Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

ADAMS: Education of Henry Adams (Boston)

In the first chapter of his book we learn that Henry Adams hated school.  But like all boys he also needed an education “to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency.”  How is the best way to get this kind of education?  In Adams case it started by simply watching and listening to the great men clustered around his father’s house.  This kind of education was only made possible because “the wreck of parties which marked the reign of Andrew Jackson had interfered with many promising careers.”  Many men found their promising careers wrecked and would gather at the home of Charles Francis Adams to regroup and form a new political strategy.  Henry was just a little boy and didn’t know it at the time but “…his education was warped beyond recovery in the direction of puritan politics.”  Was this a good thing or a bad thing?  Both.  Here’s the good side.  Adams writes “the puritan thought his thought higher and his moral standards better than those of his successors.  So they were.”  This could mean either (a) puritan standards were, in fact, higher than those of ordinary Americans, or it could mean (b) puritans had achieved higher standards precisely because they set higher standards for themselves and worked hard to achieve them.  Either way it amounts to the same thing.  Puritanism for Adams represented a kind of intellectual and moral snobbery.

Nobody likes a snob because, as Adams says, “Average human nature is very coarse and its ideals must necessarily be average.  The world never loved perfect poise.”  The flip side of snobbery is a high standard of excellence in academics and virtue in morals.  Baseball Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean once observed "It ain't braggin' if you done it."  And many of the men who gathered in the Adams residence had done it.  They had, in their own ways, achieved excellence.  These men lived in an age of unprecedented scientific breakthroughs.  But “Mr. Adams (Henry’s father) cared very little for science.  He stood alone.  He had no master; hardly even his father.  He had no scholars; hardly even his sons.”  What set Charles Adams apart was his mastery of eighteenth century standards without the snobbery.  Henry noted “Never once in forty years of intimacy did his son notice in him a trace of snobbishness… Never did his son see him flatter or vilify, or show a sign of envy or jealousy; never a shade of vanity or self-conceit.  Never a tone of arrogance!  Never a gesture of pride!”  Nevertheless this did not make Charles politically popular because “the critics…called him cold.”  Only in America.  Charles Adams was obviously a great influence on Henry.  But Charles’s friends also made a great impact and their lives shaped Henry’s thinking.  For instance, “lifelong friend William M. Evarts used to say: ‘I pride myself on my success in doing not the things I like to do, but the things I don’t like to do.’”  This has a solid puritan sound.  Another friend, Richard Henry Dana, “forced himself to take life as it came, and he suffocated his longings with grim self-discipline, by mere force of will.”  And Charles Sumner “adored English standards, but his ambition led him to rival the career of Edmund Burke.”  These men had the old puritan ethic in their bones and “It was the old Ciceronian idea of government by the best that produced the long line of New England statesmen.  They chose men to represent them because they wanted to be well represented, and they chose the best they had.”  But these men were old school and “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 new.”  Henry sensed that he would need a new kind of education; but what kind?  And where would he find it?  That’s why he wrote this book.


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