DURING the student revolts in Paris in the late 1960s, a lot of graffiti appeared on the walls of the Sorbonne. ``One youngster,'' recalls Mortimer Adler, who tells the story with a chuckle, ``put on the wall, `Be realistic: Attempt the impossible.''' ``That's a wonderful statement,'' he concludes.
With more than half a century as a philosopher behind him, Professor Adler still delights in such forward-looking iconoclasm. He explained why in an interview at his summer residence here -- seated in shirt sleeves at the red-checkered tablecloth of his kitchen table, oblivious of the cat that now and then steps on the tape recorder and rubs up against his arm.
As Adler looks toward the 21st century, he sees two central issues topping the agenda for America -- neither of which lends itself to solution within traditional frameworks.
The first is an urgent need to challenge, dismantle, and rebuild one of the most solidly entrenched institutions in the nation: the educational establishment.
``Our educational system is absolutely inadequate -- not relatively [but] absolutely inadequate -- for the purposes of democracy,'' he says forcefully. ``That's the No. 1 agenda item. If we don't solve the educational problem -- if we have [only] the kind of citizens we have now -- forget it.''
The second issue is what he calls ``the problem of the national debt, which mortgages our future.'' The United States, he says, has been described as ``the largest debtor nation in the world, by far,'' and there's ``no indication that we have any control of the thing at the moment.''
``These, I think, are, for this country, the great questions for the next century,'' Adler says.
The first of the issues, educational reform, is the subject through which Adler is perhaps most widely known. His long association with the Great Books program has brought his name into discussion groups all over the country. As the driving force behind a group of 23 reform-minded American educators, he helped design the Paideia Proposal, wrote the trilogy of books setting forth this plan for a different sort of primary and secondary education, and has pushed for its adoption in public school systems around the country.
The Paideia Proposal -- which he pronounces ``pie-DAY-ya,'' borrowing the term from a Greek word for the upbringing of children -- calls for a curriculum with few electives. It divides classroom activity at all levels into three distinct dimensions -- the acquisition of information, the coaching of students by teachers, and the give-and-take of Socratic questioning. It emphasizes training in critical thinking through vigorous student discussion and interchange.
That may sound like a return to the ``three R's'' of old-school basics -- and in some ways it is. But Adler's goal is not education for education's sake. He sees in improved education nothing short of the salvation of democracy -- a subject about which he speaks with something of the first-generation American's fervor.
``I'm a firm believer,'' he says, that ``democracy is the only perfectly just form of government in terms of what human beings are.'' But to make it work, he adds, ``we have to make [the citizens] recognize their moral and intellectual responsibilities.'' Citizens as rulers `I'VE often said that if this [recognition] is impossible, then we ought to give [democracy] up,'' he says. And why is an educated citizenry so important?
``If you take democracy seriously,'' he says, you find that ``the citizens are the ruling class. The guys in Washington are their servants. We, the people, are the government.''
It is on that point -- citizens as rulers -- that Adler builds his case for education.
``What most Americans don't realize,'' he says, ``is that political democracy ... is not [yet] 50 years old in this country. The notion that this country was founded as a democracy, of course, is sheer rot. It was anything but that: It was an oligarchy of the most severe kind.''
In fact, says Adler, democracy in America is ``so recent, both in terms of constitutional amendments and in terms of legislative enactments, that the problem for the next century for us is to make it work.''
For Adler this means education, both of mind and of moral character. Superpowers and superdebt MORAL character is also an aspect of the second major item on Alder's 21st-century agenda -- the problem of national debt.
He links the problem, in part, to the superpower relationship. And he contends that the problem will not be resolved ``unless we do something about removing the threat of nuclear war and reducing the expenditure for armed forces'' through some sort of mutual agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the end, however, the debt problem transcends the question of superpower relations. Like so much else in Adler's view, it traces itself at last to a moral problem -- arising, in this case, from the very affluence of the nation.
``It is more difficult to become morally virtuous under affluent conditions than under adverse conditions,'' says Adler, expounding an idea whose roots lie deep in the classical philosophy in which he is so thoroughly steeped.
``Adversity is a better prod of development of moral character than affluence,'' he says. ``Take any family. Children of affluent families are often ruined by the affluence that surrounds them. Everything is too easy.''
``I'm not recommending hardship,'' he says. ``I'm only saying it's more difficult'' to raise what he calls ``morally virtuous young people'' under such conditions.
