Today our Great Books club discussed The Education of Henry Adams written by John Quincy Adams’ grandson (John Adams’ great grandson). It’s a memoire of Henry Adam’s youth with tales of a boy, who like many, didn’t see a lot of benefit to schooling.
Throughout Adams’ includes reflections on how he first thought everyone had presidents in their family, that that was no big deal. He spoke of how around his home his father Charles Adams, a diplomat, would discuss high-minded ideas with virtuous men. As you’d imagine his family socialized with the best and the brightest.
One story I liked was how one day while visiting his grandparents, little Henry refused to go to school. His mother was having no luck with the feisty Henry. Suddenly, the door to his grandfather’s office opened. John Quincy Adams put on his hat, took the boy by the hand and without a word delivered the boy to school. After that, Henry went to school though he didn’t feel it improved him much.
At one point his family moved from Massachusetts to Washington, DC. He was shocked an appalled by the state of things in this slave state. The streets were dirty, the place smelled and the poverty was shocking. He was overwhelmed by the injustice of slavery all around him.
When he was 16 he went to Harvard, of which he thought little. There were no admission standards at the time and the school was something of a club for the elite. He wrote of himself in the third person:
Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions, but, disappointment apart Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other University then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew little, but his mind remained supple . . . what caused the boy the most disappointment was the little he got from his mates. Speaking exactly, he got less than nothing, a result common enough in education.
According to Adams, and I generally agree, is that the more people you pack into a class, the less you’ll learn. I’m no fan of the lecture courses with 100 or more students, which is what Adams had at Harvard. I do think one on one or small group interaction. Adams was lucky to be born into a family and circle that had so many great thinkers I wasn’t surprised that Adams learned more at the dinner table than in a classroom.
The book was lively and a wonderful glimpse into an important era in U.S. history. Adams’ style was brisk and engaging.