Summary and Analysis Chapter XX - Failure


Henry Adams serves Harvard as a history professor and editor of the prestigious North American Review from 1870 to 1877, taking a leave of absence during the 1872-1873 academic year to travel Europe with his new bride. Only the first year is discussed in the Education. He initially lectures to three classes per week but is free to address any topic he wishes within the years 800 to 1649. Henry immediately feels that he is in over his head. He tells a friend that he has returned to college not so much to teach as to learn. He claims that he is barely able to stay a day ahead of his students; he is not an expert in the field, although he does have specific pockets of expertise such as medieval architecture. Partly out of desperation, Henry experiments with various approaches to teaching. Editing also takes a good deal of his time, and he welcomes a vacation to Wyoming and Colorado when his duties end for the summer of 1871.


Adams appears to be overly self-effacing, even disingenuous, about his "failure" as a Harvard professor. In fact, he is quite successful; but it is a success born of necessity and limited by what he sees as an inept system. Henry is exaggerating, but just a little, when he says that he is completely unqualified for the job: Adams is not a trained teacher nor a medieval scholar. He is only barely kidding when he writes to a friend in January 1871 that his students will never be able to check his facts and theories later because he has invented most of them! Nevertheless, he does have a deep interest in his subjects and even more in his students. For all his grousing, he deeply loves interaction with the young scholars. One of Adams's best known statements refers not to politics but to teaching: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. Henry soon decides, however, that he is going to have to affect eternity in some revolutionary ways.

Henry Adams is not the first professor to advocate use of the seminar, graduate studies in history, or student journals. He has seen seminars in Germany and probably discussed the technique with an acquaintance and distant relative, Professor Charles Kendall Adams, who inaugurated a seminar in history at the University of Michigan in 1869 and visited Henry early in 1871. But Adams is a pioneer in their application to American, and especially Harvard, education. Henry is fortunate to have one small honors class (most were much larger), "half a dozen highly intelligent young men," with which to experiment. Saying that he knows no more than his students, and lacking a proper textbook, he drops the lecture format, challenging the students to read what they please within the broad spectrum of this course (from primitive man to the Norman Conquest in 1066) and then compare results. The experiment works; the scholars learn to "chase an idea, like a hare." In class, they discuss and debate. Henry meets students in his own rooms rather than the lecture hall. He wishes that he could attend the meetings of the class with another professor, each of them taking contradictory positions on issues. But he also sees value in simply holding his tongue and allowing the class to come to its own conclusions. He wants student evaluations of courses, professors, and the students' collegiate experience. He recommends that the students keep diaries or journals. He complains that most classes are too large and financial interests given inordinate weight: "No man can instruct more than half a dozen students at once. The whole problem of education is one of its cost in money," Eventually, Henry applies his seminar approach to a graduate program in history at Harvard. If some of this sounds familiar to contemporary American students or educators, they can thank Henry Adams.

Although he claims to have no time for writing, Henry publishes at least twenty-two reviews and articles (usually unsigned) in the North American Review during his tenure as editor. To no one's surprise, he is a rebel and iconoclast as an editor, promising twenty pounds to one writer "if you are abusive enough" and instructing another, "Stand on your head and spit at someone." He thinks of himself as an active collaborator with full powers of revision; others sometimes complain that he is too "dictatorial," as early suffragette Lucretia Mott put it.

At the end of the school year, Henry is exhausted and welcomes an invitation to join the Fortieth Parallel Expedition in a geological survey near Estes Park. There he meets Clarence King, an extraordinary scientist and man who will be one of Henry's closest friends for life.


pedagogy the art or science of teaching; teaching methods.

pedant here, a narrow-minded teacher who insists on exact adherence to arbitrary rules.

avatar incarnation of a god or of some quality in a person.

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