The Education of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams

I stumbled upon the remarkable autobiography of Henry Adams by accident while reading a history of the end of the 19th century. When Adams’ autobiography was published after his death in 1918, it became a best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. Adams is remarkable for his ability to speak to us more than 90 years later with a message that is both relevant and moving.

Adams was connected by birth to the earliest days of the United States. He had fond memories of his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, the 6th president of the United States. In 1861 when Adams was 23 years old, his father, Charles Francis Adams, was appointed minister (ambassador) to Great Britain and took his son with him as his private secretary. The story of Adams’ time in Great Britain during the Civil War is excellent diplomatic history.

Adams’ autobiography is also a commentary on the value, or lack thereof, of education and of the utter impossibility of understanding history as it is being made. But, it is Adams’ perspective on the future that I find so riveting:

At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. To him the nineteenth century would stand on the same plane with the fourth,—equally childlike,—and he would only wonder how both of them, knowing so little, and so weak in force, should have done so much. (Chapter 34: A Law of Acceleration)

We certainly continue to experience the acceleration of progress that Henry Adams noted more than 90 years ago (although at present, it feels more like deceleration economically). Constant innovation is around us in all areas of science and technology. At the same time, this innovation is often disconnected from the reality of day-to-day production in the factory or the research lab. Perhaps if we were to get better at integrating innovations into our enterprise workflows (yes, including the workflows that result in new medicines), we could accelerate progress even more.

If that knocked your socks off, just wait until you see our next cool topic.
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Original edition
Adams H. The Education of Henry Adams. Lodge HC, ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918. Also available online at and at

Recent edition
Adams H. The Education of Henry Adams. