Adler on Liberal Education

I wanted to write a follow-up tonight to my last post, refuting the silly (if a bit scary) notion of celebrity gossip as a legitimate form of moral discourse, but I strained my neck last night, and have been unable to spend enough time in front of the computer. I’ll have to come back for that. Instead, I’ve been trying to get through a Mortimer J Adler book I started in late February but wasn’t able to do much with in March.

I’m not prepared to get into too much detail about it yet, as I’ve only just begun part four of the book, but it is really a fascinating read. Adler, whom I consider one of the great American minds, was always concerned with promoting liberal education, and that is the simple purpose of A Guidebook to Learning. He begins by poking some fun at what he calls alphabetiasis – the modern tendency to order our knowledge alphabetically – which makes for easy lookup for reference purposes, but provides a learner no context for understanding the relationships between ideas or bodies of knowledge, let alone any (gasp!) hierarchy of value that might exist among them.

He wrote this book more than twenty years ago – before the ubiquity of personal computing – and I wonder where he would have gone with digital media’s potential for multiple layering of content relationship paths, coupled with it’s almost inherent difficulty in imposing such order.

Anyway, he spends probably half the book surveying ways in which the cataloging of knowledge has changed from the topically-ordered and hierarchically-structured understanding of the ancients, through the scientific revolution, to the egalitarian but uninstructive contemporary models. He sees in modernity, as many people do, a great leap in information, and even knowledge, but he observes that nobody is ever heard calling our age an age of increase in understanding – let alone wisdom. He also rightly notes that there is a hierarchy of importance in these various goods of the mind, moving upwards from information to knowledge to understanding, and finally, to wisdom. Adler would have us consider that perhaps the “information age” has created a kind of mental imbalance in our cultural measure of learning that over-emphasizes the trivial at the expense of what is of real value.

One neat idea he identifies in the book is a distinction made in medieval thought between the use of the mind in the first intention and the second intention, where the first intention refers to the knowledge and understanding of reality, and the second intention refers to knowledge and understanding of the branches of knowledge by which reality is known. In modern, techno-parlance, we could almost say that second intention knowledge is meta knowledge through which we are able to comprehend the knowledge of particulars in first intention thought. In other words, the knowledge of mathematics and mathematic principles provides the framework through which we understand the reality of time in an intelligible way. Inversely, first intention knowledge would continually flesh out second intention knowledge.

I think this model does a pretty good job of explaining the nature of creativity or ingenuity, where the human mind is capable of taking knowledge learned from experience in one particular situation, and applying it to other situations where it can be employed. This extrapolation is admittedly a long way from Adler’s attempt to explain the challenges of categorizing all the fields of human knowledge, but I think it’s interesting to consider how creativity might be dependent on the robust health of, not only generalized knowledge, but generalized knowledge about knowledge. Even if this weren’t an era of hyper-specialization in which the arts have largely been reduced to a banal pop kitsch, I think Adler would agree with me.