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The Education of Henry Adams (1) – Deconstructionism is not Enough

Henry Adams was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams. In addition to his family pedigree, Henry Adams was a prominent figure in his own right. As a young man he took part in a diplomatic mission to England that helped keep England from allying herself with the southern Confederacy during the Civil War. Adams taught at Harvard, was a respected author during his lifetime, and was either acquainted with or an intimate of the most influential men of his age—from Giuseppe Garibaldi to Theodore Roosevelt.

As an older man he reflected on his education and how it had failed to prepare him for the trials and difficulties of the modern age. He published these reflections in The Education of Henry Adams. I had heard from a few different sources that this is a great book for classical educators to read, so I read it. To be honest I didn’t find it terribly interesting or helpful, but there are some good insights worth sharing. Over the next five weeks I will share some thoughts with you all from this work. This week I’ll write about the problem of simplistic critical thinking.

Regarding the education of his childhood (which took place in New England in the 1840s), Adams remarked “The children reached manhood without knowing religion, and with the certainty that dogma, metaphysics and abstract philosophy were not worth knowing.”

Adams believed this was a disservice. The children of his age were shown the “problems” within traditional belief systems, but nothing was offered in their place. This turned them into cynics and skeptics; they became cynical of higher values and skeptical of any certain knowledge. According to Adams, this hindered their ability to think through difficult situations, which in turn left them haplessly unprepared for our nation’s most difficult hour: the Civil War. Should one kill his fellow countrymen to keep them in the Union? Should a southerner refuse to fight for his “country” if he believed the goals of the Confederacy were wrong? Without religion and without philosophy the young men of Adams’s age did not have a solid basis from which to work through these questions. Many, like Adams, found themselves paralyzed in their decision-making by their chronic uncertainty. And when they finally did make a decision, they doubted whether the goals they were working towards were worth the sacrifices asked of them. 

We face similar difficulties today. For a couple of generations educators have focused on demythologizing. They seek to show that past leaders were not as great as we believe; they were imperfect and even wicked. What is more, in our effort to teach “critical thinking” we often teach our children how to tear things down without teaching them how to recognize true things or how to build habits of thought and character around wise and courageous examples. But if we undermine all the men and women of the past, who is left for them to look up to and imitate? George Washington, for example, owned slaves and this is indeed inexcusable. But I would rather my children imitate him (in his non-slave owning capacities) than virtually anyone in our federal government today. Martin Luther apparently (I haven’t personally come across this in my reading, but I have heard this a number of times) held some anti-Semitic views. I would rather have my children imitate him (minus his anti-Semitism of course) than the professional athletes that flash across their screens. Young people need examples to imitate—it is a necessary part of their development. If we undermine every person from the past they will be left with only the present and many prominent people today are not worth imitating.

In the same way, if we undermine traditional beliefs in our effort to teach “critical thinking” it is not as if our students will believe nothing. They will either lapse into the type of paralyzing skepticism that Adams suffered from or be carried off by the Zeitgeist of their age (i.e. whatever beliefs happen to be popular at the moment).

Much of modern education is built around tearing things down (e.g. deconstructionism). But this is not enough! It is not enough to show kids the faults of various ways of thinking or of the men and women that have come before us; we need to show them how to recognize true things. We need to show them how to distinguish between the mistakes and accomplishments of our ancestors and exhort them to imitate that which is worthy of imitation. Only then will we have young men and women that believe the truth, are confident in their beliefs, and zealous to live out what is good, true, and beautiful in their lives.