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The Education of Henry Adams

Harvard College (1854-1858)
ONE day in June, 1854, young Adams walked for the last time down the steps of Mr.
Dixwell's school in Boylston Place, and felt no sensation but one of unqualified joy that
this experience was ended. Never before or afterwards in his life did he close a period so
long as four years without some sensation of loss -- some sentiment of habit -- but school
was what in after life he commonly heard his friends denounce as an intolerable bore. He
was born too old for it. The same thing could be said of most New England boys.
Mentally they never were boys. Their education as men should have begun at ten years
old. They were fully five years more mature than the English or European boy for whom
schools were made. For the purposes of future advancement, as afterwards appeared,
these first six years of a possible education were wasted in doing imperfectly what might
have been done perfectly in one, and in any case would have had small value. The next
regular step was Harvard College. He was more than glad to go. For generation after
generation, Adamses and Brookses and Boylstons and Gorhams had gone to Harvard
College, and although none of them, as far as known, had ever done any good there, or
thought himself the better for it, custom, social ties, convenience, and, above all,
economy, kept each generation in the track. Any other education would have required a
serious effort, but no one took Harvard College seriously. All went there because their
friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect.
Harvard College, as far as it educated at all, was a mild and liberal school, which sent
young men into the world with all they needed to make respectable citizens, and
something of what they wanted to make useful ones. Leaders of men it never tried to
make. Its ideals were altogether different. The Unitarian clergy had given to the College a
character of moderation, balance, judgment, restraint, what the French called mesure;
excellent traits, which the College attained with singular success, so that its graduates
could commonly be recognized by the stamp, but such a type of character rarely lent
itself to autobiography. In effect, the school created a type but not a will. Four years of
Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank, a mind on which
only a water-mark had been stamped.
The stamp, as such things went, was a good one. The chief wonder of education is that it
does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught. Sometimes in after life,
Adams debated whether in fact it had not ruined him and most of his companions, but,
disappointment apart, Harvard College was probably less hurtful than any other
university then in existence. It taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free
from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile. The graduate had few strong prejudices. He knew
little, but his mind remained supple, ready to receive knowledge.
What caused the boy most disappointment was the little he got from his mates. Speaking
exactly, he got less than nothing, a result common enough in education. Yet the College
Catalogue for the years 1854 to 1861 shows a list of names rather distinguished in their
time. Alexander Agassiz and Phillips Brooks led it; H. H. Richardson and O. W. Holmes
helped to close it. As a rule the most promising of all die early, and never get their names
 
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