Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Quincy)

Education begins at home.  So just like all children that’s where Henry Adams first started learning about life.  He came to the conclusion that even though we all share the same world “everyone must bear his own universe.”  We all see the same world but react to it very differently.  That was precisely Burke’s point in his Reflections on the Revolution in France when he said we all have “prejudices.”  Adams summed up his own prejudices this way: “He seemed to himself quite normal, and… whatever was peculiar about him was education, not character…”  What kind of education did he get?
Adams says “This problem of education, started in 1838, went on for three years, while the baby (Adams himself) grew, like other babies, unconsciously, as a vegetable, the outside world working as it never had worked before, to get his new universe ready for him.”  Henry Adams started out pretty much “as a vegetable” but would grow up to develop his own unique universe; not mine, not yours, but his own.  “He was three years old when he took this earliest step in education; a lesson of color.”  His earliest memory was color: yellow sunlight on the kitchen floor.  The “vegetable” of a baby was acquiring animal instincts and “…the second followed soon; a lesson of taste… hunger must have been stronger than any other pleasure or pain… a baked apple.”  Seeing and tasting, touching and hearing and smelling; these senses form the core of all education.  This is how ideas first begin to form in our minds.  As we grow and continue to learn we begin to distinguish between things and make judgments; this is good, that’s bad.  And Henry Adams certainly made strong judgments (again we find Burke’s prejudices).  “Town was restraint, law, unity.  Country, only seven miles away, was liberty, diversity, outlawry… winter was always the effort to live, summer was tropical license… summer and country were always sensual living, while winter was always compulsory learning.  Summer was…nature; winter was school.”  This may not be my opinion or yours but it was his.
And that wasn’t all.  Adams said “He never could compel himself to care for nineteenth century style.  He was never able to adopt it… because, for some remote reason, he was born an eighteenth century child.”  In Adams’ own universe he had been born in the wrong century and he pondered “What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up and find himself required to play the game of the twentieth?”  At the outset of this book Adams wants us to think about the kind of education we need to have if we want to play the game of life.  A good family life at home is a good start.  But that’s not enough.  In Adams case “…though three or four vigorous brothers and sisters, with the best will, were not enough to crush any child, everyone else conspired toward an education which he hated.”  Adams knew what he did not like, school.  And he describes what a boy like him would do if left to himself: “He hung about the library; handled the books; deranged the papers; ransacked the drawers; searched the old purses and pocketbooks for foreign coins; drew the sword-cane; snapped the travelling pistols; upset everything in the corners…”  Boys will be boys.  But boys grow up to be men.  The question is: what kind of man?  For Henry Adams “Already at ten years old, the boy found himself standing face to face with a dilemma that might have puzzled an early Christian.  What was he?  Where was he going?  …He could under no circumstances have guessed what the next fifty years had in store, and no one could teach him…”  Adams has to learn on his own.  And so his education begins…


Post a Comment

<< Home