The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter V - Berlin

Summary

Having completed his studies at Harvard, Henry sails for Europe on September 29, 1858 (the Education erroneously says it was November) with the intent of studying civil law at a university in Berlin. Adams soon discovers that his knowledge of the German language is inadequate; he abandons the course of law and enrolls at the Friedrichs-Wilhelm-Werdersches Gymnasium where he spends three months attending classes with boys who are about thirteen years old. Formal education in Germany is even worse than in the United States, Adams tells us; but his problems with the language gradually diminish. Berlin is generally a disappointment as a place to live; however, he does enjoy the theater, opera, ballet, and classical music.

Analysis

It was not unusual for a Harvard graduate in the 1850s to take the "Grand Tour" of Europe, indulging in a broadening experience of travel and perhaps some schooling for a year or two. Henry's plans to study Civil Law, which descended from Roman Law and, as Henry knows, was an interest of his great-grandfather, John Adams. Attending his first and, the narrator claims, last lecture, Henry discovers that his German is not nearly up to the task. In a victory of practicality over embarrassment, he enrolls at a local Gymnasium (a middle school or prep school) and spends three months becoming at ease with the language.

By now, it should not surprise the reader that Adams condemns formal education in Germany. He has just cause. The university features "the lecture system in its deadliest form," a professor mumbling from musty outlines as students dutifully take notes. Always eager to suggest an effective digest of course study, Adams avers that more could be learned through books and discussion in one day than the lecture system offers in a month. This is especially significant because it foreshadows Henry's introduction of the seminar system when he later teaches at Harvard.

Although he actually learns something at the Gymnasium, the conditions there are even worse than at the university. The system fills Henry with horror. Training seems arbitrary and stupefying, calling for engagement of only one faculty: memory. Rote drills replace any attempt at thought, let alone reason. In the German mind set, it seems to him, individual thought is subservient to the will of any authority, especially the State.

In addition, the living conditions are horrid. There is no fresh air in the building; children rarely exercise; the food consists of sauerkraut, sausage, and beer. The fact is that Berlin was notorious for its poor sanitation at the time. Open sewers and slum dwellings promoted poor health. As Adams points out, it is one of the least impressive small cities in Europe in the late 1850s. Even the beer is bad, not nearly the quality of Munich's. Only the arts offer Adams respite. Above all, he learns an appreciation for Beethoven. Still, he is more than ready to move on.

A note on Adams's style: He is quick to find fault, tends to exaggerate, loves to startle the reader, and does not always bother with details. But he can write with masterful control. Consistently, he exploits a talent for the facile phrase and parallel structure, especially when he examines paradox, as when he describes a brief stop in London en route to Berlin. Adams comments that, throughout his life, each return to the city will confirm that it "grew smaller as it doubled in size; cheaper as it quadrupled its wealth; less imperial as its empire widened; less dignified as it tried to be civil."

Glossary

captious fond of catching others in mistakes; quick to find fault.

ingenuous naïve, without guile.

torpid dormant, sluggish.

bourgeoisie (French) the middle class, often regarded as having conventional beliefs, attitudes, and so on.

kinder (German) children.

Haus-frauen (German) housewives.

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