Chapter XX (The Education of Henry Adams)

Failure (1871)

FAR back in childhood, among its earliest memories, Henry Adams
could recall his first visit to Harvard College. He must have been
nine years old when on one of the singularly gloomy winter
afternoons which beguiled Cambridgeport, his mother drove him out to
visit his aunt, Mrs. Everett. Edward Everett was then President of the
college and lived in the old President’s House on Harvard Square.
The boy remembered the drawing-room, on the left of the hall door,
in which Mrs. Everett received them. He remembered a marble
greyhound in the corner. The house had an air of colonial self-respect
that impressed even a nine-year-old child.
When Adams closed his interview with President Eliot, he asked
the Bursar about his aunt’s old drawing-room, for the house had been
turned to base uses. The room and the deserted kitchen adjacent to
it were to let. He took them. Above him, his brother Brooks, then a
law student, had rooms, with a private staircase. Opposite was J. R.
Dennett, a young instructor almost as literary as Adams himself, and
more rebellious to conventions. Inquiry revealed a boarding-table,
somewhere in the neighborhood, also supposed to be superior in its
class. Chauncey Wright, Francis Wharton, Dennett, John Fiske, or their
equivalents in learning and lecture, were seen there, among three or
four law students like Brooks Adams. With these primitive
arrangements, all of them had to be satisfied. The standard was
below that of Washington, but it was, for the moment, the best.
For the next nine months the Assistant Professor had no time to
waste on comforts or amusements. He exhausted all his strength in
trying to keep one day ahead of his duties. Often the stint ran on,
till night and sleep ran short. He could not stop to think whether
he were doing the work rightly. He could not get it done to please
him, rightly or wrongly, for he never could satisfy himself what to
The fault he had found with Harvard College as an undergraduate
must have been more or less just, for the college was making a great
effort to meet these self-criticisms, and had elected President
Eliot in 1869 to carry out its reforms. Professor Gurney was one of
the leading reformers, and had tried his hand on his own department of
History. The two full Professors of History- Torrey and Gurney,
charming men both- could not cover the ground. Between Gurney’s
classical courses and Torrey’s modern ones, lay a gap of a thousand
years, which Adams was expected to fill. The students had already
elected courses numbered 1, 2, and 3, without knowing what was to be
taught or who was to teach. If their new professor had asked what idea
was in their minds, they must have replied that nothing at all was
in their minds, since their professor had nothing in his, and down
to the moment he took his chair and looked his scholars in the face,
he had given, as far as he could remember, an hour, more or less, to
the Middle Ages.
{CH_XX ^paragraph 5}
Not that his ignorance troubled him! He knew enough to be ignorant.
His course had led him through oceans of ignorance; he had tumbled
from one ocean into another till he had learned to swim; but even to
him education was a serious thing. A parent gives life, but as parent,
gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A
teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
A teacher is expected to teach truth, and may perhaps flatter
himself that he does so, if he stops with the alphabet or the
multiplication table, as a mother teaches truth by making her child
eat with a spoon; but morals are quite another truth and philosophy is
more complex still. A teacher must either treat history as a
catalogue, a record, a romance, or as an evolution; and whether he
affirms or denies evolution, he falls into all the burning faggots
of the pit. He makes of his scholars either priests or atheists,
plutocrats or socialists, judges or anarchists, almost in spite of
himself. In essence incoherent and immoral, history had either to be
taught as such- or falsified.
Adams wanted to do neither. He had no theory of evolution to teach,
and could not make the facts fit one. He had no fancy for telling
agreeable tales to amuse sluggish-minded boys, in order to publish
them afterwards as lectures. He could still less compel his students
to learn the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Venerable Bede by heart. He
saw no relation whatever between his students and the Middle Ages
unless it were the Church, and there the ground was particularly
dangerous. He knew better than though he were a professional historian
that the man who should solve the riddle of the Middle Ages and
bring them into the line of evolution from past to present, would be a
greater man than Lamarck or Linnaeus; but history had nowhere broken
down so pitiably, or avowed itself so hopelessly bankrupt, as there.
Since Gibbon, the spectacle was almost a scandal. History had lost
even the sense of shame. It was a hundred years behind the
experimental sciences. For all serious purpose, it was less
instructive than Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas.