``If you said to many people today, `You really have to suffer stringent reductions of your standard of living for the sake of your grandchildren and your grandchildren's grandchildren, [since] we can't go on spending the way we're spending,' they would be morally incapable of doing that,'' says Adler.
Yet that kind of austerity, he feels, is just what's needed to control debt on a national scale.
The debt problem, for Adler, is related more to the success of American democracy than to any sense of economic failure. And he has no reservations about the significance of that success. The privileged majority `LET me put it to you this way,'' he says, with a born teacher's eagerness to explain. ``Up until 1900, in every country in the world, you had privileged minorities and oppressed majorities, correct?
``In the 20th century, in the United States, for the first time you had a privileged majority. Let's suppose we [now] have 15 million really destitute persons -- illiterate, ill-kempt, ill-nourished. That's a very small portion of the country -- terrible, but it's a small portion of the population, considering the vast number of 235 million who are, on the whole, well off. We have given those 235 million, the vast majority, all the conditions of a good life.''
In many ways, in fact, ``this is the best of centuries,'' Adler says. ``You and I can't even imagine what it's going to be like at the end of the century in terms of technological [progress]. All that is on the side of a brighter future.''
If, that is, we can manage the debt problem.
What about Adler's agenda for the rest of the world?
``The agenda for the world, I would think, puts world peace at the top, the prevention of nuclear devastation,'' he says.
Adler emphasizes, however, that ``the world must understand peace as something other than a negative condition, which is the absence of fighting. Peace, as a positive condition, is that situation in which individuals and peoples can solve all their problems, all their conflicts, by law and by talk rather than by force.''
``That has been said by the wisest men of all times,'' he notes. ``[But] how do you do that? You do it only through the operation of the machinery of government. Wherever you have peace positively, you have civil peace. And civil peace is the product of civil government -- the use of law and authorized force to maintain peace.''
And that, he says, is a different thing from the armed truce between sovereign states that is sometimes known as peace. Four global issues IN addition to the need for peace, Adler's international agenda carries four other global issues: environmental pollution, population pressures, energy supply, and what he calls ``the fundamental conflict'' between ``the have and have-not nations.''
``Those are four big problems to solve,'' he says, noting that each one is global in scope. ``They won't be solved by [individual] national governments, none of them,'' he asserts.
Are they, then, insoluble? Not at all, Adler says. ``I don't think any of these problems is intellectually as difficult as putting a man on the moon,'' he says, adding that ``we solved that fairly well.''
He notes, however, that the ``cold, clear, rational thinking'' that produced the moon walk was unhampered by a host of other human failings, which he lumps under the general heading of ``folly and vice.'' His list includes unenlightened self-interest, blind passions, hatred of foreigners, irrational racial and ethnic prejudices, and short-term profit-seeking. ``If we can do the same kind of cold, clear, rational thinking about our moral, social, political, [and] economic problems,'' says Adler, ``we could solve them.'' For world government ISN'T that a tall order for humanity? Adler concedes as much. He notes, however, that while he is ``a short-term pessimist'' he remains a ``long-term optimist.''
``I don't think we're going to solve any of these problems in this century,'' he says, ``and maybe not in the next. And things are going to get worse before they get better. And one of the reasons why they'll get better is because when they get bad enough we'll do something about it.''
If, in his eight decades of experience, one way forward seems particularly promising, it is the concept of a world federal government -- an organization that would be broad enough to handle problems that have become increasingly global.
``Back in the '40s and '50s,'' Adler says, ``I argued for world government simply in terms of preventing war. I think the argument now is much stronger.''
Why? Because, through television and air travel, ``the whole earth is smaller -- not geographically, but in terms of communication and travel -- than the 13 colonies were in 1787 when they formed `a more perfect union,''' he says, quoting from the preamble to the Constitution.
``Think of the amount of time it took [in 1787] for a letter to get from Boston to Charleston, S.C. Think of how long it took the delegates to get to the Continental Congress or the convention in Philadelphia.''
Now, he says, a group of leaders from around the world ``could all meet in Geneva tomorrow.''
But, if they were to meet, could they overcome the human penchant for ``folly and vice'' and arrive at some solutions? Or would that be impossible?
``When we say that something is impossible,'' he says, ``we're in exactly the same situation of our ancestors looking at us [and saying], `We can't believe it, that's impossible.'''
``The word `impossible' is a very strong word. When you say, `Impossible!' you ought to say, `Relative to my present state of ignorance, it's impossible.''' Next: Michael Hooker, chancellor of the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus, Oct. 1.