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The Education of Henry Adams

Henry Adams

Summary and Analysis Chapter IV - Harvard College


Henry completes the preparatory course of study at the private Latin School of E. S. Dixwell, Boston, in June of 1854 and begins collegiate studies at Harvard on August 31. The narrator has very little good to say of either experience. Henry becomes acquainted with several Virginians at Harvard, including the son of Robert E. Lee, and claims to like them; but his descriptions of the students reveal a deep prejudice against all Southerners. Henry condemns the course of study at Harvard but blames himself, as well, for his failure to advance in intellect or maturity. Despite efforts at self-effacement, he does seem pleased to be elected Class Orator in a close contest against the class's top scholar (Henry says he himself was an average student) who is, Adams insists, the more popular fellow. Again, Adams tells his readers that education has not yet commenced.


The narrator's evaluation of formal education is negative beyond reason. He concludes that Henry's prep school experience was a complete waste of time, an "intolerable bore," and completed with "unqualified joy." Even at his birth, he says, he was too mature for this curriculum! Six years of such study could be surpassed in one; even then, it would have little merit.

Harvard, he claims, is no better. No one takes the school seriously, he reports; it teaches very little and that, poorly. Here, four years could be completed in four months. Harvard College is a "negative force" because it primarily teaches an "ideal of social self-respect." He explains that the wealthy and privileged attend the school only to meet other students from similar backgrounds with whom they will associate the rest of their lives. In even this social sense, Adams claims to miss out: "He made no acquaintance in College which proved to have the smallest use in after life." His association with several Virginians results in an angry, highly prejudiced rant against Southerners: "Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament. He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two." The bias, partly learned from family and partly resulting from a hatred of slavery, would persist throughout Adams's life.

The criticism of Harvard might be easier to dismiss if it came from the openly defiant twenty-year-old Henry who was accumulating an impressive number of disciplinary violations at the college. But the narrator is nearly seventy years old. In the first book of his authoritative three-volume biography (The Young Henry Adams), Ernest Samuels discusses Adams's collegiate years. True, Harvard was not at its best when Henry attended. It's somewhat accurate to say that the privileged attended in order to be with each other. Nevertheless, excellent instruction was available. Adams complains of inadequate education in mathematics, for example; but the truth is that he was not very good at math. He was unable to qualify for instruction offered to the top third of the class, and his courses included the basic stuff of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Adams further complains that Harvard offered him no introduction to Karl Marx's Das Kapital. This is not surprising, however, because the first volume of the work was not published until 1867, nine years after Henry's graduation from Harvard.

Henry does excel at writing and speaking, even at Harvard. He writes several articles for school publications on such topics as appropriate reading lists for college students and the negative aspects of Greek letter societies. His triumph, however, is the Class Oration, delivered on June 25, 1858. It best represents the idealism of the later Adams as he warns of the dangers of capitalism and the vanity of human wishes. Even the older narrator recalls the moment fondly. Still, he claims that Henry as yet knows nothing. After graduating from Harvard, his education has not yet begun.


mesure (French) moderation, decorum.

florid flowery, ornate, showy.

delirium tremens a violent reaction to alcohol or alcoholic withdrawal, characterized by sweating, trembling, anxiety, and frightening hallucinations.

desultory disconnected, random, lacking direct relevance.

singular unique, one of a kind.