All this was without offence to Sir Henry Maine, Tylor, McLennan,
Buckle, Auguste Comte, and the various philosophers who, from time
to time, stirred the scandal, and made it more scandalous. No doubt, a
teacher might make some use of these writers or their theories; but
Adams could fit them into no theory of his own. The college expected
him to pass at least half his time in teaching the boys a few
elementary dates and relations, that they might not be a disgrace to
the university. This was formal; and he could frankly tell the boys
that, provided they passed their examinations, they might get their
facts where they liked, and use the teacher only for questions. The
only privilege a student had that was worth his claiming, was that
of talking to the professor, and the professor was bound to
encourage it. His only difficulty on that side was to get them to talk
at all. He had to devise schemes to find what they were thinking
about, and induce them to risk criticism from their fellows. Any large
body of students stifles the student. No man can instruct more than
half-a-dozen students at once. The whole problem of education is one
of its cost in money.
The lecture system to classes of hundreds, which was very much that
of the twelfth century, suited Adams not at all. Barred from
philosophy and bored by facts, he wanted to teach his students
something not wholly useless. The number of students whose minds
were of an order above the average was, in his experience, barely
one in ten; the rest could not be much stimulated by any inducements a
teacher could suggest. All were respectable, and in seven years of
contact, Adams never had cause to complain of one; but nine minds in
ten take polish passively, like a hard surface; only the tenth
sensibly reacts.
Adams thought that, as no one seemed to care what he did, he
would try to cultivate this tenth mind, though necessarily at the
expense of the other nine. He frankly acted on the rule that a
teacher, who knew nothing of his subject, should not pretend to
teach his scholars what he did not know, but should join them in
trying to find the best way of learning it. The rather pretentious
name of historical method was sometimes given to this process of
instruction, but the name smacked of German pedagogy, and a young
professor who respected neither history nor method, and whose sole
object of interest was his students’ minds, fell into trouble enough
without adding to it a German parentage.
{CH_XX ^paragraph 10}
The task was doomed to failure for a reason which he could not
control. Nothing is easier than to teach historical method, but,
when learned, it has little use. History is a tangled skein that one
may take up at any point, and break when one has unravelled enough;
but complexity precedes evolution. The Pteraspis grins horribly from
the closed entrance. One may not begin at the beginning, and one has
but the loosest relative truths to follow up. Adams found himself
obliged to force his material into some shape to which a method
could be applied. He could think only of law as subject; the Law
School as end; and he took, as victims of his experiment, half-a-dozen
highly intelligent young men who seemed willing to work. The course
began with the beginning, as far as the books showed a beginning in
primitive man, and came down through the Salic Franks to the Norman
English. Since no textbooks existed, the professor refused to profess,
knowing no more than his students, and the students read what they
pleased and compared their results. As pedagogy, nothing could be more
triumphant. The boys worked like rabbits, and dug holes all over the
field of archaic society; no difficulty stopped them; unknown
languages yielded before their attack, and customary law became
familiar as the police court; undoubtedly they learned, after a
fashion, to chase an idea, like a hare, through as dense a thicket
of obscure facts as they were likely to meet at the bar; but their
teacher knew from his own experience that his wonderful method led
nowhere, and they would have to exert themselves to get rid of it in
the Law School even more than they exerted themselves to acquire it in
the college. Their science had no system, and could have none, since
its subject was merely antiquarian. Try as hard as he might, the
professor could not make it actual.
What was the use of training an active mind to waste its energy?
The experiments might in time train Adams as a professor, but this
result was still less to his taste. He wanted to help the boys to a
career, but not one of his many devices to stimulate the
intellectual reaction of the student’s mind satisfied either him or
the students. For himself he was clear that the fault lay in the
system, which could lead only to inertia. Such little knowledge of
himself as he possessed warranted him in affirming that his mind
required conflict, competition, contradiction even more than that of
the student. He too wanted a rank-list to set his name upon. His
reform of the system would have begun in the lecture-room at his own
desk. He would have seated a rival assistant professor opposite him,
whose business should be strictly limited to expressing opposite
views. Nothing short of this would ever interest either the
professor or the student; but of all university freaks, no
irregularity shocked the intellectual atmosphere so much as
contradiction or competition between teachers. In that respect the
thirteenth-century university system was worth the whole teaching of
the modern school.
