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Monday, May 04, 2015

ADAMS: The Education of Henry Adams (Washington: North and South)

Henry Adams wanted a broader kind of education than the one he found in school.  He wanted to find out about love for example.  And violence was also a subject a young man needed to know.  But there were other things beyond the range of his youthful experience.  Except for love and violence Henry didn’t know what subjects he needed to know.  One of these subjects was the difference between his Northern way of life and the Southern way of life.  Henry had never been down South and his first journey to Virginia was an eye-opener for an idealistic young man.  Adams wrote, “Mount Vernon (George Washington’s homeplace)… gave him a complete Virginia education.”  Virginia was not Massachusetts.  And Mount Vernon was not Quincy.  And the further south Henry went the further he got out of his comfort zone.  His Virginia education began by traveling through Maryland.  Henry noted “the town of Quincy was far from being a vision of neatness… (but) Maryland was raggedness of a new kind.  The railway rambled through unfenced fields and woods, or through village streets, among a haphazard variety of pigs, cows, and negro babies.”  He wasn’t used to raggedness, unfenced fields, a haphazard life, “negro” babies, or for that matter any real black people at all. 

What was Henry’s reaction to all these new sensations?  At first he was horrified.  “The more he was educated, the less he understood.  Slavery struck him in the face; it was a nightmare.”  Virginia had bad roads and “bad roads meant bad morals.”  His attitude was probably not much different from a modern American suburbanite travelling through a bad neighborhood and thinking: bad neighborhoods mean bad morals.  Henry came to this conclusion: “The moral of this Virginia road was clear… Slavery was wicked, and slavery was the cause of this road’s badness…”  The modern suburbanite might come to the same conclusion that crime is wicked and crime is the cause of this neighborhood’s badness.  Or poverty is wicked and poverty is the cause of this neighborhood’s badness.  But Henry paused to ponder this question.  Is there really a cause and effect to social conditions?  Or are human beings just trying to get along the best they can using the tools handed down to them by parents and grandparents?  Here was the problem.  “Slave States were dirty, unkempt, poverty-stricken, ignorant, vicious!…yet the picture had another side…the thickness of the foliage and the heavy smells, the sense of atmosphere…the brooding indolence of a warm climate and a negro population hung in the atmosphere heavier than the catalpas.  The impression was not simple, but the boy liked it.”  Henry came to the strange conclusion that “Mount Vernon was only Quincy in a southern setting.”  This was heresy to an Adams.  And yet it was a valuable part of his education. When Henry first headed down South “Life was not yet complicated.  Every problem had a solution…”  This was an article of faith for a boy from Boston.  But somehow “before he was fifteen years old, he had managed to get himself into a state of moral confusion from which he never escaped.”  Henry was confused because his New England ideals clashed with a world that is ragged and dirty and offers no easy solutions.  Henry became morally confused; probably similar to the moral confusion many modern Americans feel about problems in the Middle East.  Is education simply the process of getting ourselves out of this state of moral confusion?  Henry didn’t know.  All he knew was “he felt himself shut out of Boston… Always he felt himself somewhere else; perhaps in Washington with its social ease, perhaps in Europe…”  Perhaps even in Virginia.  This was heresy.  Henry’s education wasn’t complete.  It was just beginning.


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