The Irony of Henry Adams: The most misunderstood quote evah!

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Pertaining to a recent mass mailing from offspring’s high school, in the name of the principal, filled with routine business. At the end of the missive was this quote:

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

What does this quote mean to you? If you don’t know its context, you may be in for a surprise.

You see this quote all the time on K-12 educational material as a header, footer, slogan, logo, inspirational message, and so on. It obviously means something good about teachers. Maybe something good about education. The quote is by Henry Adams and comes from his book “The Education of Henry Adams” which sounds an awful lot like a title for a porn movie. Since this is a book, first circulated in 1907, about education it must be the case that this quote refers to the positive power of educators back then, and presumably, now. Right? Certainly that is the meaning that is usually attributed to it.

A Google search of

“A teacher affects eternity”

… yields 56,000 hits, many of which are examples of the term’s use as an inspirational maxim in one or another dialog about education. So clearly people are in tune with the positive message of Henry Adam’s sentence.

A Google search of

“A teacher affects eternity” -adams

… (thus leaving off a direct reference to Henry with the minus sign in front of ‘adams’) yields about 26 thousand hits and I’ll wager almost every one represents the use of the quote as a positive maxim in the dialog about education. One teacher uses the phrase as the title for a web site on teaching.

Via Google I find the phrase tweeted on Twitter, and checking directly with Twitter, we find a gazillion recent instances over the last few weeks. I estimate that approximately four times an hour someone tweets “A teacher affects eternity” and sometimes gives the rest of the quote, sometimes mentions it’s Henry Adams’. But they always seem to mean it to be a nice thing to say about teachers and about how important they are.

You can buy note cards or posters with the phrase, and if you know any teachers, ask them how many pillows embroidered with the phrase or a version of it they have been given. Or shadow boxes or little signs held by teddy bears. Which they give to the teacher as a way of saying that they like teachers.

The book* The Education of Henry Adams is a complex work that I will not try to characterize, but at least in part I take it as a literary act of cynicism. Adams speaks of himself in third person and by the time we get to the quote in question he is discussing Henry’s first nine months as an Assistant Professor in History at Harvard.

For the next nine months the Assistant Professor had no time to waste on comforts or amusements. He exhausted all his strength in trying to keep one day ahead of his duties. Often the stint ran on, till night and sleep ran short. He could not stop to think whether he were doing the work rightly. He could not get it done to please him, rightly or wrongly, for he never could satisfy himself what to do.

Henry thinks of himself as inadequate, not up to the job, apparently.

But part of the problem was with Harvard itself, and its inattention to quality education.

The fault he had found with Harvard College as an undergraduate must have been more or less just, for the college was making a great effort to meet these self-criticisms, and had elected President Eliot in 1869 to carry out its reforms. Professor Gurney was one of the leading reformers, and had tried his hand on his own department of History. The two full Professors of History — Torrey and Gurney, charming men both — could not cover the ground. Between Gurney’s classical courses and Torrey’s modern ones, lay a gap of a thousand years, which Adams was expected to fill. The students had already elected courses numbered 1, 2, and 3, without knowing what was to be taught or who was to teach. If their new professor had asked what idea was in their minds, they must have replied that nothing at all was in their minds, since their professor had nothing in his, and down to the moment he took his chair and looked his scholars in the face, he had given, as far as he could remember, an hour, more or less, to the Middle Ages.

In other words, the History Department at Harvard was a mess, a chain of rusty links of which Henry himself was the weakest. Henry Adams does not think the teachers at Harvard were doing what needed to be done, the system of education was not doing what was required, and the students were probably being damaged more than assisted by participating in this system. And this worried him.

Not that his ignorance troubled him! He knew enough to be ignorant. His course had led him through oceans of ignorance; he had tumbled from one ocean into another till he had learned to swim; but even to him education was a serious thing. A parent gives life, but as parent, gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there.

In other words, all those important people in your life: Your mom, a person who kills you, and so on, have only limited effects on you as a person. But, according to Henry Adams,

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

OMG. That sounds like bad news. The system of education sucks, the professors suck, the students are getting the shaft, and this will affect the students for their whole lives, and through them society in general, and the course of history itself. Bad teaching, Henry Adams is telling us, ruinz everything for everybody!

But this is not what people think is happening, is it?

A teacher is expected to teach truth, and may perhaps flatter himself that he does so, if he stops with the alphabet or the multiplication table, as a mother teaches truth by making her child eat with a spoon; but morals are quite another truth and philosophy is more complex still. A teacher must either treat history as a catalogue, a record, a romance, or as an evolution; and whether he affirms or denies evolution, he falls into all the burning faggots of the pit. He makes of his scholars either priests or atheists, plutocrats or socialists, judges or anarchists, almost in spite of himself. In essence incoherent and immoral, history had either to be taught as such — or falsified.

From here Adams goes on to an interesting discussion that misunderstands (modern) evolution, and very rightly laments the thorn that the Middle Ages is in the side of western civilization. And in that discussion he reiterates that while all this is interesting stuff, it is not what is taught to the students. Because the teachers, really, don’t have a clue as to how to interpret the material they are responsible to cover or how to convey it to their pupils.

Here is Henry Adam’s famous quote translated into modern parlance:

Be careful. The system of education is inadequate, and a half baked attempt to educate is dangerous. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell how badly fucked up everything will be when he is done with it.

I had always seen the quote as what most people seem to see to as: The nice phrase you embroider on the pillow and give to your favorite teacher. My friend Josh Borowicz, who happens to be an historian and a Henry Adams scholar, pointed this interesting irony out to me. Knowing this is likely to affect me for an eternity. And a half.

You can read the full text of The Education of Henry Adams here.

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9 thoughts on “The Irony of Henry Adams: The most misunderstood quote evah!

  1. Great bit of literary history! I’m always amused at how some songs or quotes get used and have their original meaning changed so dramatically.

    I remember commenting to a marketing professor about how some car company was using a song about the dire effects that drug dealing had on society (Walkin’ on the Sun by Smash Mouth) in their car commercials. I thought it odd that a major company would want to associate their product with a song about drug dealing.

    He told me that the original context of the song didn’t matter. The marketing campaign would give the song a new context rather than the song giving the car a new context.

    Kind of scary in a way.

  2. Yes. This is a confusion of “context” and “original intended meaning” and other concepts. “Context” as a word has become one of those sounds humans utter without much meaning, like “um” and “uh.”

  3. Wow! Thanks for the education on this! … Oh wait… Lol

    But seriously, my in-laws are grade school educators, I’m sending them to this blog post. Time to do what I do best and continue my dissillusionment campaign!!! Thanks for letting me stand on your shoulders, be sure to thank Mr. Borowicz for the use of his.

    It’s amazing that a warning, in the form of education’s most profound truism, whose message requires context, has been turned Ito a brain dead affirmation of a teachers place in the world.

    Taken a step further, this is a literal example of “ignorance is bliss”

    Those who forget the past… n’ all that.

  4. Middle Ages were not as bad as people make them out to be. A lot of good science and math was done then. If not for people like Oresme, people like Galileo and Newton would not have done what they did. The Middle Ages were a low point but they weren’t as bad as they are often described.

  5. “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

    To me, this seems self-evident, though the result(s) may be good or ill. But I don’t limit it to teachers; I think everyone affects eternity to some degree, however small. This goes along with a maxim I like:

    “From each action, you draw an entire universe.”

    Although, to take it literally, I guess I would have to change the Adams quote to say that a teacher “effects” eternity.

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