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The Education of Henry Adams (4) – A Good Education Prepares Us for the Unexpected

“No one man in America wanted the civil war, or expected or intended it. A small minority wanted secession. The vast majority wanted to go on with their occupations in peace. Not one, however clever or learned, guessed what happened. Possibly a few southern loyalists in despair might dream at it as an impossible chance; but none planned it.”

Henry Adams claimed that the Civil War caught the country completely off its guard. He was a young man in his 20s when the war broke out and he complained that he and his generation were completely unprepared for everything they faced. He believed that the education he received prepared him for the world of his father and grandfather, but not for the world in which he lived.

This is a common complaint levied against schools—they prepare us for the world of yesterday and not the world of tomorrow. My cousin recently told me how he was forced to take a high school class that taught him how to write out checks and balance a checkbook. He went on to tell me that he has never written a check in his entire life—he simply uses some program on his phone.

To some degree this is unavoidable. Consider driving. Our kids may someday drive flying cars, but we can’t teach them how to drive them now—we can only pass on to them what we know and have mastered. And yet there is something relevant to this critique. As impossible as it sounds education needs to prepare us for what will come, it needs to prepare us for the unknown and the unexpected.

This, I believe, is one of the greatest strengths of a classical education. I am firmly persuaded that the best way to prepare for the difficulties of the future is to learn how our ancestors overcame the difficulties of the past. The American occupation of Iraq led to a number of unexpected and unpredictable consequences. But knowing history and seeing how democratization has worked (for example, in post-war Japan and Germany) and how it has not worked so well (Vietnam) can give us both models to avoid and embrace. In the same way, we are facing a novel virus that no one could have predicted or prepared for. But this is by no means the first plague humanity has faced! How did early Christians face the plague? We can read about that in Eusebius. How should Christian leaders balance their duty to others and their own safety? Martin Luther has some very sound advice on that topic.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds. Pearl Harbor, 9/11, a presidential assignation, and a pandemic are all within living memory. Life is dangerous and our technology gives us the illusion of predictability and safety, but life is never safe. These last few years have been proof of that. Our children will face difficulties. I can’t tell you what those will be. But in learning how those that have come before us faced difficulties we can instill within our children the knowledge to creatively overcome them as well as the virtue and strength to face them well.