Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Friday, May 01, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Washington: Love and Violence)

Not long ago there was a popular poster with a picture of a rugged trail and someone hiking through a forest or a desert.  The caption on the poster said: Education is a Journey, not a Destination.  This sounded good at the time although few people probably knew what it really means.  Certainly Henry Adams wouldn’t know what it means.  He wrote “the actual journey has no interest for education…”  What really interested Henry Adams was the process of educating himself to meet the real life challenges he faced.  The actual journey of life wasn’t as interesting as understanding what it meant.  Adams hated school but at least, he says, “if one learned next to nothing, the little one did learn needed not to be unlearned.”  School probably didn’t do much harm but it didn’t do much good either.  Many of the things that are most important in life are things they don’t teach in school.  Adams admits “he knew more than his father, or his grandfather, or his great-grandfather… in essentials like religion, ethics, philosophy; in history, literature, art; in the concepts of all science.”  But in the essentials of life he fell short of his father Charles and his grandfather John Quincy; and he fell far short of his great-grandfather John.  That’s because in Henry’s case “The education he had received bore little relation to the education he needed.”  What was missing from Henry’s education?  The very things he needed most to know are precisely the subjects not taught in school.  What subjects?  Falling in love is an example; how to find a good husband or wife.  There are no courses in Romance 101.  Boys and girls learn these things partly by hearsay and partly by trial and error.  Henry Adams says in his day “Every boy, from the age of seven, fell in love at frequent intervals with some girl…who had nothing to teach him, or he to teach her… until they married and bore children to repeat the habit.”  School doesn’t teach that.

How to handle violence was another topic Henry needed to know.  In Henry’s day “Blackguard Boston was only too educational, and to most boys the much more interesting… now and then it asserted itself as education more roughly than school ever did.”  Snowball fights don’t sound violent or educational either.  But in Boston snowballs concealed rocks or sticks and there was a very real danger of getting hurt.  Then there was the dilemma of how to handle the terrible Conky Daniels, the biggest bully in Henry’s neighborhood.  The other boys ran away but a couple of the boys on Henry’s side stood their ground.  Savage and Martin didn’t run.  But instead of attacking these two, Conky kept after the ones running away.  What was the moral of this story?  Stand up to bullies?  Know when to run and when to hide?  Don’t go outside when Conky’s around?  Henry wasn’t sure.  And probably neither were any of the other boys.  Like the subject of love, boys were pretty much on their own to sort these things out by trial and error.  These may sound like silly childhood games but “years afterward when these same boys were fighting and falling on the battle-fields of Virginia and Maryland, he wondered whether their education on Boston Common had taught Savage and Marvin how to die.  If violence were a part of complete education, Boston was not incomplete.”

Love and violence were just two of the things Henry needed to know and there were no schools to teach him.  How long does it take to find out these things on your own?  Henry wasn’t sure but “Even at twelve years old he could see his own nature no more clearly than he would at twelve hundred, if by accident he should happen to live that long.”  Wisdom takes a long time and we don’t have twelve hundred years to get educated.


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