From cradle to grave this problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, has always been, and must always be, the task of education, as it is the moral of religion, philosophy, science, art, politics and economy; but a boy’s will is his life, and he dies when it is broken, as the colt dies in harness, taking a new nature in becoming tame.
The Education of Henry Adams is simultaneously an insightful autobiography written in the third person and a damning critique of modern educational theory and practice. Originally written in 1907, but not published until 1918 after the death of the author, it won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize. It was also recently named the #1 book on Modern Library's 100 Best Nonfiction Books list.
What Is It About?
The book is an autobiography of Henry Adams, who was born into a United States political power family in 1838. The book deals with the changing social, technological, political, and intellectual worlds of his lifetime, but he puts these into an interesting context: he claims that "traditional" education had failed him in dealing with these rapid changes in the world.
His solution was, to a large degree, self-education. Much of the book focuses on his methods of educating himself, both through experiences and through reading, and how "proper" schooling, along with many other things in his life, was a great waste of time.
Two things that sets this work apart from other autobiographies. First, the entire book is told in the third person. This literary device enabled Henry Adams to relate a much stronger narrative, making a great deal of the book flow along much easier than it would have in the first person. The second trait is the self-criticism and sarcasm; Adams steps back from the dryness of many autobiographies and is able to criticize himself greatly, but intertwine it with well-placed humorous and sarcastic elements.
The largest criticism of the book is that Adams consciously left out the experience of his marriage and subsequent death of his wife, and did not reflect on what he had learned from it. This turns out to be a superficial criticism; he does, in fact, reflect on this in many indirect ways. Most directly, he laments the fact that the beautiful memorial that he had constructed for his wife had become something of a tourist destination, but beyond this, one can note a change in his perspectives after her death.
Henry Adams' story is rooted in the political aristocracy of the late 1800s in America. Himself being the great granchild of John Adams and the grandchild of John Quincy Adams, and his father having served as a diplomat and senator, Adams' entire life was lived out among the aristocracy. He received the finest schooling and had every opportunity available to him.
It is this social context that makes the work so important. Rather than take these opportunities and promote them for the name value that they had, he instead took much of what had been provided to him and deemed it a failure. Henry Adams was an individualist, and such the trappings of success handed to him on a silver platter did not mean much. He sought to learn things himself, and an individual provided with such self-direction is bound to be a man worth learning about.
I would consider this book to be one of the essential nonfiction works of American literature, alongside Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, and the journals of Lewis and Clark. It provides a strong glimpse into the intellectual and political spheres of the late 19th century in the United States, without being bogged down with a particular dogmatic perspective that befalls other writers in the same timeframe (read Ulysses S. Grant's autobiography for an example of this).
I also consider this book to be one of the greatest advocacies ever written for the concept of homeschooling. Adams makes a strong negative case for traditional Prussian-style schooling (which is what most Americans and Europeans experience in their school system), instead opting for a directed and self-educated approach relying on discussion, reflection, and experience.
Reading It Yourself
The work is available freely online through Project Gutenberg; you can immediately begin reading the work at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext00/eduha10h.htm or download a version of your choice at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/2044.
The book is also in print from several publishers. I own the Penguin Classics edition (ISBN: 0140445579) which is softcover; other editions include the Oxford World Classics edition (ISBN: 0192823698) and the Mariner Books edition (ISBN: 0618056661) with its distinct cover, among countless others.
If you're interested in a selection of discussion topics on The Education of Henry Adams, I highly recommend New Essays on The Education of Henry Adams, published in 1996 by Cambridge University (ISBN: 0521445736). Many of the essays help to place The Education into historical context, particularly in terms of early 20th century attitudes toward education, gender, and U.S. foreign policy.
Here are some delicious quotations from the book, suitable for any signature file.
Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.
The Ego has ... become a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes. The object of study is the garment, not the figure.
Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.
Practical politics consists of ignoring facts.
No mind is so well balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion.
Practical politics consists of ignoring facts.
And my personal favorite...
Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.