Shortly thereafter, several prominent American intellectuals rejected the antiacademic standpoint of the educational establishment and proposed a new, highly academic program for training the intellect. Among them were Robert Maynard Hutchins, the youthful president of the University of Chicago; and Mortimer J. Adler, a relentless autodidact and possibly the only person in history to receive a PhD (in psychology from Columbia University) without a high school or college diploma.

Together, these two led a concerted campaign on behalf of a “Great Books” program. Hutchins and Adler maintained both that “a liberal education was unthinkable without a grounding in the Great Books”—the classic works of Western civilization—and that such academic training was the proper purpose of education.

For students to take on such works in high school and college, they need a solid foundation in reading, writing, math, and science. Adler later published The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto (1982) and The Paideia Program: An Educational Syllabus (1984), which called for terminating the Progressives’ segmented educational system. He argued that

a single elementary and secondary school program for all students would ensure the upgrading of the curriculum and the quality of instruction to serve the needs of the brightest and to [educationally] lift the … least advantaged. He proposed that … vocational … training be given only after students had completed a full course of basic education in the humanities, arts, sciences, and language.

Starting in the late 1920s and continuing through the 1930s, Hutchins and Adler taught a seminar titled “Great Books of the Western World” at the University of Chicago and elsewhere. The reading list included primary sources from scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, literary figures, and sundry diverse thinkers—such great minds as Plato, Euclid, Galileo, Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and others.

Hutchins decried vocational training in education, arguing that an employer could train a thinking person in vocational skills in a matter of weeks. He claimed that

the object of general education should be “the training of the mind”… . The kind of educational program that was needed … would teach students to appreciate the importance of ideas, to understand history, the fine arts and literature, and to grasp the principles of science.

Hutchins was a young, brilliant, eloquent spokesman for intellectual training, and his message received an enthusiastic reception from newspapers, magazines, and the general public.

But not from the schools of education.


William Heard Kilpatrick led the onslaught against the pro-academic educators.

Kilpatrick wasted no time in confronting the Montessori challenge. In his critical 1914 booklet, The Montessori System Examined, he dismissed Montessori’s methods as offering nothing in educational theory that was simultaneously novel and correct. Among his numerous criticisms, the most salient was his objection to academic training being introduced at such an early age. He made the narrow criticism that phonics worked well for such a phonetic language as Italian but was ill-suited to “the unphonetic character of the English language.”

More broadly, he rejected academic training altogether as inappropriate for three- to five-year-olds. He wrote that education “is much more than the acquisition of knowledge from books. And there is reason to fear that the presence of books makes more difficult that other part of education.” He also maintained that “reading and writing might better be postponed to a later period.” He argued that such intellectual training “tends to divert the attention of … [a] child from other … possibly more valuable parts of education,” and he agreed “with those who would exclude these formal school arts from the kindergarten period.”