The Education of Henry Adams contains two parts. The first covers the first thirty-three years of Adams’ life and explores the continual failures of Adams’ attempts to find an “education,” the emergence of “chaos” reflected in the Civil War and the emergence of industrial capitalism in post-war America, and the end of his education after securing a teaching position in history at Harvard College. The second part begins twenty years later and explores mostly his reflections on the changing nature of America and the conflict between his pre-industrial heritage, mind, and education with the industrial world. This transition promised a new period of education in Adams’ life.
I found the first part of this autobiography rich in commentary on education. One cannot help but notice the privileged that Adams’ enjoyed. He was born into an illustrious political family. He had access to his family’s connections. Adams attended Harvard College with other privileged youth. His early careers was secured, first as assistant to his father when he served in Congress in 1860 and 1861 and then as an assistant to his father during the all-important diplomatic mission to Great Britain during the Civil War. His constant complaint about his inability to find an education, despite these privileges cannot help but turn off someone of working-class roots like myself. I certainly did not get to enjoy the library of a former president in my youth or bounce around Europe as a dilettante seeking an “education.” Nevertheless, my goal in this blog is to give each writer a fair reading and find what, if anything, an anarchist can learn from the American tradition. Well, in this sense, once we look past Adams’ privileged we find a rich and convincing discussion of the meaning, purpose, and means of education. One cannot read this work and not come away questioning the utility of formal, bureaucratized education. True education, Adams’ insists, comes from engagement in the world. It is a product of life and action, not the receipt of information from the system. We realize that yes, we did not get to go to Harvard because of our family connections but we also did not miss out on much. Besides, he never forgets his privileged, unlike so many of the elite who never really reflect on how easy things have been for them. “Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he.” (724)
In his “Preface” he claims that he wrote The Education to provide a guide for young people, complaining that despite Emile or Benjamin Franklin no guides existed. Certainly none that spoke to the needs of the 20th century (or even the 19th). This was Adams’ dilemma throughout his life. His formal education prepared him for the 18th century, yet he lived in a world of industrial chaos – the world of the dynamo. He does take from those writers a belief in autodidacticism. The joke of Harvard learning and his insistence that education is an individual quest attest to this. “If the students got little from his mates, he got little more from his masters. The four years passed at College, were for his purposes, wasted. Harvard College was a good school but at bottom what the boy disliked most was any school at all. He did not want to be one in a hundred, — one per cent. of an education. He regarded himself as the only person for whom his education had value, and he wanted the whole of it. He got barely half of an average. Long afterwards, when the devious path of life led him back to teach in his turn what no student naturally cared or needed to know, he diverted some dreary hours of Faculty-meetings by looking up his record in the class-lists, and found himself graded precisely in the middle.” (774) He then adds that the one skill he needed for the modern world (mathematics) was not taught to him properly. Not only did Harvard College fail to complete his education, he noticed that it did not even begin an education.
We notice with Adams that education needs to be dynamic and therefore must be deinstitutionalized. The Civil War left “a million young men planted in thevmud of a lawless world, to begin a new life without education at all.” (820) Every generation teaches their young for the world they grew up in, but change can be so dramatic and complete that all of those lessons are useless. I reckon that our current educational crises is based on the perpetuation of an out-dated model. Here is a useful clip from an education “reformer.” Even advocates of formal education (in some form) realize what we have is useless.
Adams does receive a diplomatic education by working alongside his father, making connections, and learning lessons of “political morality.” But strangely this education disqualified him for a life as a diplomat. “For the law, diplomacy had unfitted him; for diplomacy he already knew too much.” (913) Adams was after an education and nothing diplomatic after 1865 could be as interesting or educational as the politics of the war. This drove him to the press.
Adams also discusses his relationship with Darwinism. It seems he took it up as a fad, but Darwinism is central to his argument about education. Chaos, Adams insists, “breeds life” and order tradition and passivity. This is essentially a vulgar Darwinian argument. Darwin describes adaptation in response to a shifting world. Adams describes formal educations obsolescent in transforming conditions.
Let me end this post by pointing out that he labels the chapter describing what for most intellectuals would have been the pinnacle of their dreams, a faculty position at Harvard, as “Failure.” Why? Well, he realized that he was part of an educational institution that was doomed to failure. He could reach only a fraction of students but still fail to give that minority anything of value. Adams was a relic. Worse still, teaching ended his education. “No more education was possible for either man. Such as they were, they had got to stand the chances of the world they lived in; and when Adams started back to Cambridge, to take up again the humble tasks of schoolmaster and editor he was harnessed to his cart. Education, systematic or accidental, had done its worst. Henceforth he went on, submissive.” (1006)
It seems to me the lesson we should take from Adams’ failure is that we should not measure our success, our knowledge, and education by the standards of a by-gone age. The world that created the institutions of public education and higher education and dinosaurs. And every year since Adams wrote these words, these institutions have aged more and developed only in uselessness and decadence. Millions of students attend glorified prisons (for both the body and the mind) to acquire a piece of paper, which will in turn allow them entrance into another prison. Families and communities will pass on the ignorance of a generation. Schools pass on the ignorance of an entire society. I do not believe individuals can do worse then this. We should have faith in each child’s capacity to teach themselves through experiences.