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The Education of Henry Adams

adams-educationof

Today our Great Books club discussed The Education of Henry Adams written by John Quincy Adams’ grandson (John Adams’ great grandson). It’s a memoire of Henry Adam’s youth with tales of a boy, who like many, didn’t see a lot of benefit to schooling.

Throughout Adams’ includes reflections on how he first thought everyone had presidents in their family, that that was no big deal. He spoke of how around his home his father Charles Adams, a diplomat, would discuss high-minded ideas with virtuous men. As you’d imagine his family socialized with the best and the brightest.

One story I liked was how one day while visiting his grandparents, little Henry refused to go to school. His mother was having no luck with the feisty Henry. Suddenly, the door to his grandfather’s office opened. John Quincy Adams put on his hat, took the boy by the hand and without a word delivered the boy to school. After that, Henry went to school though he didn’t feel it improved him much.

At one point his family moved from Massachusetts to Washington, DC. He was shocked an appalled by the state of things in this slave state. The streets were dirty, the place smelled and the poverty was shocking. He was overwhelmed by the injustice of slavery all around him.

When he was 16 he went to Harvard, of which he thought little. There were no admission standards at the time and the school was something of a club for the elite. He wrote of himself in the third person:

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 . . . what caused the boy the most disappointment was the little he got from his mates. Speaking exactly, he got less than nothing, a result common enough in education.

According to Adams, and I generally agree, is that the more people you pack into a class, the less you’ll learn. I’m no fan of the lecture courses with 100 or more students, which is what Adams had at Harvard. I do think one on one or small group interaction. Adams was lucky to be born into a family and circle that had so many great thinkers I wasn’t surprised that Adams learned more at the dinner table than in a classroom.

The book was lively and a wonderful glimpse into an important era in U.S. history. Adams’ style was brisk and engaging.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in 19th Century, American Lit, non-fiction, Pulitzer Prize

 

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A Rabbit’s Eyes

Kenjiro Haitami’s A Rabbit’s Eyes is something of a modern Japanese¬†Dickens story as Haitami focuses on some charming children from the wrong side of town and sympathetically reveals how worthwhile they are. I’m told that Haitami’s famous for writing about children. This novel focuses on the children who live by the town disposal (waste) plant.

At first, like the new teacher Ms. Kotani we feel a bit repulsed by the boy who collects flies and the whole area he lives in where ash from the incinerators fall from the sky like snow, except its all year round.

As Ms. Kotani decides to persevere, we come to know the children of the disposal plant, how bright and charming they are. Her colleague, the off-beat, unorthodox Mr. Adachi challenges Ms. Kotani to rethink her attitude and his presence and success with the students helps her to stay in the game.

Because she doesn’t let setbacks deter her, Ms. Kotani succeeds where others failed. She overcomes her sheltered upbringing to reach out to Tetsuzo, a silent boy who collects flies of all species and a girl who is developmentally delayed, who races out of class and wets her pants a lot. Ms. Kotani manages to get the student to help with Minako and they all become more compassionate as a result.

The first two thirds of the book had charm and while Haitami’s style doesn’t rival Dickens for imagination and I think his descriptions could be richer, more creative, he does manage to draw attention to a forgotten group. The last third of the book got bogged down in a bland blow by blow of a strike and protest of the moving of the disposal plant. While a writer can take on this topic, it’s hard to make it engaging to read. Still it’s a quick read that shows a different side of Japan.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2012 in contemporary, fiction

 

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