In “The Three Columns Revisited,” Mortimer Adler goes into greater detail on the nature of leading seminars in order to help correct some misconceptions about his previous discussion on the three columns from his great work The Padeia Proposal. One of the more interesting discussions in this essay relates to the choice of reading for the seminar. Adler provides four guidelines. First, and what Adler identifies as the most important, is that the material should be “over the heads of the students” so that they have to “reach up” to understand what they have read (298). Second, the assigned reading length must be short enough to allow for adequate discussion in the time allotted for a single seminar (298). Third, “teachers should never assign things to be read that do not interest them or catch their minds in a way that involves them in asking questions about its meaning as they make an effort to understand it” (298). I quote Adler in his words here because I find it odd that he has chosen to write this in the negative, of what not to do, instead of the positive, what to do. Finally, Adler suggests that instructors should pay no attention to the field or subject matter of the material. Rather, “a haphazard chronological ordering of them is much better than any attempt to order the materials to that they cover themes or topics in a particular subject matter” (298-299).
The fourth of these suggestions emerges as the most intriguing to me, although I find all of them helpful. When I first read his fourth suggestion, I wrote a question mark in the margin. I thought, “Do I agree with this?” One of the courses I teach is a mix of church history and theology. In the past I have taken several different approaches, one year alternating between history units and theology units, other years attempting to cover the history one semester and the theology the next. In each case, however, I was taking a thematic approach to the theology units. Although this had its benefits of unity in terms of content, I was never fully satisfied that students were making the connections I wanted them to make or thought they should make. Taking Adler’s advice and adopting a “haphazard chronological ordering” would seem to be a step in the wrong direction, at least according to typical teaching methodology. But as I read further and thought about it some more, I found that I had already been making changes in this direction for several years. My plans for next year include reading primary source material chronologically through the history of the church. I have paid more attention to picking selections from key figures that meet Adler’s first three criteria, and I have completely ignored whether the topics have anything explicitly to do with one another. Yet I am confident that this approach, that in my understanding at least fits Adler’s idea of point four, will yield far more fruitful results. The reason for this confidence stems from my belief that students who possess a good understanding of the overarching narrative of history and who learn to read and discuss well writings that are above their head, will, in time, begin to make the connections themselves. Then, instead of me trying to cull the information together for them and teach them to learn it in this systematized fashion, I will instead be able to encourage them in these insights, help deepen their thoughts, and then point them in the direction of resources that speak to those specific topics of which they have shown an interest or keen insight.
I would love your thoughts on what you have found effective in choosing reading material. What do you think of Adler’s four points? Please comment on this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All references to this article are taken from Mortimer Adler, “The Three Columns Revisited (1987),” Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, ed. Geraldine Van Doren (New York: MacMillan, 1988).
Adler explores this concept of reaching up for material above our heads in more detail in How to Read a Book, which I highly recommend.