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Friday, April 24, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Boston Politics)

Henry Adams was born into that small, smug self-contained world called Boston.  Any self-respecting young Bostonian would of course attend Harvard College.  That’s how things were done.  Harvard had originally been founded to produce puritan clergymen.  By the time Henry came along Harvard had a different mission.  Its educational system turned out local officials for Boston and Quincy, Governors and state legislators for Massachusetts, congressmen and Presidents for the nation.  That’s how things were done and “no one, except Karl Marx, foresaw radical change.”  By the time Henry came along this system was already entrenched for cultivating statesmen.  And make no mistake about Harvard graduates “…they were statesmen, not politicians; they guided public opinion but were little guided by it.”  Of course Henry wasn’t ready for Harvard yet.  He still had to grow into the system.  It would take time but Henry had no doubt he would be up to the task: “All experience since the creation of man, all divine revelation or human science, conspired to deceive and betray a twelve year old boy who took for granted that his ideas, which were alone respectable, would be alone respected.”

But Henry still had a lot to learn before he was ready for Harvard.  America was changing.  Boston was slower to change but it too was undergoing a metamorphosis.  There was a new middle class emerging to challenge the Boston-Harvard upper crust.  And change wasn’t just going on in Boston and America.  “The Paris of Tocqueville (Intro GB 1,2,3)…and the London of John Stuart Mill (GB Series 3,4) were but varieties of the same upper-class bourgeoisie that felt instinctive cousinship with Boston…the system had proved so successful that even Germany wanted to try it, and Italy yearned for it.  England’s middle-class government was the ideal of human progress.”  Human progress was an article of faith for the modern puritanical New Englander.  Harvard had taught them politics and politics was just a natural extension of the religion of their forefathers.  So Harvard shifted its focus from religion to politics.  And by the time Henry came along “Politics offered no difficulties, for there the moral law was a sure guide.  Social perfection was also sure, because human nature worked for Good, and three instruments were all she asked: Sufferage (voting rights), Common (public) Schools, and (a free) Press.  On these points doubt was forbidden.  Education was divine, and man needed only a correct knowledge of facts to reach perfection…”  Everything had been set up according to the newest theory.  Now everyone just needed to get with the program and it would all work out.  But who exactly would work it out?

The old Harvard preachers and the old Gospel message of salvation through Christ were long gone.  The new Unitarian clergy “insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvations.  For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were a waste of thought…Boston had solved the universe…The problem was worked out.”  But the problem was not, in fact, “worked out.”  Something was still wrong; but what?  Henry Adams was after something else.  He just wasn’t sure what.  He says, “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 herded with a crowd of other boys and compelled to learn” politics.  Was politics all the education Boston and America needed?  Something was still missing for Henry.


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