All his pretty efforts to create conflicts of thought among his
students failed for want of system. None met the needs of instruction.
In spite of President Eliot’s reforms and his steady, generous,
liberal support, the system remained costly, clumsy and futile. The
university- as far as it was represented by Henry Adams- produced at
great waste of time and money results not worth reaching.
He made use of his lost two years of German schooling to inflict
their results on his students, and by a happy chance he was in the
full tide of fashion. The Germans were crowning their new emperor at
Versailles, and surrounding his head with a halo of Pepins and
Merwigs, Othos and Barbarossas. James Bryce had even discovered the
Holy Roman Empire. Germany was never so powerful, and the Assistant
Professor of History had nothing else as his stock in trade. He
imposed Germany on his scholars with a heavy hand. He was rejoiced;
but he sometimes doubted whether they should be grateful. On the
whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way
he had taught it. The seven years he passed in teaching seemed to
him lost.
The uses of adversity are beyond measure strange. As a professor,
he regarded himself as a failure. Without false modesty he thought
he knew what he meant. He had tried a great many experiments, and
wholly succeeded in none. He had succumbed to the weight of the
system. He had accomplished nothing that he tried to do. He regarded
the system as wrong: more mischievous to the teachers than to the
students; fallacious from the beginning to end. He quitted the
university at last, in 1877, with a feeling, that, if it had not
been for the invariable courtesy and kindness shown by every one in
it, from the President to the injured students, he should be sore at
his failure.
{CH_XX ^paragraph 15}
These were his own feelings, but they seemed not to be felt in
the college. With the same perplexing impartiality that had so much
disconcerted him in his undergraduate days, the college insisted on
expressing an opposite view. John Fiske went so far in his notice of
the family in “Appleton’s Cyclopedia,” as to say that Henry had left a
great reputation at Harvard College; which was a proof of John Fiske’s
personal regard that Adams heartily returned; and set the kind
expression down to camaraderie. The case was different when
President Eliot himself hinted that Adams’s services merited
recognition. Adams could have wept on his shoulder in hysterics, so
grateful was he for the rare good-will that inspired the compliment;
but he could not allow the college to think that he esteemed himself
entitled to distinction. He knew better, and his was among the
failures which were respectable enough to deserve self-respect. Yet
nothing in the vanity of life struck him as more humiliating than that
Harvard College, which he had persistently criticised, abused,
abandoned, and neglected, should alone have offered him a dollar, an
office, an encouragement, or a kindness. Harvard College might have
its faults, but at least it redeemed America, since it was true to its
The only part of education that the professor thought a success was
the students. He found them excellent company. Cast more or less in
the same mould, without violent emotions or sentiment, and, except for
the veneer of American habits, ignorant of all that man had ever
thought or hoped, their minds burst open like flowers at the
sunlight of a suggestion. They were quick to respond; plastic to a
mould; and incapable of fatigue. Their faith in education was so
full of pathos that one dared not ask them what they thought they
could do with education when they got it. Adams did put the question
to one of them, and was surprised at the answer: “The degree of
Harvard College is worth money to me in Chicago.” This reply upset his
experience; for the degree of Harvard College had been rather a
drawback to a young man in Boston and Washington. So far as it went,
the answer was good, and settled one’s doubts. Adams knew no better,
although he had given twenty years to pursuing the same education, and
was no nearer a result than they. He still had to take for granted
many things that they need not- among the rest, that his teaching
did them more good than harm. In his own opinion the greatest good
he could do them was to hold his tongue. They needed much faith
then; they were likely to need more if they lived long.
He never knew whether his colleagues shared his doubts about
their own utility. Unlike himself, they knew more or less their
business. He could not tell his scholars that history glowed with
social virtue; the Professor of Chemistry cared not a chemical atom
whether society was virtuous or not. Adams could not pretend that
mediaeval society proved evolution; the Professor of Physics smiled at
evolution. Adams was glad to dwell on the virtues of the Church and
the triumphs of its art: the Professor of Political Economy had to
treat them as waste of force. They knew what they had to teach; he did
not. They might perhaps be frauds without knowing it; but he knew
certainly nothing else of himself. He could teach his students
nothing; he was only educating himself at their cost.
