Illustration of a portrait of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Brooks Adams

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 852

Education Adams presents himself as a scientist who will sample and test various methods of education so that he may offer some wisdom for a man facing the twentieth century. As he says in the preface, ‘‘no one has discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful, and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it.’’ Traditional systems of education are soundly rejected; a schoolmaster is ‘‘a man employed to tell lies to little boys.’’ The lecture system found in colleges does not fair much better nor does scientific education: ‘‘the theory of scientific education failed where most theory fails—for want of money.’’

In the rejection of standard educational systems, Adams formulates an alternative understanding of education. The acquisition of knowledge should not be the mastery of the schoolmaster’s unity or the complete embrace of all possible scientific facts. Instead, education ‘‘required conflict, competition, contradiction’’ and ‘‘accidental education’’ in order to see the ‘‘world exactly as it is.’’ For this reason, he emphasizes those moments in life when he learned by accident. His experience with men, from his grandfather to his students, teaches him about power and the benefit of a balanced mind. His experience with women teaches the profound problem of multiplicity. Accidental education causes Adams to realize that society does not educate itself ‘‘or aimed at a conscious purpose." Consequently, Adams notes that successful minds are those that react to the capriciousness of reality.

While Adams hints throughout the work that education amounts to self-knowledge, his formulation of self-knowledge involves an understanding of the journey he has been through. Toward the end of the text, Adams says:

Every man with self-respect enough to become effective, if only as a machine, has had to account to himself for himself somehow, and to invent a formula of his own for his universe, if the standard formulas failed, there, whether finished or not, education stopped.

Though a man may ‘‘invent a formula,’’ his success is not assured. To prove this, Adams compares the fate of Clarence King and John Hay, two men who were able to formulate their universe and be effective. Hay masters the instruments of state in order to guide the foreign policy of the country through two administrations. King also has a formula—literally, he has an ingenious one for surveying the 40th parallel. However, King’s story proves that science cannot exist independently of money, which King loses in the economic downturn of 1893.

Technology For Adams, technology is intrinsic to an understanding of the great difference between the late nineteenth and the thirteenth century. Moreover, technology holds the key to a bright future so long as a new mind will emerge within society that will not be overawed by it. Adams’ inability to react appropriately to science and technology exacerbates his propensity for failure. This is presented early in the work through Adams’ preference for a non-technological Boston to which the Boston and Albany Railroad has come regardless of his wishes. To his credit, Adams stubbornly faces the source of his discomfort with technology, especially with coal.

Adams constantly watches out for the extent to which a society, starting with his own, is burning coal. He knows that coal fuels industry, which fuels the economy. The cost to a society is the illness of its workers and of sections of the country. Still, Adams feels everyone must face up to coal in all its forms. For this reason, Adams describes coal production as a ‘‘Black District, another lesson, which needed much more to be rightly felt.’’ Facing coal and its lesson...

(This entire section contains 852 words.)

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becomes a rite of passage. Coal ‘‘made a boy uncomfortable. . . . The boy ran away from it, as he ran away from everything he disliked.’’ But a man of education will face coal and its meaning. Within his scientific observation of societies, ‘‘Coal-power alone asserted evolution—of power—and only by violence could be forced to assert selection of type.’’ Thus, the country that makes the best use of their coal will, eventually, be the greatest industrial might. The other technology Adams celebrates is the railway. The train engine burns coal and, therefore, the miles of track are another indicator of a country’s coal-power.

History Throughout The Education of Henry Adams, Adams formulates a new idea about scientific history wherein historical events emerge out of chaos or from nowhere, like the Pteraspis. The only thing that events prove, for Adams, is the ever-changing nature of society. Adams’ notion of history invalidates any attempt to assume a grand narrative of history like the ‘‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Venerable Bede.’’ History, in this view, becomes a dynamic and ever-changing record of life. Narrative approaches, meanwhile, indicate the specific feature of society Adams loathes, inertia.

Through the experience of actually teaching history from this viewpoint, Adams realizes the difficulty. His approach encourages students to think independently but without mastery of a body of knowledge that could be examined or displayed in a measurable way. Thus, while his approach approximates a more accurate understanding of historical dynamism, ironically it fails to be useful.