Adler was a proponent of educational reforms in the form of building on John Erskine’s Great Books programs and went so far as to teach us to read properly before editing and presenting a fantastic collection of books in the form of the Great Books of the Western World by way of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Adler most often suggested consuming a book in increasing levels by marking it up with highlights, annotations and even scaffolding a book’s important material on its end covers. However, when it came to the Great Books project, he and 25 of his colleagues used notes on index cards to index 102 great ideas across a large swath of classical Western literature.
You can see the majority of this indexed collection of knowledge splayed around him in the first photo. These index cards became the raw materials by which he and his team compiled and wrote the impressive Syntopicon which comprised volumes 2 and 3 of the 54 books in the Great Books of the Western World series (1952). Upon its release, the second photo was used extensively in marketing materials to sell the set to the general public over the ensuing decades and several editions of the books.
Even if one doesn’t look very closely at the photos, once juxtaposed they will probably have already noticed that the photos of Adler himself are the same. The second photo has obviously had the set of books superimposed around a cropped photo of him from the first photo. While it is a great advertising gimmick, it belies a lot of the serious work involved in building the Syntopicon which hides a tremendous amount of value.
Even Adler’s co-editor extolls the immense value of the Syntopicon:
But I would do less than justice to Mr. Adler’s achievement if I left the matter there. The Syntopicon is, in addition to all this, and in addition to being a monument to the industry, devotion, and intelligence of Mr. Adler and his staff, a step forward in the thought of the West. It indicates where we are: where the agreements and disagreements lie; where the problems are; where the work has to be done. It thus helps to keep us from wasting our time through misunderstanding and points to the issues that must be attacked. When the history of the intellectual life of this century is written, the Syntopicon will be regarded as one of the landmarks in it.
—Robert M. Hutchins, p xxvi The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education. 1952.
However, while the Syntopicon as an end product holds great value, knowing how it was created is potentially even more important. The second photo does a huge disservice to the entire enterprise by way of erasure of the true nature of the Syntopicon. While the first photo may seem dull and esoteric, it holds a huge amount of hidden value for both students and teachers. It is photographic evidence of how the knowledge of the incredibly valuable Syntopicon was actually built. If properly scaffolded for students, following their lead of indexing their ideas, students could have their own personal Syntopicons for learning and exploring.
Scaffolding “Secret” Knowledge
Imagine, if you will, the majesty and awe inspired by the Pyramids of Giza to the people viewing them from the ground. The Great Pyramid itself is significantly taller than both Big Ben and the Statue of Liberty, and at approximately 45 stories tall is almost half the height of the Eiffel Tower, though obviously with a much more massive base. The entire structure of the Pyramid of Giza is estimated to weigh 5.9 million metric tons comprising 2.3 million blocks of stone averaging weights of about 3 tons each. These rocks were cut and moved only by humans across vast distances of sand. Anyone who has done the intense labor of dragging a cooler and pop up tent across even a few hundred feet of sand to spend a day at the beach will marvel at moving such massive blocks, even with thousands of people to help drag it. Yet they managed to lay 1,764,000 pounds of stone every day for nearly 20 years. How did the ancient Egyptians manage this feat? Curious people have tried for centuries to imagine how they managed to build such spectacular monuments from scratch. But because there is little in the historical record and no remains of scaffolding, anyone who might want to build their own monumental pyramid is left to start their process from scratch. But what if you had a picture of the method or the scaffolding? Perhaps even set of plans, diagrams, or description? That might make all the difference, wouldn’t it?
I’ll give you a head start and suggest you begin with this image from c. 1880 BCE which was painted on the wall of the tomb of Djehutihotep:
The idea that the statue is being pulled by a large host of people on a sled is relatively obvious. But even if you can’t read the writing, you’ll probably know that that number of people isn’t nearly enough for what must be a tremendous weight. How about the image of the guy almost in the center of the painting? The one standing at the front of the sled who appears to be pouring liquid out? What is he doing? Could we try some experiments to learn what his purpose was? (In some literature he is often called a tribologist.)
Fall, Weber, Pakpour, et. al tried just that and found some surprising results. Pouring water onto sand decreases friction for objects pulled over it, meaning that its much easier for fewer men to pull large weights over sand. Their paper also contains a transcribed picture of the original painting prior to damage which has occurred since the early 1900s.
Just as the painting of our new tribologist friend scaffolds the “secret” behind how one moves large weights over sand in ancient Egypt, the photograph of Adler with his card index provides the answer to the secret behind how one writes a paper, article, thesis, or even a book. It certainly provides a lot more information to the viewer and potential reader of the Syntopicon than the second picture which excerpts Adler’s photo and simply surrounds him with books.
Teachers, including Adler, should prefer to show their work or scaffold their knowledge more often so that students can see how they they did their trick. Too often, like a magician, they perform their prestidigitation and leave out the secret of how it was performed. This certainly impresses the audience temporarily, but it doesn’t provide them with any actual knowledge they can apply for themselves. Teaching patently isn’t meant to be held to the secrecy of the “Magician’s Code”. It should be much more like the techniques of magicians Penn & Teller who frequently not only perform their magic, but then go on to reveal the actual method by which they produced it. It’s nice to enthrall students, but then show them how they might enthrall others. But let’s also not do it to the level of amateur magicians who will only practice a trick until they get it right once, let’s help them move to the level of professional magicians who continue to practice every day until they never make any mistakes.