Education, like politics, is a rough affair, and every instructor
has to shut his eyes and hold his tongue as though he were a priest.
The students alone satisfied. They thought they gained something.
Perhaps they did, for even in America and in the twentieth century,
life could not be wholly industrial. Adams fervently hoped that they
might remain content; but supposing twenty years more to pass, and
they should turn on him as fiercely as he had turned on his old
instructors- what answer could he make? The college had pleaded
guilty, and tried to reform. He had pleaded guilty from the start, and
his reforms had failed before those of the college.
The lecture-room was futile enough, but the faculty-room was worse.
American society feared total wreck in the maelstrom of political
and corporate administration, but it could not look for help to
college dons. Adams knew, in that capacity, both Congressmen and
professors, and he preferred Congressmen. The same failure marked
the society of a college. Several score of the best-educated, most
agreeable, and personally the most sociable people in America united
in Cambridge to make a social desert that would have starved a polar
bear. The liveliest and most agreeable of men- James Russell Lowell,
Francis J. Child, Louis Agassiz, his son Alexander, Gurney, John
Fiske, William James and a dozen others, who would have made the joy
of London or Paris- tried their best to break out and be like other
men in Cambridge and Boston, but society called them professors, and
professors they had to be. While all these brilliant men were greedy
for companionship, all were famished for want of it. Society was a
faculty-meeting without business. The elements were there; but society
cannot be made up of elements- people who are expected to be silent
unless they have observations to make- and all the elements are
bound to remain apart if required to make observations.
{CH_XX ^paragraph 20}
Thus it turned out that of all his many educations, Adams thought
that of school-teacher the thinnest. Yet he was forced to admit that
the education of an editor, in some ways, was thinner still. The
editor had barely time to edit; he had none to write. If copy fell
short, he was obliged to scribble a book-review on the virtues of
the Anglo-Saxons or the vices of the Popes; for he knew more about
Edward the Confessor or Boniface VIII than he did about President
Grant. For seven years he wrote nothing; the Review lived on his
brother Charles’s railway articles. The editor could help others,
but could do nothing for himself. As a writer, he was totally
forgotten by the time he had been an editor for twelve months. As
editor he could find no writer to take his place for politics and
affairs of current concern. The Review became chiefly historical.
Russell Lowell and Frank Palgrave helped him to keep it literary.
The editor was a helpless drudge whose successes, if he made any,
belonged to his writers; but whose failures might easily bankrupt
himself. Such a Review may be made a sink of money with captivating
ease. The secrets of success as an editor were easily learned; the
highest was that of getting advertisements. Ten pages of advertising
made an editor a success; five marked him as a failure. The merits
or demerits of his literature had little to do with his results except
when they led to adversity.
A year or two of education as editor satiated most of his
appetite for that career as a profession. After a very slight
experience, he said no more on the subject. He felt willing to let any
one edit, if he himself might write. Vulgarly speaking, it was a dog’s
life when it did not succeed, and little better when it did. A
professor had at least the pleasure of associating with his
students; an editor lived the life of an owl. A professor commonly
became a pedagogue or a pedant; an editor became an authority on
advertising. On the whole, Adams preferred his attic in Washington. He
was educated enough. Ignorance paid better, for at least it earned
fifty dollars a month.
With this result Henry Adams’s education, at his entry into life,
stopped, and his life began. He had to take that life as he best
could, with such accidental education as luck had given him; but he
held that it was wrong, and that, if he were to begin again, he
would do it on a better system. He thought he knew nearly what
system to pursue. At that time Alexander Agassiz had not yet got his
head above water so far as to serve for a model, as he did twenty or
thirty years afterwards; but the editorship of the North American
Review had one solitary merit; it made the editor acquainted at a
distance with almost every one in the country who could write or who
could be the cause of writing. Adams was vastly pleased to be received
among these clever people as one of themselves, and felt always a
little surprised at their treating him as an equal, for they all had
education; but among them, only one stood out in extraordinary
prominence as the type and model of what Adams would have liked to be,
and of what the American, as he conceived, should have been and was
Thanks to the article on Sir Charles Lyell, Adams passed for a
friend of geologists, and the extent of his knowledge mattered much
less to them than the extent of his friendship, for geologists were as
a class not much better off than himself, and friends were sorely few.
