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The Education of Henry Adams

JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU began his famous Confessions by a vehement appeal to
the Deity: "I have shown myself as I was; contemptible and vile when I was so; good,
generous, sublime when I was so; I have unveiled my interior such as Thou thyself hast
seen it, Eternal Father! Collect about me the innumerable swarm of my fellows; let them
hear my confessions; let them groan at my unworthiness; let them blush at my
meannesses! Let each of them discover his heart in his turn at the foot of thy throne with
the same sincerity; and then let any one of them tell thee if he dares: 'I was a better man!'
Jean Jacques was a very great educator in the manner of the eighteenth century, and has
been commonly thought to have had more influence than any other teacher of his time;
but his peculiar method of improving human nature has not been universally admired.
Most educators of the nineteenth century have declined to show themselves before their
scholars as objects more vile or contemptible than necessary, and even the humblest
teacher hides, if possible, the faults with which nature has generously embellished us all,
as it did Jean Jacques, thinking, as most religious minds are apt to do, that the Eternal
Father himself may not feel unmixed pleasure at our thrusting under his eyes chiefly the
least agreeable details of his creation.
As an unfortunate result the twentieth century finds few recent guides to avoid, or to
follow. American literature offers scarcely one working model for high education. The
student must go back, beyond Jean Jacques, to Benjamin Franklin, to find a model even
of self-teaching. Except in the abandoned sphere of the dead languages, no one has
discussed what part of education has, in his personal experience, turned out to be useful,
and what not. This volume attempts to discuss it.
As educator, Jean Jacques was, in one respect, easily first; he erected a monument of
warning against the Ego. Since his time, and largely thanks to him, the Ego has steadily
tended to efface itself, and, for purposes of model, to 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. The tailor adapts the manikin as well as the
clothes to his patron's wants. The tailor's object, in this volume, is to fit young men, in
universities or elsewhere, to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency; and the
garment offered to them is meant to show the faults of the patchwork fitted on their
At the utmost, the active-minded young man should ask of his teacher only mastery of his
tools. The young man himself, the subject of education, is a certain form of energy; the
object to be gained is economy of his force; the training is partly the clearing away of
obstacles, partly the direct application of effort. Once acquired, the tools and models may
be thrown away.