Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, November 27, 2010

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams

One of the hottest topics in America right now is education. Are our children learning enough? Why are we falling behind other countries? What values should children learn at school? Should we cut back on arts programs? Eliminate sports? Are our graduates ready to participate in a new global workforce environment? These questions aren’t just for parents of school-aged children. All Americans are affected by the answers we give. In this regard Henry Adams was well ahead of his time. He could foresee the tensions in his own education and he was concerned about the future of America. So he wrote a book about the progress of his own education. Adams is clear about his intentions: American literature offers scarcely one working model for high education. The student must go back, beyond (Rousseau), to Benjamin Franklin, to find a model even of self-teaching. Except in the abandoned sphere of the dead languages, no one has discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful, and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it. What’s useful and what’s not? What kind of education is the best? Is real-life experience more useful than what we learn in the classroom? Adams thought so. He hated school: If school helped, it was only by reaction. The dislike of school was so strong as to be a positive gain. The passionate hatred of school methods was almost a method in itself… He hated it because he was here with a crowd of other boys and compelled to learn by memory a quantity of things that did not amuse him. This isn’t an unusual reaction. Lots of boys hate school. But Adams was writing as a sixty year old man. He had plenty of time to reflect on his life and concluded that his school-days, from ten to sixteen years old, as time thrown away… had his father kept the boy at home, and given him half an hour's direction every day, he would have done more for him than school ever could do for them… the man of sixty can generally see what he needed in life, and in Henry Adams's opinion it was not school. This statement comes from a man who received one of the best educations his age could provide. He went to one of the finest schools in Boston, had access to his grandfather’s extensive library, and graduated from Harvard. So maybe Adams simply expected too much from education. Life can be difficult and there’s only so much preparation any education can provide. For example, Adams thought being exposed to violence is a critical part of education. It would be difficult to include this in the local school curriculum and bullying is still a big concern in schools these days. But the real world is a tough place and young people have to grow up and live in the real world. Adams says Blackguard Boston was only too educational, and to most boys much the more interesting. A successful blackguard must enjoy great physical advantages besides a true vocation… Now and then it asserted itself as education more roughly than school ever did. One of the commonest boy-games of winter, inherited directly from the eighteenth-century, was a game of war (snow ball fights) on Boston Common. This may sound like harmless child’s play but Adams goes on to point out that …ten or twelve years afterwards when these same boys were fighting and falling on all the battle-fields of Virginia and Maryland, he wondered whether their education on Boston Common had taught Savage and Marvin how to die. If violence were a part of complete education, Boston was not incomplete. One of the problems (as Adams sees it) is how to expose young folks to these harsh lessons and show them how to live a good life in a bad world. How to live well has been a primary question about the role of education from Plato on up until today. It’s an old problem. Adams was aware of this and he wasn’t sure the old ways would work anymore: The generation that lived from 1840 to 1870 could do very well with the old forms of education; that which had its work to do between 1870 and 1900 needed something quite new. Kids going to school in 2010 may need something new too; but what? Henry Adams didn’t have all the answers but at least he knew how to ask the right questions.


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