Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Mortimer J. Adler
“Not to engage in the pursuit of ideas is to live like ants instead of like men.”

Mortimer J. Adler (1902–2001)
Philosopher and Educator
GSAS 1928
Faculty 1923–29

For much of the twentieth century, as an author, teacher, and editor, Adler propagated the Great Books of Western civilization as a moral and intellectual basis for a well-educated public. He wrote or edited more than fifty books, two of the most influential being How to Read a Book (1940) and How to Think About War and Peace (1944). In 1943, Adler conceived the idea of compiling the Great Books of the Western World, 54 volumes containing 443 works by 74 authors. He served as associate editor of the project, published in 1952 by the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the University of Chicago. He also edited the two-volume Syntopicon, an index of the collection's main ideas.

Adler's Great Books passion was nurtured at Columbia. Deciding upon a career as a philosopher at age 17 after reading Plato's Dialogues, he attended Columbia College on scholarship, finishing the four-year program in three years, but not graduating because he refused to take the required swimming test. He then entered Columbia's graduate school, where his teaching duties over five years included co-teaching, with Mark Van Doren, a section of General Honors. This course, invented by John Erskine in 1921, was the forerunner of Literature Humanities in the undergraduate Core Curriculum. After earning his Ph.D. in psychology in 1928, he was invited to the University of Chicago by its president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, to create a Great Books program there. Adler taught at Chicago for twenty years, and at the Aspen Institute and St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland. For his entire life, he remained active in what he called the great-books movement and in educational reform, and continued to lecture and write into his nineties.

Charles Van Doren salutes "one of the twentieth century's most influential and iconoclastic intellects."

John Van Doren on his father's and Adler's introduction of the Great Books to Columbia.

Mark Van Doren

The legendary teacher shared Adler's enthusiasm for the Great Books.

Write Columbia's History

Columbia's history, as seen by those who have studied, taught, and worked here.

Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

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