For the past year, I’ve been helping to build a new university in Austin, Texas, that seeks to educate thoughtful and ethical leaders and citizens. Because matriculating at a brand-new institution involves some risk, our first students are likely to be hardier than most college-bound 18-year-olds. But that’s a purely relative measure. I’ve been out of the classroom since the onset of Covid in 2020—an eternity in this fast-moving age—and I’m not at all sure what to expect. Today’s high school students have been pummeled by social forces far stronger and more destructive than any my generation faced in the 1970s. No wonder so many are anxious, depressed, distracted, and unself-confident.

The widespread psychological distress of young adults is just one symptom of the contemporary crises of education and societal decay. Neither crisis is new. Henry Adams, a grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, discerned their intimate connection more than a century ago. The Education of Henry Adams, an autobiographical classic published in 1918, follows the author from 1838 to 1905 as he confronts “the problem of running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity, [which] has always been, and must always be, the task of education.” This is a fair description of the work of practical and theoretical wisdom. Adams pursued wisdom assiduously and intelligently but, unsurprisingly, fell short of achieving it (Socrates did, too). More significant is the mental whiplash he suffered from the sudden acceleration of cultural forces during his lifetime. His experience suggests that education can hardly begin, let alone approach completion, when the velocity of social change surpasses a certain threshold.

Adams considered himself a child of the eighteenth century. The simplicity of thought and morality he inherited from his Puritan ancestors, and the “mental calm” and “uniform excellence of life and character” he observed in the civic leaders and Unitarian clergymen of Beacon Hill, suggested to the boy that “Boston had solved the universe.” He revised this view after five decades of tumult catapulted him into the twentieth century.

Science has always sought unity and simplicity, but in the nineteenth century it found only complexity and confusion. By 1900, it regarded the world as “a multiple,” not a unity. Order was merely an occasional and accidental relation “obnoxious to nature,” while a human being was a “conscious ball of vibrating motions.” Rapid political, technological, and intellectual change—the revolutions of 1848 and the Civil War; the invention of electric lights, telegraphs, telephones, steam engines, railways, ocean liners, automobiles, airplanes, and heavy artillery; Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, and the radioactive decay of atomic nuclei—convinced Adams that, while historians could make out where the human race had been, no one could see where it was headed.

Perhaps, Adams reflected, one could nevertheless explain how we got to where we found ourselves. He does just this in the last, brilliant chapters of the Education. History, he writes, is the record of progress, or the “development and economy” of forces available to human beings. Influenced by Darwin’s account of evolutionary adaptation, he proposes a dynamic theory of history, which suggests that we shape, and are shaped by, the forces that attract us. The theory explains relative differences of attraction by assigning force to opposing bodies “in proportion to the law of mass.” This sounds purely mechanical, but Adams extends the contemporary language of mass and attraction beyond the domain of physics. Earth’s gravity molds our bodies, while personal gravitas can form thought and induce action—sometimes even overcoming the highly compacted force of public opinion.

Adams was deeply concerned with the spiritual and material fate of human beings. He frames the predicament of our time with reference to two great historical attractors—symbolized by the Virgin, whose image he sought in churches throughout France, and the Dynamo, which he first encountered at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The Virgin works through the heart by means of love and promises spiritual salvation in the afterlife; the Dynamo operates through increasingly complex machinery and promises material salvation in this life.

Each affects the human entanglement of soul and body differently yet reflects essential aspects of the other. In its heyday, Christianity generated enormous creative energy, mental and physical alike, while technology, its historical successor—once chemical and mechanical forces “acquired sufficient mass to take the place of the old religious science”—was from its inception an object of quasi-religious faith.

According to Adams, real religion had vanished from elite Boston society by 1850. Yet the religious instinct found new outlets. It flowed along channels prepared by the early modern thinkers who began the political and intellectual project of employing extensive social resources for the constant advancement and application of science—the project of technology. Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis describes an Edenic island utopia in which the scientists of an extensive state-sponsored research institute constitute a priesthood that scientifically confirms, or perhaps secretly produces, divine “miracles.” René Descartes compares himself to a prophet of God when, in the Discourse on Method, he explains that technology will make human beings “the masters and possessors of nature.” This technological exaltation of human power paved the way for such post-Christian ideologies as Marxism, which incorporated industrial technology into its own triumphal vision of earthly paradise.

