Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. New York: The Modern Library, 1931.

 

Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. New York: The Modern Library, 1931.

This is a book which belongs here if, for no other reason, than its descriptions of Harvard
University in the last half of the 19th century. But it also belongs here because of Adams' special
efforts at making history a science. He wanted history to share in the tremendous growth in
science. But Adams was no scientist, and he showed a tremendous lack of any real understanding
of what science was all about. In this, he personified America's romance with the promise of
science.

Henry Adams was an undergraduate at Harvard in the l850s. He describes it as a place to go
because all one's friends went there. But he does not describe it as a place to obtain an education.
Quite the contrary: "he got nothing from it." (p. 55) Later in life he checked and found that he
had been ranked in the middle of his class: "...the college offered chiefly advantages vulgarly
called social, rather than mental." (p. 64) For what it is worth, the German universities at which
he studied were even worse: "... but the curious and perplexing result of the total failure of
German education was that the student's only clear gain - his single step to a higher life - came
from time wasted; from studies neglected; vices indulged; education reversed - it came from the
despised beer-garden and music hall; and it was accidental, unintended, unforeseen." (p. 80)

He writes eloquently of the acceptance of Darwinism by those of his class: "The idea was only
too seductive in its perfection. It had the charm of art." (p. 226) "Natural selection led back to
Natural Evolution, and at last to Natural Uniformity. This was a vast stride. Unbroken Evolution
under uniform conditions pleased every one - except curates and bishops; it was the very best
substitute for religion; a safe, conservative, practical, thoroughly Common-law deity." (p. 225)
And, "He was a Darwinian for fun." (p. 232) That is a telling, if brief, collection of statements
about the popularity of Darwinism.

And this quote could be used to describe those who quantify the study of human beings: "Perhaps
the most perplexing part of the study lay in the attitude of the statisticians, who showed no
enthusiastic confidence in their own figures. They should have reached certainty, but they talked
like other men who knew less." (p. 351)