One of his friends from earliest childhood, and nearest neighbor in
Quincy, Frank Emmons, had become a geologist and joined the Fortieth
Parallel Survey under Government. At Washington in the winter of
1869-70 Emmons had invited Adams to go out with him on one of the
field-parties in summer. Of course when Adams took the Review he put
it at the service of the Survey, and regretted only that he could
not do more. When the first year of professing and editing was at last
over, and his July North American appeared, he drew a long breath of
relief, and took the next train for the West. Of his year’s work he
was no judge. He had become a small spring in a large mechanism, and
his work counted only in the sum; but he had been treated civilly by
everybody, and he felt at home even in Boston. Putting in his pocket
the July number of the North American, with a notice of the Fortieth
Parallel Survey by Professor J. D. Whitney, he started for the
plains and the Rocky Mountains.
In the year 1871, the West was still fresh, and the Union Pacific
was young. Beyond the Missouri River, one felt the atmosphere of
Indians and buffaloes. One saw the last vestiges of an old
education, worth studying if one would; but it was not that which
Adams sought; rather, he came out to spy upon the land of the
future. The Survey occasionally borrowed troopers from the nearest
station in case of happening on hostile Indians, but otherwise the
topographers and geologists thought more about minerals than about
Sioux. They held under their hammers a thousand miles of mineral
country with all its riddles to solve, and its stores of possible
wealth to mark. They felt the future in their hands.
{CH_XX ^paragraph 25}
Emmons’s party was out of reach in the Uintahs, but Arnold
Hague’s had come in to Laramie for supplies, and they took charge of
Adams for a time. Their wanderings or adventures matter nothing to the
story of education. They were all hardened mountaineers and
surveyors who took everything for granted, and spared each other the
most wearisome bore of English and Scotch life, the stories of the big
game they killed. A bear was an occasional amusement; a wapiti was a
constant necessity; but the only wild animal dangerous to man was a
rattlesnake or a skunk. One shot for amusement, but one had other
matters to talk about.
Adams enjoyed killing big game, but loathed the labor of cutting it
up; so that he rarely unslung the little carbine he was in a manner
required to carry. On the other hand, he liked to wander off alone
on his mule, and pass the day fishing a mountain stream or exploring a
valley. One morning when the party was camped high above Estes Park,
on the flank of Long’s Peak, he borrowed a rod, and rode down over a
rough trail into Estes Park, for some trout. The day was fine, and
hazy with the smoke of forest fires a thousand miles away; the park
stretched its English beauties off to the base of its bordering
mountains in natural landscape and archaic peace; the stream was
just fishy enough to tempt lingering along its banks. Hour after
hour the sun moved westward and the fish moved eastward, or
disappeared altogether, until at last when the fisherman cinched his
mule, sunset was nearer than he thought. Darkness caught him before he
could catch his trail. Not caring to tumble into some fifty-foot hole,
he “allowed” he was lost, and turned back. In half-an-hour he was
out of the hills, and under the stars of Estes Park, but he saw no
prospect of supper or of bed.
Estes Park was large enough to serve for a bed on a summer night
for an army of professors, but the supper question offered
difficulties. There was but one cabin in the Park, near its
entrance, and he felt no great confidence in finding it, but he
thought his mule cleverer than himself, and the dim lines of
mountain crest against the stars fenced his range of error. The
patient mule plodded on without other road than the gentle slope of
the ground, and some two hours must have passed before a light
showed in the distance. As the mule came up to the cabin door, two
or three men came out to see the stranger.
One of these men was Clarence King on his way up to the camp. Adams
fell into his arms. As with most friendships, it was never a matter of
growth or doubt. Friends are born in archaic horizons; they were
shaped with the Pteraspis in Siluria; they have nothing to do with the
accident of space. King had come up that day from Greeley in a light
four-wheeled buggy, over a trail hardly fit for a commissariat mule,
as Adams had reason to know since he went back in the buggy. In the
cabin, luxury provided a room and one bed for guests. They shared
the room and the bed, and talked till far towards dawn.
