The Paideia Proposal was an educational reform plan proposed by Mortimer Adler in the USA. The description of the plan below is drawn from the article Reconstituting the Schools, included in the 1988 edition of his book Reforming Education, The Opening of the American Mind.

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 our 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.

The Paidea Proposal was based upon the following assumptions, which contradict beliefs widely held by educators:

  1. All children are educable
  2. Education is never completed in school or higher institutions of learning, but is a life long process of maturity for all citizens
  3. The primary cause of learning is the activity of the child’s mind, which is not created by, but only assisted by the teacher
  4. Multiple types of learning and teaching must be utilized in education, not just teacher lecturing, or telling
  5. A student’s preparation for earning a living is not the primary objective of schooling

The relevance of the Paidea Proposal to our present difficulties is obvious. Clearly the damaging assumptions that Adler challenges are still around today and they still damage the spirit and capacities of today’s children and adults.

However, and at the same time, it could be said that many of the failed reforms of past decades have also drawn on some of Adler’s counter-cultural assumptions. His optimism about the capacity of educators to include more and more children within their academic disciplines also seems to have fed a decline in academic standards and discipline as educators are told to be more inclusive and more flexible.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we continue to see education as merely a professional process that is done to our children – to prepare them for labour markets. If we were to truly follow through on Adler’s assumptions would we not want to consider a more radical approach to education? The springboard for a child’s education is the love of the family, not the love of educators. We want our teachers to love and honour their subjects and find effective methods for communicating those subjects to our children. But we erode the family’s authority and responsibility by taking away form them the ability to shape their child’s education.

Strangers are much less likely to see potential within a child than loving parents.

The community does have a wider role here, both to support and discipline the family in the fulfilling of their responsibility. But no school-only approach is really going to work for most children. We need to begin developing family-based approaches to education.

Furthermore we need to challenge the notion that the state is competent to set a curriculum based on its flawed guesstimates of what the labour market will demand at some point in the future (all the more flawed because markets don’t ‘demand’ anything). Again we may still want to think about explicit accounts of the basic skills that are critical to our citizenship – but we should much more realistic about our capacity to foresee the market-value of skills we try and impose on our children today. Listening to the child’s capacities is more likely to be a reliable foundation for meaningful success that any sketch of our future economy.

It does not help those who are educationally disenfranchised to include them in a system that is flawed and failing. Instead we must attend to the conditions that really support motivated learning, personal development and real excellence in multiple fields: academic and non-academic.