Many Americans these days are grumbling about the quality of their political leaders. Character and education seem to be less important than being telegenic, possessing lots of money and having a good head of hair. The late Mortimer J. Adler, who once was arguably America’s best-educated citizen, had something to say about the state of politics. Having co-authored the Great Books of the Western World reading program, he knew a great deal about persons of extraordinary character and fine education. Yet, his writing was accessible to modern readers. Time magazine praised him as “a philosopher for everyman.” He turned his attention to the state of politics in his 1987 book We Hold These Truths: Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution.
Always a candid commentator on events of the day, Adler questioned why there is an “absence in our society today of statesmen or persons in public life of a caliber comparable to those who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787” who gathered at the First Constitutional Convention. He suggested that “the best minds in our much larger population do not go into politics as they did in the eighteenth century.” He added that today’s citizens are not nearly as well-educated, nor are their characters as well-formed. He did not believe that people in 1987 had the kind of schooling that would enable them to read intelligently works dealing with political philosophy and moral character. He called for a radical reform of basic schooling in the United States. If Adler were alive today (he died in 2001) he would have been appalled to witness how education and the cultivation of character have actually gotten worse.
Adler, ever the educator, conducted many seminars with high school students. Thanks to these seminars, students were reading the Declaration of Independence for the first time. Over a period of 35 years, he conducted executive seminars in Colorado under the auspices of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies. The participants were graduates of prestigious colleges and universities who had achieved positions of eminence in society. Nonetheless, Adler found that their understanding of the basic ideas in the Declaration of Independence and in the Preamble of the Constitution were not discernably better than what he found among high school students. To his chagrin, he found the same sad results when he conducted a discussion of the Declaration with leading members of President John F. Kennedy’s Cabinet and his political entourage.
The health of democracy depends on the quality of education that its citizens receive. Adler’s evaluation of the political situation in 1987 is worth revisiting. There is little evidence to suggest that the state of politics is better in the present era. One has good reason to wonder, in the year 2016, whether that once hallowed phrase, “all men are created equal,” found in the Declaration of Independence, is properly understood by all the members of the United States Supreme Court.
A sober look at the present situation should motivate educators to work harder than ever.