King had everything to interest and delight Adams. He knew more
than Adams did of art and poetry; he knew America, especially west
of the hundredth meridian, better than any one; he knew the
professor by heart, and he knew the Congressman better than he did the
professor. He knew even women; even the American woman; even the New
York woman, which is saying much. Incidentally he knew more
practical geology than was good for him, and saw ahead at least one
generation further than the text-books. That he saw right was a
different matter. Since the beginning of time no man has lived who
is known to have seen right; the charm of King was that he saw what
others did and a great deal more. His wit and humor; his bubbling
energy which swept every one into the current of his interest; his
personal charm of youth and manners; his faculty of giving and taking,
profusely, lavishly, whether in thought or in money as though he
were Nature herself, marked him almost alone among Americans. He had
in him something of the Greek- a touch of Alcibiades or Alexander. One
Clarence King only existed in the world.
{CH_XX ^paragraph 30}
A new friend is always a miracle, but at thirty-three years old,
such a bird of paradise rising in the sage-brush was an avatar. One
friend in a lifetime is much; two are many; three are hardly possible.
Friendship needs a certain parallelism of life, a community of
thought, a rivalry of aim. King, like Adams, and all their generation,
was at that moment passing the critical point of his career. The
one, coming from the west, saturated with the sunshine of the Sierras,
met the other, drifting from the east, drenched in the fogs of London,
and both had the same problems to handle- the same stock of
implements- the same field to work in; above all, the same obstacles
to overcome.
As a companion, King’s charm was great, but this was not the
quality that so much attracted Adams, nor could he affect even distant
rivalry on this ground. Adams could never tell a story, chiefly
because he always forgot it; and he was never guilty of a witticism,
unless by accident. King and the Fortieth Parallel influenced him in a
way far more vital. The lines of their lives converged, but King had
moulded and directed his life logically, scientifically, as Adams
thought American life should be directed. He had given himself
education all of a piece, yet broad. Standing in the middle of his
career, where their paths at last came together, he could look back
and look forward on a straight line, with scientific knowledge for its
base. Adams’s life, past or future, was a succession of violent breaks
or waves, with no base at all. King’s abnormal energy had already
won him great success. None of his contemporaries had done so much,
single-handed, or were likely to leave so deep a trail. He had managed
to induce Congress to adopt almost its first modern act of
legislation. He had organized, as a civil- not military- measure, a
Government Survey. He had paralleled the Continental Railway in
Geology; a feat as yet unequalled by other governments which had as
a rule no continents to survey. He was creating one of the classic
scientific works of the century. The chances were great that he could,
whenever he chose to quit the Government service, take the pick of the
gold and silver, copper or coal, and build up his fortune as he
pleased. Whatever prize he wanted lay ready for him- scientific,
social, literary, political -and he knew how to take them in turn.
With ordinary luck he would die at eighty the richest and most
many-sided genius of his day.
So little egoistic he was that none of his friends felt envy of his
extraordinary superiority, but rather grovelled before it, so that
women were jealous of the power he had over men; but women were many
and Kings were one. The men worshipped not so much their friend, as
the ideal American they all wanted to be. The women were jealous
because, at heart, King had no faith in the American woman; he loved
types more robust.
The young men of the Fortieth Parallel had Californian instincts;
they were brothers of Bret Harte. They felt no leanings towards the
simple uniformities of Lyell and Darwin; they saw little proof of
slight and imperceptible changes; to them, catastrophe was the law
of change; they cared little for simplicity and much for complexity;
but it was the complexity of Nature, not of New York or even of the
Mississippi Valley. King loved paradox; he started them like
rabbits, and cared for them no longer, when caught or lost; but they
delighted Adams, for they helped, among other things, to persuade
him that history was more amusing than science. The only question left
open to doubt was their relative money value.
In Emmons’s camp, far up in the Uintahs, these talks were continued
till the frosts became sharp in the mountains. History and science
spread out in personal horizons towards goals no longer far away. 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.