themselves. From Alfred Adler, we can keep in mind the central role that feelings play in a child's life. If we began treating every student as both capable of greatness and deserving of genuine understanding, we would go far toward building a better society than the one we have today.

David Allyn is the Director of Education for New Jersey SEEDS, an organization that serves high-achieving, low-income students by providing exceptional academic opportunities. He holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Harvard University.