IN Conversation with Eric Cook

By Matt Donnowitz, Head of School

Friday, October 14, 2022

Recently, we were honored to have Mr. Eric Cook, President of the Society for Classical Learning (SCL), headquartered in Richmond, VA, and former Head of School at Covenant Classical School in Fort Worth, speak to our faculty and staff on the work of Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Jerome Adler. As compilers of the Great Books of the Western World, Hutchins and Adler taught that schools are where students begin their education rather than the place where they complete it; education is a life-long pursuit.

Enjoy this month’s [IN] Conversation—edited for brevity and clarity—with Mr. Eric Cook below.

Mr. Eric Cook:

The formative skills, virtues, and practices embedded in meaningful dialogue make The Great Conversation an essential part of a classical education. Sitting down with a Great Book and having meaningful dialogue with others helps you learn how to speak well, listen well, and take apart ideas in a careful way. You learn how to contemplate and synthesize ideas, articulate your understanding and perspective, and empathize with others who are doing the same.

I’ve recently spent my time thinking about the topic of The Great Conversation by studying the lives of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, who introduced the Great Books as a type of educational philosophy to the University of Chicago in the 20th century, and through their writings and publications, brought the collection of the Great Books to many people outside of the University as well.

In 1929, Robert Hutchins became President of the University of Chicago and, shortly after, invited Mortimer Adler to teach there. Both Hutchins and Adler were committed to the idea of making the Great Books the foundation of every student’s education. Yet they ran into obstacles and barriers at the University of Chicago because this type of thinking wasn’t very popular at the time. Influenced by the ideas of John Dewey, education, or rather, schooling, was becoming much more progressive, pragmatic, and vocational. Hutchins and Adler saw nothing wrong with vocational training, but education is something different. Outside the University of Chicago, they found much more traction as people hungered to read and discuss the Great Books, which contain the ideas that have shaped the Western world over the past several thousand years.

In 1946, Adler left the University of Chicago to focus on advancing the Great Books program and making these works more accessible to the general public. With a staff of 90 people working on this project for over a decade, Adler compiled and published the 54-volume set of the Great Books of the Western World.

In their work at the University, both Hutchins and Adler asked the question, “What is it we’re trying to do here?” They saw education as something more than simply what happens in school.

Today, as we think about classical, Christian education, we need to ask, “What is it we’re trying to do here?” We also need to ask, “How can more and more kids have access to this type of education?” Here are four ideas from Adler’s work that are worth our consideration. 

  1. Schooling vs. Education
    If you take the aim of a classical, Christian education—which most would say is wisdom and virtue—you have to come to terms with the fact that a person can’t be wise when he is young. So, how do we reconcile that reality with the aim of classical, Christian education? In essence, what we’re doing is not making students wise but equipping them to become wise over the course of their lives. We’re equipping students with the tools of learning so they can become educated in life. We want students to love learning so that they have the inclinations and habits to be life-long learners when they graduate from our institutions. Adler pointed out how many teachers do not understand that this is their goal, and regarding those teachers, said, “In their obsession with covering ground, and in the way in which they test or examine their students, they certainly do not act as if they understood that they were only preparing their students for education later in life rather than trying to complete it within the precincts of their own institution.” [Editor’s Note: You can read Mortimer Adler’s article Schooling Is Not Education here.]
  1. Rigor
    This is an old term and one I don’t like very much, but the fact is that every invitation to learning can promise pleasure only as a result of pain. There’s a difference between good pain and bad pain, and this is something we understand well in terms of physical training. The training of the mind is similar. The transformation of one’s mind and character cannot come without healthy struggle. The struggle should not simply be in the volume of work, but in the quality of it. We don’t need to overwhelm our students with work, and doing so can actually take the love of learning out of them.
  1. Access
    The best education is the best education for all. Wisdom and virtue should be the goal for every person without exception. Acquiring the skills, virtues, and dispositions to think well, write well, speak well, and live well, is for every person. While this can be done outside of school, school maximizes a person’s ability to become educated later in life. Adler recognized, however, that these opportunities weren’t always made available to every person. He said, “If education aims at the betterment of men by forming their habits and virtues, and if those virtues are the same for all regardless of natural capacity or circumstances, then the ends of education are the same for all and should be for all.” This was somewhat controversial at the time. The aim of a liberal education is wisdom and virtue, not vocational training or preparation for an occupation, and therefore it is an education for everyone, not just certain people. If you make good and capable men, they will make themselves good merchants, physicians, and lawyers.
  1. Faculty Culture
    Adler said that teachers must be regularly engaged with the Great Books themselves. We believe in the principle that Christ taught: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Teachers must embody the characteristics they are trying to instill in their students. This can be difficult because it requires time. But just as we should want students to learn from a place of rest, we should want our teachers to teach from a place of rest as well.

We aren’t simply trying to recreate the ancient Greek model of education or revive the medieval model of education. No, there are reasons we have gone beyond those models. We’re trying to make the great ideas that have shaped our world more accessible to students in an institutional setting so they can continue advancing toward wisdom and virtue over the course of their lives. 

Question & Answer

Question: Did Mortimer Adler advocate for less breadth and more depth of subject coverage? 

Mr. Cook: Yes, from the earliest years of schooling through college, he advocated that we should strive toward more substance with less volume. Education should be difficult, but not as a result of sheer volume, but rather, substance. Remember, we need to take the long view of what we’re trying to accomplish in our institutions. We aren’t simply trying to “cover” material. We need to go deeper because doing so forms the virtues, habits, and inclinations we are attempting to form in students.

Question: Can you explain how you developed your homework policy at Covenant Classical School?

Mr. Cook: When we shifted our focus to the long view rather than the short, we realized our approach to homework would, as a result, change significantly. We realized we were, at the time, beating our children down with the sheer volume of homework. Based on Mortimer Adler’s ideas, I wrote a philosophy of homework, which was really a philosophy of student engagement, that tied together our long-term aim with the daily expectations we had of our students. We concluded that our intent was to introduce students to great ideas and great works but not exhaust them with them. We set limits on homework in each subject and in each grade. This was difficult, but it changed the whole culture of the school. We wanted the idea of scholè—which is restful learning—to be a reality for our students. Most schools today don’t look or feel restful. However, we wanted our students’ experiences to be different. As a result, we saw better student engagement.


I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Mr. Eric Cook. Learn more about him and his work with the Society for Classical Learning here

In November, Dr. Christopher Perrin, co-founder of Classical Academic Press, educational consultant, and author, will join us to continue developing this year’s focus of The Great Conversation with our faculty and staff. I will write a similar newsletter next month for our school community following his visit.

In Him, 
Matt Donnowitz, Head of School

Read our [IN] Conversation with Dr. Pano Kanelos here.