I’ve been lying around the last couple of days, reading multiple books. When my brain is fatigued I go back to Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiography, written in the third person, and I am enjoying it immensely. Henry was the great-grandson and grandson of the two Adams presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.
I first met Henry Adams when reading All The Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay from Lincoln to Roosevelt, another very good book.
Hearing first hand accounts about Quincy and Boston in the mid-nineteenth century fascinates me, and the commentary on his Harvard education revealed that my notions about Harvard in that century are not at all accurate:
For generation after generation, Adams’s and Browses and Boylstons and Gorhams had gone to Harvard College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and, above all, economy, kept each generation in the track. Any other education would have required a serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously. All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect. Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and something of what they wanted to make useful ones. Leaders of men it never tried to make. Its ideals were altogether different. The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint, what the French called mesure; excellent traits, which the College attained with singular success, so that its graduates could commonly be recognized by the stamp, but such a type of character rarely lent itself to autobiography. In effect, the school created a type but not a will. Four years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which only a water-mark had been stamped.
I’ve arrived now, in Germany, with Mr. Adams as he continues his “education.” It surprises me, how small the world seems to be as he frequently comes across acquaintances from America. I find myself going to the computer to research places and names he mentions. Reading this is a wonderful way to learn history, and to visit places vicariously, but I especially enjoy the glimpses into that culture and society. And I’ve noticed that human nature is a predictable constant.
The book is available for download at Gutenberg Press.