Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, April 17, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Preface)

Reading and discussing Great Books is one of the great ideas in the history of education.  Proponents of the program view it as a way of spreading the word that all Americans, regardless of income, have a golden opportunity to study great books and discuss the ideas that shaped Western civilization.  Discussing their reactions in light of what other people think forces them to assess and reassess opposing viewpoints.  Opponents of Great Books view the program as elitist, racist, and sexist.  It’s true the authors are mostly wealthy dead white males.  (One of the founders of GB responded that if GB is elitist, it’s the kind of elitism that builds bridges instead of walls.)  Still others believe self-education (which is the core of the GB program) is just plain foolish.  Benjamin Franklin once said, "He that teaches himself has a fool for a master." How do we sort through these different theories?  At a deeper level we’re asking, what’s the best education?  How can I get it?

This is the theme of The Education of Henry Adams.  The introductory Preface is well worth reading.  A Preface is “a preliminary statement in a book by the book's author or editor, setting forth its purpose and scope.”  The purpose and scope of Henry Adams’ book is laid out when he says “the object, in this volume, is to fit young men, in Universities or elsewhere, to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency.”  Adams wants to pass on his ideas about education to young men and women who are leaving home to go out and make their own way in the world.  The best place to start is from personal experience.  Edmund Burke gave us his own reflections of the French Revolution based on his own personal experience, not from the abstract experience of reading books.  In this selection Henry Adams wants to reflect on his own education and writes from personal experience what life is like in the real world.  The underlying question Adams wants to explore is; did my education prepare me for the world I find myself living in?  This is a question every serious reader should ponder.  Adams looked back fondly to the 18th century but he was born in the 19th and lived on into the dawning of the 20th century.  The question in Adams’ mind was whether an 18th century education adequately prepared him for living a good life in the 20th century.  A similar question for the contemporary reader might be; does a classical education prepare me to live in a technological age?  Or, do Great Books help me live a better life in my own society or would my time be better spent studying science and technology?
Adams pays homage to an author Burke detested, Jean Jacques Rousseau.  Adams says, “Jean Jacques was a very great educator in the manner of the eighteenth century, and has been commonly thought to have had more influence than any other teacher of his time; but his peculiar method of improving human nature has not been universally admired.”  What was Rousseau’s method?  Rousseau said “let them hear my confessions…and then let any one of them tell thee if he dares: ‘I was a better man!’”  Burke did not admire Rousseau. He would reply, there are many who could hear your confessions and honestly answer, yes, I was a better man.  But Adams is willing to listen.  He says “American literature offers scarcely one working model for high education.  The student must go back, beyond Jean Jacques, to Benjamin Franklin, to find a model even of self-teaching.”  Imagine Jean Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, Edmund Burke, and Henry Adams sitting around a table debating their idea of an ideal education.  Now that would be a Great Books discussion worth listening to.   


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