Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Book review: A Guideboock to Learning by Mortimer Adler

I have a lot of respect for Mortimer J. Adler. His book How to Read a Book greatly improved how I read. I have always been a faster reader. I read the last Harry Potter in about six hours. How to Read a Book taught me to:

1) Mark books up. Before I treat books like gold. I never wrote in them. But writing in a book improves the process of absorbing the messages.

2) Build my own table of contents. In the front of many of my books I've made notes on the parts of the book that interested me.

3) Skim books. Before I would either ignore a book. Or once started I would always finish the book. Now I skim about half the books I pick up.

Recently I noticed A Guidebook to Learning: For a Lifelong Pursuit of Wisdom by Mortimer Adler at the library. On the strength of "How to Read a Book" I borrowed "A Guidebook to Learning."

"A Guidebook to Learning" is a short book of about 150 pages. It reads quickly, but has some profound thoughts.

Mortimer writes that our day and age is unique in history. Up till the 1800s a person could master most of the knowledge a civilization might have. But now information is exploding and there is no way to keep up. Because not all information is equal people need a structure for evaluating which subjects they should learn.

The book starts by covering how encyclopedias, universities and libraries all organize information alphabetically. The encyclopedias have a large number of articles, sorted alphabetically. Universities provide catalogs of courses, which are sorted alphabetically. Books in libraries are broken into sections, and within these sections the books are sorted alphabetically. Information organized alphabetically does not help the student figure out which information is important, and which information could be ignored or delayed in learning.

Mortimer covers twenty five hundred years of how Western Civilization has organized information. He explains how various people proposed teaching, their motivations, expections, and the approaches.

For example Plato structures his scheme for educating students around a goal of becoming the rulers. In his first phase students master gymnastics and music, then later analysis, reasoning and argument. In the second phase they learn mathematics, geometry, astronomy and more music.

And Francis Bacon broke education into memory, imagination and then reason.

The last part of the book gives suggestions how a modern learner can structure his continued education. Mortimer sees four stages to an education:

1) Information: the basic foundation of data, acquired bit by bit, as we move through life.
2) Knowledge: here information is acquired in a more systematic fashion.
3) Understanding: the learner can see relationships between knowledge and understands cause and effect.
4) Wisdom: here the can make wise use of what he understands.

Mortimer breaks an education into two groups. One is a core group of knowledge which he argues that everyone should master. The second is specialization knowledge. This could be for your job, like computer programming languages. Or it might be for a hobby, like bee keeping.

He challenges the reader to become an autodidact. He encourages us to read books, but to do more than read, to discuss the meaning of the books. For it is only by discussing that we can get additional insight into the meaning of a book.

This is a good book, well worth reading. I will probably buy it and have my daughters read it when they get older. And we'll then discuss the book.

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Maria said...

Thanks for reviewing this book. While it interests me, what interests me more is the first book you reviewed by him, How To Read A Book. Those first three points you mentioned have given me new lease on reading! I feel so bad that I skim and never finish soemtimes. I LOVE the idea of making your own table of contents. Very important, I think, to get the most out of reading.
Thanks and I'll be going to the library today in search of his books!

Henry Cate said...

"How To Read A Book" is a great book. I hope you are able to track it down.

Unknown said...

Dr. Adler was a brilliant and prolific author, educator, philosopher, and lecturer. He wrote more than 50 books and 200 articles, all of which can be read with pleasure and profit.

His most important book may be "The Time of Our Lives: The Ethics of Common Sense" by Mortimer Adler. In this book he summarizes and adds to Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy about what it means to live a good life, why we should live a good life, and how to live a good life.

For more information on Mortimer Adler and his work, visit The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas

Ken Dzugan
Senior Fellow and Archivist
The Center for the Study of The Great Ideas

Max Weismann said...

We have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more: