Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Harvard: Henry and Roony)

For the past three weeks we’ve followed Henry Adams from Quincy to Boston and seen his adolescent memories of Mount Vernon, Virginia.  What effect did the rural life of Quincy, the commercial and political interests of Boston, and the genteel plantation life of Virginia have on young Henry Adams?  Very little effect at all, as it turned out.  From his earliest days Henry hated (what we would now call) elementary school. And it never got any better.  Reflecting on his college years Henry wrote, “Harvard College was a good school, but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all.”  He didn’t have anything in particular against Harvard.  It was the idea behind American (and European) education that he despised.  Nothing in particular upset him.  It was just the whole concept of one generation handing down an “education” to the next generation like it was a suit of clothes.  A statement in his Preface is interesting on this point: “to become a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes.”  In his own experience Henry didn’t think education was adapted to the needs of the student.  In fact, it did the opposite.  It maimed the manikin (the student) and unfitted him for life.  In later years Henry wrote, “The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught. Sometimes in after life, Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions…”

Did education ruin Henry Adams?  Did it ruin his companions?  An interesting case study is his Harvard classmate, Roony Lee.  They had a lot in common.  Henry Adams had an illustrious family history but so did Roony.  Roony’s father was Robert E. Lee and he was distantly related to George Washington and even Charles II.  In addition to Roony’s family background, Henry noted “Lee was a gentleman of the old school…”  Henry wanted to be a gentleman of the old school too.  So they had a lot in common but Henry tells us “For a year, at least, Lee was the most popular and prominent young man in his class, but then seemed slowly to drop into the background.  The habit of command was not enough, and the Virginian had little else.”  We don’t know what Roony’s assessment of Henry was but it would probably sound something like this: Henry lacked self-confidence and constantly second guessed everything.  He didn’t seem to know what he wanted and always saw a half empty glass.  Is this an accurate description of Henry’s character?  It’s hard to say.  What we do know is Henry wrote in a sort of melancholy tone at the end of a life he considered to be a mild failure.  His believed his “education” had ruined him.  Henry never made any fatal mistakes but he never made any bold moves either.  For example, instead of heading out west where the action was (as Theodore Roosevelt did) Henry pretty much stayed home (within his own psychological comfort zone) and settled into a nice safe career at (surprise!) Harvard.  In some ways he did accomplish a lot.  “He wrote two novels…taught medieval history at Harvard and wrote a nine-volume History of the United States of America.”  That’s not too shabby.  What about Roony?  What happened to him?  After Harvard Roony became a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army.  He later rose to the rank of Major General (second highest in the chain of command) of the Confederate Cavalry.  During the war he was wounded, captured by Union soldiers, and later released in a prisoner exchange.  After the war he ran two plantations, was elected to the Virginia Senate, and served as a Congressman in Washington until his death in 1891.  Which man had a better life: Henry or Roony?  It’s too bad we don’t have another perspective in a book called The Education of Roony Lee.


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