The Education of Henry Adams
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The Education of Henry Adams
The Education of Henry Adams
AuthorHenry Adams
AwardsPulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography

The Education of Henry Adams is an autobiography that records the struggle of Bostonian Henry Adams (1838-1918), in his later years, to come to terms with the dawning 20th century, so different from the world of his youth. It is also a sharp critique of 19th-century educational theory and practice. In 1907, Adams began privately circulating copies of a limited edition printed at his own expense. Commercial publication of the book had to await its author's 1918 death, whereupon it won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize. The Modern Library placed it first in a list of the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.


The Education is more a record of Adams's introspection and his observations than of his deeds. It is an extended meditation on the social, technological, political, and intellectual changes that occurred over Adams's lifetime. Adams concluded that his traditional education failed to help him come to terms with these rapid changes, hence, his need for self-education. The organizing thread of the book is how the "proper" schooling and other aspects of his youth was time wasted, thus, his search for self-education through experiences, friendships, and reading.

Many aspects of the contemporary world emerged during the half-century between the Civil War and World War I, a half-century coinciding with Adams's adult life. An important theme of The Education is its author's bewilderment and concern at the rapid advance in science and technology over the course of his lifetime, sometimes now called Second Industrial Revolution, but incarnated in his term "dynamo". The Education mentions the recent discovery of X-rays and radioactivity, and shows a familiarity with radio waves in his citation of Marconi and Branly. Adams purchased an automobile as early as 1902, to make better use of a summer in France researching Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. He correctly predicted that the 20th century would have even more explosive changes. Adams repeatedly laments that his formal education, grounded in the classics, history, and literature, as was then the fashion, did not give him the scientific and mathematical knowledge needed to grasp the scientific breakthroughs of the 1890s and 1900s.

Adams had direct knowledge of many notable events and persons of the 1850-1900 period, and much of the text is devoted to giving his views on them. The text is written as if readers are already familiar with the major figures and events of the time. The Education repeatedly mentions two long-standing friends of Adams, the scientific explorer of the Far West, Clarence King, and the American diplomat, John Milton Hay, who became Secretary of State. The Education is narrated in the third person. It is frequently sarcastic and humorously self-critical.

The Education does not discuss Adams's marriage, and the illness and 1885 suicide of his wife, Clover; it mostly leaves out the periods from 1872 to 1892. The text does not discuss what this period contributed to his education. He referred to his marriage indirectly, by for example, lamenting how the memorial he had constructed for his wife had become something of a tourist attraction.


Henry Adams' life story is rooted in the American political aristocracy that emerged from the American Revolution. He was the grandson of the American President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President and founding father John Adams. His father, Charles Francis Adams, had served as ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Civil War, and had been elected to the United States House of Representatives. His brother Brooks Adams was also a historian and social critic of note. Henry Adams had received the finest formal education available in the United States, enjoying many other advantages, as well. This social context makes The Education so important, but the trappings of success did not mean much to a restless individualist such as Adams. Rather than take advantage of his patrician name, he sized up this and other advantages and found them wanting.

Persons and events discussed

Adams comments at length on many historic figures and institutions.

John Quincy Adams
Charles Francis Adams Sr
Louisa Adams
The Free Soil Party
Chief Justice Chase
Harvard President Eliot
Chancellor Gladstone
President Ulysses S. Grant
Samuel Langley
Henry Cabot Lodge
Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge
Charles Lyell
Prime minister Palmerston
Foreign minister Russell
Paris Exposition of 1900
Secretary of State William Seward
Secretary of State Hay
Charles Sumner


In chapter 17 (1869), while serving President Grant, a Cabinet officer informed Adams: "You can't use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!", whereupon Adams asked the Secretary "If a Congressman is a hog, what is a Senator?".


The Education is an important work of American literary nonfiction. It provides a penetrating glimpse into the intellectual and political life of the late 19th century. The Modern Library placed it first in a list of the top 100 English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.[1]

Author and historian Garry Wills has suggested The Education contradicts much of Adams' earlier work and opinions, and has biased assessments of Adams' earlier historical works.[2]


  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.
  • Practical politics consists of ignoring facts.
  • Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
  • 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.
  • Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.
  • 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 object of education for that mind should be the teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world.
  • 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 subtle, ready to receive knowledge. (Ch. 4)

Popular culture

In his novel, V., Thomas Pynchon likens his protagonist Herbert Stencil to Henry Adams in the Education as they both refer to themselves in the third person.


  1. ^ "The Modern Library's Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the Century". The New York Times Company. 1999-04-30. Retrieved .
  2. ^ Wills, Gary. Henry Adams and The Making of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2005.

Further reading

Recent collections of interpretive essays include:

  • Rowe, John Carlos, ed., 1996. New Essays on The Education of Henry Adams. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-44573-6. These essays situate The Education in its historical context, especially in light of U.S. foreign policy and of views about education and gender prevailing at the time it was written.
  • Decker, William Merrill, and Earl N. Harbert. Henry Adams & the Need to Know, Massachusetts Historical Society Studies in American History and Culture, No. 8. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society;Charlottesville: Distributed by the University of Virginia Press, 2005.

External links

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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