Adams was persuaded by Edward Gibbon’s argument that the Roman Empire tore itself apart by developing “too much energy . . . too fast,” and specifically by Emperor Constantine’s decision to merge all uncertain forces “into a single trust [Christianity], which he enormously overcapitalized.” For the past two centuries, technology and political ideologies have been similarly overcapitalized, resulting in the widespread destruction of organic communities and settled patterns of existence. Progress, which today means the infusion of technology into virtually every dimension of human existence, has since roughly 1800 been characterized by an acceleration and multiplication of available power so rapid—doubling, Adams figures, every decade—as to imperil society and the individual alike. “[The anarchist’s] bombs educate rapidly,” he writes, “and even wireless telegraphy or airships might require the reconstruction of society.” Yet the disorder produced by these quaint devices pales in comparison with what is likely to ensue from the expansion and metastasis of artificial intelligence.

Adams was right to worry that the human mind may eventually enter “a field of attraction so violent” that it would “suffer dissipation altogether, like meteoroids in the earth’s atmosphere.” The unprecedented increase in mental illness sparked by social media, especially among teenage girls, suggests that this is already happening. Worse still, the extreme social forces of the twenty-first century will inevitably advance the adaptive evolution of a robotic New Man: a small, dense, unusually hard being with smooth, aerodynamic surfaces optimized to withstand great heat and friction as it traces its downward path. The more brutal specimens of Homo Sovieticus, forged under the tremendous pressures of Communism, offer an historical precedent. On the whole, however, present conditions favor a more or less deliberate strategy of self-hollowing, so that, lightened of the burden of unmovable convictions, one can float wherever the winds may blow. This is the path followed by most souls in Dante’s Hell.

Psychological fracturing, hardening, and hollowing are all predictable responses to the forces of our time. All reflect the failure of education as Adams understood it, which teaches us nothing if not to stand our ground. The consequences could not be more serious, for any community—city or nation, tribe or church—stands or falls with the quality of its education.

Society has always compelled the young to take the stamp of their time. Yet education is more than the external imposition of form on a passive subject. A proper education requires the internal development of mature adults independently capable of intelligent action and beneficial association. It aims to produce whole, self-directed individuals. It takes young men and women as it finds them, cultivating and integrating into an internal economy of forces the peculiar powers conferred on them by nature and circumstance. It surveys the past to find fixed, fundamental measures that have withstood the test of time, and equips the young with well-calibrated compasses to navigate the trackless future. In these ways, it prepares them to find meaningful answers to the biblical and Socratic question that Adams precociously asked himself at the age of ten: “Where have you been, and where are you going?” 

Few institutions at any level, from elementary through graduate school, now offer anything like a proper education. This, too, is an old story. As a boy, Adams detested school and found it a waste of time. Even Harvard College, where he matriculated in 1854, “taught little, and that little ill.” Yet Harvard was “probably less hurtful than any other university then in existence,” for it left the mind “open,” “supple,” and “ready to receive knowledge.” How times have changed! Chill winds of censure now blow through our universities. Uncorrected, this spells the death of higher education: we learn by trial and error, and those who shiver at the thought of little mistakes condemn themselves to making big ones.

Can one sympathize with emotionally fragile students who demand that universities provide “safe spaces” where their opinions will not be challenged? While these attempts are deeply misguided, the underlying instinct is not entirely unsound. Classrooms must indeed be safe—not from controversial ideas, however, but for the kind of open and honest discussion that students crave. No force that grinds down individual peculiarities should be tolerated therein. Universities must honor the Socratic principle that one should say what one believes, even—especially—when it contradicts prevailing attitudes. They must encourage intellectual risk-taking, reward merit, and above all, restore the wonder and joy of learning. Only then will young men and women be able to develop settled individual capacities of thought and action strong enough to endure the inhospitable atmosphere of our time.

The revitalization of civilization cannot be achieved by ambitious top-down approaches. The imposition of technological and ideological solutions is bound to fail. Only the slow repair of local communities and wholesome institutions will avail. This formative work must begin with our schools and colleges, which have mostly forgotten their primary and essential task of transmitting civilization from generation to generation. We must build communities of teaching and learning in which instructors and students are bound together by a shared appreciation of the pleasures and profound responsibilities of education. Only by renewing our collective commitment to education will we once again be prepared to undertake the awesome work that is now, and has always been, the human calling.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images


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