Too often in our writing courses we don’t reveal any useful methods by which one might produce interesting research and writing. Simply reading an encyclopedia article, a few beginner magazine articles, and a book or two might be a small enough project for a sixth grader to miraculously produce a three page essay and remember most of what they need to do so. But what is a high schooler or a college student to do when they need to produce theses of 20 pages or longer that go beyond the idea of simply regurgitating the data they’ve read over several months’ time? It’s much harder to remember and maintain the information of dozens of books and journal articles over such a time span. How might they better generate new insights into what their doing? Create new knowledge? And things compound dramatically if a student decides to become a professional researcher, writer, or even academician.
The better course would be to have a teacher scaffolding how to practice these methods in class with the students as they try their own hand at it. I’ve seen well educated adults struggle with these methods, so I know it’s going to take some practice.
Of course, not every teacher knows how to do these things themselves(to pass along the secrets, the magician must actually know how to perform the magic first), much less to do them in the most efficient ways. In fact, much like this story of teachers in the “Reading Wars” who weren’t taught concrete methods of teaching reading, many teachers were never taught how to teach writing at higher technical and creative levels and were never forced to practice it themselves. Some who were forced just muddled their way through as best they could. As a result they teach their students to take the same long and arduous road involving the most work and often some of the worst results. At least in regard to writing, there is a royal road that one might take.
The photo of Adler’s index cards is the tip of the iceberg that suggests a potential method. I suspect that for some, simply knowing about the index cards and seeing the final form of the two volumes of the Syntopicon could allow one to puzzle out the intervening steps with some minor experimentation. For those who’d like to jump ahead without experimentation or the need to read the hieroglyphs might make the next step with learning about methods shown in an excellent video of Victor Margolin explaining his method of research and writing. Or by reading a short article by Keith Thomas in the London Review of Books. They can then move onto Adler’s introductory How to Mark a Book.
For those who appreciated the analogy of quarrying and dragging stone to make the pyramids, Gerald Weinberg’s 2005 book on The Fieldstone Method is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Overwise, similar more advanced methods are spelled out in Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis and Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes. One might place the finishing touches with Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book (1972, 2011) and C. Wright Mills’ short paper On Intellectual Craftsmanship.
If you must for the exercise, allow students to drag their building blocks over the sand so they can see how difficult it is. But then reveal the secrets of the tribologists and the prestidigitators so that they can go on to build their own pyramids and make their own magic in life. Be sure not to have them use the method for just one project, but allow it to span several projects or to be used across their lives much the way many greats of history have leveraged the value of commonplace books which falls into a very similar tradition of knowledge management.
Show students how to take small ideas written on index cards and use them as proverbial building blocks to slowly and creatively build up larger arguments, create paragraphs, papers, and books with with them. While it may not seem obvious, variations on these methods were the secrets behind almost every great thinker or writer in history including Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Desiderius Erasmus, Konrad Gessner, John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Niklas Luhmann, Beatrice Webb, Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mortimer J. Adler, Niklas Luhmann, Roland Barthes, Vladimir Nabokov, George Carlin, Phyllis Diller, Twyla Tharp, and yes, even Eminem and Taylor Swift.
Adler, Mortimer J. “How to Mark a Book.” Saturday Review of Literature, July 6, 1941.
Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Revised and Updated edition. 1940. Reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Benderitter, Thierry. “The Tomb of Djehutyhotep ‘Great Chief of the Hare Nome’ Page 2 of 2.” Osirisnet: Tombs of Ancient Egypt, 2006. https://osirisnet.net/tombes/el_bersheh/djehoutyhotep/e_djehoutyhotep_02.htm.
Fall, A., B. Weber, M. Pakpour, N. Lenoir, N. Shahidzadeh, J. Fiscina, C. Wagner, and D. Bonn. “Sliding Friction on Wet and Dry Sand.” Physical Review Letters 112, no. 17 (April 29, 2014): 175502. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.112.175502.
Heubeck, Elizabeth. “‘I Literally Cried’: Teachers Describe Their Transition to Science-Based Reading Instruction.” Education Week, September 15, 2023, sec. Teaching & Learning, Reading & Literacy. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/i-literally-cried-teachers-describe-their-transition-to-science-based-reading-instruction/2023/09.
Mills, C. Wright. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1952).” Society 17, no. 2 (January 1, 1980): 63–70. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02700062.
Thomas, Keith. “Diary: Working Methods.” London Review of Books, June 10, 2010. https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n11/keith-thomas/diary.
Weinberg, Gerald M. Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method. New York, N.Y: Dorset House, 2005.
LIFE. “The 102 Great Ideas: Scholars Complete a Monumental Catalog.” January 26, 1948. https://books.google.com/books?id=p0gEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA92&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q&f=false. Google Books.
The Process of Writing World History of Design, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxyy0THLfuI.