Cambridge, Mass. — For Mortimer Adler the choice is clear -- either United States school-age youngsters all get a strong and thorough grounding in the basic liberal arts, or we give up being a democracy.
Dr. Adler doesn't advocate a partial reform of the schools, a modest curriculum change, or a redesign of the syllabus. His program for all K-12 schools is totally revolutionary.
He bases the need for dramatic change on the need for our democracy to be operated by an informed citizenry. And also on what, with tongue-in-cheek, he refers to as an ''audacious notion:''
''That every child (every person) has a mind capable of doing and thinking grand things.''
Dr. Adler wants the schools to provide ''general learning which should be in possession of all children.''
To provide this liberal education, this thoughtful scholar would remove from the schools everything that does not pertain to this learning.Hence, all vocational, technical, business, and athletic training would become extra-curricular.
And the schools would devote their time and energies to a fully prescribed basic curriculum with only one elective offered in the final four years of high school. And that elective would be a second foreign language.
Dr. Adler, director of the Institute for Philosophical Research in Chicago, laid out his plans for a total reform of US schools during an invitational meeting at Harvard hosted by Richard Hunt, a senior lecturer at Harvard, and Theodor R. Sizer, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Dr. Adler, challenged by many school teachers and directors at the meeting, argued that the present system is not equal -- that all children in grades 1-12 are not getting the same quality of instruction.
He was challenged immediately: ''But what about all those pupils who aren't able to learn?''
He asked that the following analogy not be held too long to a strong light, but offered it as an example of why all children should be given, for all the years they are in school, the same quality of instruction.
''Take two cartons,'' he explained. ''One holds a quart; the other a pint. Fill the quart container with cream.''
He noted then that the pint container has previously been filled with skimmed milk or even ''dirty water.'' And then Dr. Adler concluded, ''Fill the pint container with cream, too.''
He cited as a possible motto for his plan: ''The best education for the best is the best education for all.''
Dr. Adler is not proposing a specific curriculum, but a whole new purpose and kind of schooling:
One which does not sort children as they move along through the grades.
One which does not provide specific skill training within school hours.
One which does not provide driver education, competitive athletics, or health and sex education.
Further, this dynamic academic program calls for a complete change in the method of teaching generally in use in today's US schools.
Briefly, he would permit the use of didactic teaching for the ''acquisition of organized knowledge.'' That's not quite the way such knowledge is presently passed between teacher and pupil.
But he would adopt for academic use - particularly for the development of intellectual skills -- coaching now generally reserved for athletes and music students.
This one-to-one intensive, diagnostic style of teaching would be applied to supervision of practice in reading, writing, speaking, calculating, problem-solving, observing, measuring, estimating, and so forth.
And finally -- and perhaps the method most unused in today's schools - the Socratic, questioning for ''enlarged understanding of ideas and values.''
There was a general outcry of disbelief on the part of many of the educators and scholars listening to Dr. Adler's presentation.
''But what about the undisciplined behavior of so many kids? . . .
''But what about those who don't want to learn? . . .
''But what about the teachers who don't know how to coach or lead Socratic seminar discussions? . . . ''But . . . .''
Dr. Adler maintained: ''The absence of intellectual stimulation and of expecting less of certain students causes the anti-social behavior and poor school performance.''
Pressed further, he asserted: ''The heart of the matter is that learning must be active, not passive.''
And where should skill training go? To the junior and community colleges. To specialized schools. All to come after the students have completed the compulsory, basic liberal-arts program.
And the toughest question of all for last: Are there enough teachers who know how to coach and to be Socratic to fill the classrooms for 30 million school-age youngsters?
No, there are not. But Dr. Adler thinks we must look elsewhere than to the schools of education for master teachers.
He maintains that there are scholars with the ability to be didactic, to coach, and to lead through discourse -- and that, should the schools need and want such scholars, should the purpose of schooling be dramatically revised, these scholars would come forward to help.
Catching him alone for a moment, this reporter asked what he would fear most about his radical program. That is, if the worst of all possible worlds came to pass, what would it be?
He hesitated, then said it would be for the program to appear in rhetoric and not in actuality.
His Harvard presentation is a forerunner; his book outlining his proposal will appear this fall. It is certain to set the academic world to buzzing.
And if the ''paideia'' program - the name he's given to his revolution -- has its way, US public schools and the methods used to teach in those schools will undergo an enormous transformation in the near future.