Tuesday, August 6, 2019

The Education of Henry Adams Essay Example for Free

The Education of Henry Adams Essay Henry Adams wrote a short preface to his landmark autobiography The Education of Henry Adams, which provides crucial clues at to what the book aims at. The first question mark is concerning whether it is an autobiography at all, and according to the admission of the author it is not so in the conventional sense. He tells us that the theme is education, and specifically it searches for a new mode of education that is appropriate to the age of science and mechanization. If he is telling the story of his life, it is as if he is putting himself forward as a manikin in order to expose the misfit of a garment, which here denotes traditional education. Adams wants to demonstrate to us that conventional education has not prepared him for the modern world, and this is the first aim we identify in the preface. The second, and related, aim is to show that such education did not â€Å"educate† his fathers either, despite their smug assurances that it did. The third aim is to demonstrate that all education is self-education. A student cannot ask of his teacher to provide him with an â€Å"education†, but only a mastery of the tools of education. A young man with a keen mind is described as a bundle of energy, but which is liable to go to waste without economical application. The teacher shows him how to use the tools, and thereby how to economize his force. Once the tools have served their purpose they must be discarded, and to demonstrate why this is so is the fourthly stated aim. If the student does not discard the baggage of his education he is liable to be burdened with â€Å"inert facts†, which becomes deadweight to him (Adams 379). The fifth and final aim concerns the vitality of the manikin. To introduce the analogy of the manikin in the first place may suggest that the subject of the autobiography is not really a person at all. Whether he is or not, the manikin must be treated as a real person, for if this is not done the garment of education cannot be tested on the manikin at all. What Adams is really saying is that, although we should distrust the â€Å"I† of the autobiography, because it is a pretentious and largely fictional being, we should empathize to an extent, because autobiography is bound to contain a measure of truth Because he distrusted the autobiographical â€Å"I†, Adams finds an alternative use of the subject of his autobiography, which is as a manikin doll to test suitably of conventional education, and whether it has prepared him for the world. He states that this act of self effacement is a trend started by Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose semi-autobiographical Emile is really an educational tract. Adams is suggesting that autobiography is automatically a narrative of one’s education, and the narrator is simply the means by which this is accomplished. If this is the case, he prefers to do the deed expressly, calling the described character of Henry Adams a manikin doll, and education being the real subject matter. This does not mean that he becomes detached from the character, but he does avoid the â€Å"I† throughout, and narrates the story of Henry Adams strictly in the third person. The central concern of Adams is that conventional education is completely out of touch with the real world. There is no doubt that he gets the best available education for his age, attending the prestigious Harvard College. But his complaint is a fundamental one. Regarding his Harvard education he says: 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, ready to receive knowledge. (Ibid 55) In spite of being fiercely critical of Harvard at all time, what he describes of it, as evidenced in the above passage, is exactly what he states elsewhere that education should be. It is to have mastery of the tools and a remnant of an open mind, so that self education can proceed from thence onwards. Therefore, the point of his attack is not entirely clear. We can understand the criticism, though, from the point of view of the education being anarchic and nihilistic, but this was an indictment against the American educational system as a whole, and not just Harvard. For this he puts science on the dock, saying that if it does not promote a unity in vision. The modern search for scientific truth he relates to the worship of the dynamo, and he contrasts this to the worship of the Virgin, the iconic goddess of traditional Christianity. The worship of the Virgin promoted unity, and for which reason the Catholic Church was able to hold European civilization together in the Middle Ages. Science challenged this vision and overcame it in the end. Science also promised unity. When Francis Bacon propounds the experimental method of observation and induction in the 17th century, his hope was that scientific knowledge may arrive at unity, and one superior to the religious vision of unity because it eliminates mystery, and brings all knowledge into the clear light of day. But the promise of science has been proved to be erroneous, and after 300 years of unfettered science, multiplicity has come to be established as the regular mode of scientific knowledge. Adams maintains that such a situation cannot be dismissed lightly, and the American establishment certainly seems to do so. This is a failure of education, says Adams. Bacon had a clearly set goal of unity before him. But the typical American, confronted with multiplicity, failed to even recognize that there was a problem and â€Å"an elderly American in 1900 knew neither the formula nor the forces† (Ibid 379). The education system is to blame, he says, because it has turned learning into a merely mechanical process, and the learner is not even aware of the underlying purpose anymore. This purpose must be unity, for chaos is never a goal. The modern educated happily tread the path of anarchy and nihilism in learning, not even aware