Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Road Less Traveled

What is education? The word comes from the Latin root "educatio" which is derived from "ducere"-- to lead. So to be educated is in some sense to be led from one place (or state of mind) to another. But as any teacher knows, education cannot occur without a willing suspension of disbelief. Every student must, in some sense, participate in his own transformation from a state of ignorance to some higher level of perception. For Plato, education was the journey we take when we abandon the cave of shadows and move towards the light of the sun. Thus, the shadows of ignorance are replaced by illumination. But the quest for knowledge is always difficult and requires a strong heart, for you are required to abandon all your assumptions and the ideas that are familiar to you, for the sake of obtaining that which is yet unknown, and move toward the undiscovered country of "things as they are," rather than as you imagined them to be.

This is the journey that Henry Adams is on. He is searching for truth (or education) but he is doing it his own way. He does not much care for the traditional path to knowledge represented by institutions like Harvard College. He prefers what some might describe as "the school of hard knocks" or personal experience.  Theory and the abstractions of philosophy don't impress Henry Adams. He is more influenced by the example of people he admires, such as his father or Charles Sumner. For young Adams, facts are a slippery slope toward moral confusion. But some people, like George Washington, rise above the political turmoil of their day. Their values and their honor are unshakeable and resist all the winds of social change. the young Adams is on a kind of personal journey to try and figure out what is worth knowing and who is deserving of his trust.

In his own mind, he has already decided that Boston is a lost cause, for it is rampant with intrigue and politics. Quincy is more to his liking. On his journey to Mount Vernon, which is George Washington's estate, the young Adams finds the Elysian Fields of his mind, filled with tranquility and grace. Although, he objects to the idea of slavery, he understands the economic role it plays in the embedded culture of the south.  What he can't separate in his mind is the life of tranquility represented by Mount Vernon, with the abhorrent practice of slavery:

 "the boy might ignore, as a mere historical puzzle, the question how to deduce George Washington from the sum of all wickedness, but he had himself helped to deduce Charles Sumner from the sum of political corruption. On that line too, education could go no further."

To my ear, this sounds awfully close to the sentiment of those famous lines from Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

In other words, education has its limits. There are boundaries to our mind's reach. Surely, contradictions and ambiguities exist in the world of men that cannot be avoided or explained by any metaphysics taught in any book. But one is tempted to respond that slavery or injustice is not a metaphysical problem. It is a social problem that will be solved by men deciding what kind of society they want for themselves. All social values are chosen; not discovered. One doesn't have to read the definition of honor in order to bear witness to its worth. Part of what Adams means by education is simply the metamorphosis that every human being undergoes in his personal journey from being a boy to being a man. That is not something that Harvard's curriculum can fix. And that is why Henry Adams has chosen a different path to follow than his more famous kin.


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