Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, May 11, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Harvard: What Education?)

Henry Adams claims he learned very little during his school years and very little at Harvard College.  Question: then how did he come to know so much about so many things?  Consider what he had to say about Harvard: “Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones.  Leaders of men it never tried to make.  Its ideals were altogether different.  The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint…”  Only a well-educated person can write like that.  Henry Adams was obviously an educated man.  But he didn’t think so.  He thought he never got the answers he needed.  What is this education Henry Adams was seeking and never found? 

Long ago another young man asked the same questions Henry was asking.  The Preacher in Ecclesiastes (GB Series 5) said: “I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.  And I gave my heart to seek and search out wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven…”  And what did the Preacher find?  Pretty much the same thing Henry found: “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.  That which is crooked cannot be made straight.”  In other words we are what we are.  You can’t take a man born in a king’s palace (Solomon, the Preacher) and turn him into a peasant.  You can’t take a melancholy man like Henry Adams and turn him into an optimist.  This kind of thinking goes against the American grain.  Self-improvement is one of America’s great national pastimes and reading Great Books is an example of American confidence that personal effort leads to wisdom.  But even if that’s true and we do somehow become wise the Preacher points out “in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”  So why keep increasing knowledge by reading Great Books?  Do we really want wisdom under those conditions?  Henry Adams kept on learning throughout his life.  And the more he learned the more dissatisfied he became.  Is it worth it?  Yes, says John Stuart Mill (Utilitarianism, GB Series 4), “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”  No, says the Preacher, know when enough is enough: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  Henry Adams didn’t really know what he wanted or where he belonged so he just kept on going.  And the more he learned, the more confused he became.  For example, Henry says “Chemistry taught him a number of theories that befogged his mind for a life-time.”  But for the Preacher enough is enough.  He learned what he needed to know and made his decision: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”  The purpose of education for the Preacher was to accept our lot in life and make the best of it.  The purpose of education for Dante (Inferno, GB Series 5) was to keep out of hell.  The purpose of education for Burke was to pass down traditions from one generation to the next.  No wonder Henry Adams was confused.  The burning question was this: what was the purpose of education for Henry Adams?  He wanted to find his place in the world and, in a broader context, the universe.  What did he find?  Adams “like the rest of mankind who accepted a material universe remained always an insect, or something much lower; a man.”  Really?  That’s it?  The question facing each generation is this: what education?  What works for me?  Great Books offer many different options on education; so many options that Henry spent his whole life trying to make up his mind.     


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