of the paradox that they create for themselves. The implication of Adams is that modern education must teach how to deal with multiplicity. But Adams fails to recognize that the seemingly indifferent American may indeed be well-adapted. He even admits this much when he describes the typical educated American as a â€Å"Christian anarchist†, and says that this faith is â€Å"national, racial, geographic† (Ibid 408). Such a Christian is different from the traditional one in that his belief in Christ does not lead to a unified communal vision, but rather to a personal one, and therefore one tending towards anarchy. Regarding such an American he says: He never had known a complete union either in Church or State or thought, and had never seen any need for it. The freedom gave him courage to meet any contradiction, and intelligence enough to ignore it. (Ibid) This describes someone well adapted to multiplicity. This faith may be fundamentally American, but it cannot be maintained without the complicity of the educational system. The American adopts diversity and multiplicity as a God-given right, but the faith itself unifies the American nation. If the nation is unified, then the goal is none other than unity. In this sense the American educational system offers the best preparation to deal with multiplicity. If Adams feels helpless before multiplicity, it is only because he has not sufficiently imbibed the American faith. And if this is so then we can only say that the American educational system has failed in his instance. Contemplating the theme of unity, Adams judges that history has a direction. If this were not so, and multiplicity was an end in itself, the chaos is the only result. This is a prelude to his â€Å"dynamic theory of history† which he develops later on in the Education. According to this theory, all life is motion, and this motion can either be chaotic or purposeful. Science describes only the chance collision of atoms and molecules, which is but one more way to describe chaos. The historian tries to be scientific in his approach, but fails to notice that the philosophy of science is not conducive to his practice. â€Å"Historians undertake to arrange sequences, called stories, or histories assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect,† he says (Ibid 382). Without realizing it the historian is telling a story that has a moral lesson attached to the end of it, and he does so because he realizes subconsciously that history is dynamic and has a direction. It is Adams purpose is to reform the practice of history, so that the historian becomes conscious of the unity that he is striving for, and does not just blindly tag along with science. But Adams fails to realize that this is exactly how the philosophy of history has progressed along with the advance of science, and found culmination of a sort with the German philosophers and historians, especially through Kant, Hegel and Marx. At one stage he dismisses German philosophy as primitive and faddish, without realizing that his own goals coincide with theirs, and that in relation to them he is far lagging behind. Because dynamism is the lifeblood of history, inertia is the one and only barrier to it. Adams sees America at the forefront of the thrust of history, but he also notices huge swathes of inertia around the world, and he draws attention to the enormous body of China as clinging on to the past. Surveying the political situation, he soon gives up hope that China will ever overcome its political inertia, and shifts his hope towards Russia, which is undulating between the East and West. Russia is also a body enormous inertia, but Adams pins hope on it eventually overcoming this barrier and joining the march of progress. But if history is all encompassing as Adams makes it out to be, then it cannot exclude inertia either. History has a place for both liberalism and reaction. Hegel’s â€Å"grand synthesis† is able to deal with this, whereas Adams’ one dimensional theory of dynamism cannot. A bigger threat than political inertia is sexual inertia. Reproduction and homemaking lies at the root of human existence, and is the perpetual domain of the female. But the new dynamism ushered in by science wants to mechanize all tasks, and to collectivize all people. And to do this he leaves the home and denies sexual identity. Adams describes the plight of the modern man thus: He could not run his machine and a woman too; he must leave her; even though his wife, to find her own way, and all the world saw her trying to find her way by imitating him. (Ibid 445) One could overcome political inertia with difficulty, but overcoming sexual inertia entails the extinction of the race. â€Å"[Y]et an immense force, doubling every few years, was working irresistibly to overcome it,† he says (Ibid 448). In response to this enormous onslaught against her, the woman fights back, for the sake of her own survival and that of the race, by coming out into the man’s world and matching him in deed. This is no doubt a profound and accurate appraisal of woman’s emancipation. But it is also a serious indictment of his own dynamic theory of history, because it then seems to run counter to the female instinct. It also seems to imply that human history is suicidal. In conclusion, Adams proposes a reform of education so that it teaches how to cope with multiplicity, which is the inevitable consequence of the advance of science. Such an education must be based on the dynamic theory of history, which posits that history has a purpose and direction even amidst multiplicity. According to the theory, the only barrier to dynamism is inertia, which may be either political or sexual. This essay has dealt with the ramifications of Adams’ ideas. Works Cited Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography. Contributor Donald Hall. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Books, 2000.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.