Reflections on Formative Influence
On the Education of Henry Adams
I've been thinking about Henry Adams' autobiography (On the Education of Henry Adams) for these past weeks, trying to figure out how I feel about the exerpts I've read. The excerpts I've read left me feeling uncomfortable, with what thoughts that appear to be incoherent.
First, I found it strange that he wrote his autobiography in the third person. I wonder if this has to do with him wanting to be "objective" with his life history, to stand back and write. It's interesting to me how he chose to write about himself so personally in a very formal and distant manner.
While his commentary on technology and it's fertility and power/force (to motivate) and change society -- like religion -- was insightful, his attemps to reconcile history with the scientific method was hard to understand. (i.e. "[P]ast history is only a value of relation to the future, and this value is wholly one of convenience, which can be tested only by experiement.) How can we reconcile the feelings and perspectives found in our personal histories and in collective histories in a manner that's strictly sequential and comprehensively rigid?
In terms of his relevance to educational thought, while I applaud his reflections on the meanings of his experiences and his educational development, he struck me as someone who was a bit whiny, and in the end, came to realize that his life's journey wasn't particularly informative. It might be a matter of background and my inability to relate to him that made reading his works difficult. He came across as someone who was drifting and and out of life, with no strong convictions, and he doesn't seem to value the process of his journeys -- he just wanted an answer (a product) for solviing the mysteries of life. It's troubling to think that in the journey of one's education, according to Adams, one can deem it a "sucess" or a "failure" -- and in his case, despite all of his advantages, he felt that he was a failure. Was it because he kept questioning uncertainites so uncertainly, but wanted certain answers, as Blake commented on below?
Identity, Historicity, Indeterminacy
I would agree with Prof. McClintock that Adams' thought retains an acute relevance for contemporary educational thought. But I do think that this relevance is difficult to see. To me, Adams comes across as a bizarre, fascinating character, in that his attempts to ground an historiographical methodology in a Gibbsian statistical mechanics is at once strikingly prescient and laughably naive. His admittedly non-mathematical understanding of Gibbs' work, and of the emerging statistical kinematics theories and techniques on the whole betray a fairly superficial understanding of the subject. And yet there is in his autobiographical historiography a striking sense of intuitive relevance. I'm tempted (on the basis of inadequate study) to identify as the central feature of his thought the counterposition of history and education. History sees events in retrospect as definite sequences of causes and effects. Education, on the contrary, sees events as clouds of possible cause-effect couplings. Their basic difference is one of emphasis -between what we tend to refer to as the future and the past- and Adams finds himself caught on the horns of this dilemma, attempting to extricate himself with his admirably lucid thought and his cunningly alert observations. His implicit suggestion -that one might reconcile these opposed modes of thought through an acceptance of one's ignorance- underlines, for me, the enduring value of his intuitions as to the (now fairly unavoidable) emerging necessity of being able to think in terms of uncertainties.
But the question as to how one might go about thinking in uncertain terms seems to be an altogether counterintuitive one. Questions imply uncertainties, and their answers imply resolutions of these uncertainties. The ability to answer a difficult question implies having found a way to constrain and manage the uncertainties involved, thus reducing them to a species of certainty. That our society seems to place such a preponderant emphasis on certainties might follow from the evident correlation between such reductions (of uncertainties to certainties) and their consequent courses of decisive action. Certainties confer an ability to make decisions, even if these might just be choices not to act, or decide.
Overall, this seems to yield the familiar dialogical pattern, wherein questions arise as an accumulation of possibilities (possible choices and/or decisions), and answers emerge from the coalescence of these accumulated possibilities into differentiable options. But this logic might not be quite so simple. Obviously answers and actions are conflated in this view, which leads rather broadly to the iconically 'modern' alienation of the body, labour, and process through idealization (and more on this from Ortega!). But another way to pose this critique, it seems to me, is by postulating the missing 'third' function here not, as in the generally Romantic opposition to modernity, outside of the logical sequence (which tends, after all, to reaffirm the terms of the original bifurcation), but within it: in the organization of the compiling uncertainties themselves; their transformation from a disordered 'mass' (again see Ortega on this word) of equipotent possibilities into an ordered hierarchy of weighted, nested, prioritized potential functions.
I'll argue that this transformation is what Adams compels us to think about regarding the relationship between uncertainty (ignorance as to present, or functional, identity) and education (a cultivation of the ability of make good decisions). It's kind of like a phase change, in that it's an emergence of a new register of ordered arrangement, but it's within the minds of individuals, or at least its cultivation is fundamentally left to the powers of individuals, which makes it profoundly autonomous, liberal, and indeterministic. The same basic difference -between disordered and ordered uncertainties- can also allow us a way to think about the difference between schooling and education, as a broad-based rule (education involves the ability to order uncertainties, while schooling merely ensures their disordered presence).
So why is this such a difficult problem? Why does thinking in terms of uncertainties seem to be so counterintuitive? I think because the transformation I've outlined requires a certain fatality that is pretty foreign to our culture. We tend to think that all our circumstances are mutable; this allows us to think of ourselves in ideal terms, which in turn supports the much simpler operations of thinking in terms of certainties. Accepting a measure of determinacy in terms of our circumstances, on the contrary, allows us to conceive of ourselves as slightly less definite objects, which, somewhat paradoxically, can confer on us a slightly better opportunity to adapt to unpredictable changes when they (inevitably) occur. Being able to grasp laws of historical change might, therefore, confer on us (both collectively and individually) a greater ability to adapt to the changing conditions that are an increasingly irreducible part of our lives here.
--Intendtogether 18:40, 6 February 2011 (UTC)
• Why would Adams try to merge the task of understanding history with the scientific method? Doesn’t this seem quite formulaic? What’s the point if our individual futures and the future of the world is relatively unknown?
• Why would Adams be concerned with the goal of not being a failure and finding answers—tangible products/truths—and being remembered throughout time and space, when he realizes that history and the course of one’s life is ephemeral?
• If life is a set of choices and Adams felt like things just fell in place for him without his bidding, can that mean that he lived life without any forces (religion, science) that truly attracted him? Sounds like he was one skeptical kind of dude.
Falling behind on my visual-verbal response goal - but here's a stab at it - comics response week two. - Nick