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The Education of Henry Adams

Failure (1871)
FAR back in childhood, among its earliest memories, Henry Adams could recall his first
visit to Harvard College. He must have been nine years old when on one of the singularly
gloomy winter afternoons which beguiled Cambridgeport, his mother drove him out to
visit his aunt, Mrs. Everett. Edward Everett was then President of the college and lived in
the old President's House on Harvard Square. The boy remembered the drawing-room, on
the left of the hall door, in which Mrs. Everett received them. He remembered a marble
greyhound in the corner. The house had an air of colonial self-respect that impressed
even a nine-year-old child.
When Adams closed his interview with President Eliot, he asked the Bursar about his
aunt's old drawing-room, for the house had been turned to base uses. The room and the
deserted kitchen adjacent to it were to let. He took them. Above him, his brother Brooks,
then a law student, had rooms, with a private staircase. Opposite was J. R. Dennett, a
young instructor almost as literary as Adams himself, and more rebellious to conventions.
Inquiry revealed a boarding-table, somewhere in the neighborhood, also supposed to be
superior in its class. Chauncey Wright, Francis Wharton, Dennett, John Fiske, or their
equivalents in learning and lecture, were seen there, among three or four law students like
Brooks Adams. With these primitive arrangements, all of them had to be satisfied. The
standard was below that of Washington, but it was, for the moment, the best.
For the next nine months the Assistant Professor had no time to waste on comforts or
amusements. He exhausted all his strength in trying to keep one day ahead of his duties.
Often the stint ran on, till night and sleep ran short. He could not stop to think whether he
were doing the work rightly. He could not get it done to please him, rightly or wrongly,
for he never could satisfy himself what to do.
The fault he had found with Harvard College as an undergraduate must have been more
or less just, for the college was making a great effort to meet these self-criticisms, and
had elected President Eliot in 1869 to carry out its reforms. Professor Gurney was one of
the leading reformers, and had tried his hand on his own department of History. The two
full Professors of History -- Torrey and Gurney, charming men both -- could not cover
the ground. Between Gurney's classical courses and Torrey's modern ones, lay a gap of a
thousand years, which Adams was expected to fill. The students had already elected
courses numbered 1, 2, and 3, without knowing what was to be taught or who was to
teach. If their new professor had asked what idea was in their minds, they must have
replied that nothing at all was in their minds, since their professor had nothing in his, and
down to the moment he took his chair and looked his scholars in the face, he had given,
as far as he could remember, an hour, more or less, to the Middle Ages.
Not that his ignorance troubled him! He knew enough to be ignorant. His course had led
him through oceans of ignorance; he had tumbled from one ocean into another till he had
learned to swim; but even to him education was a serious thing. A parent gives life, but as
parent, gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects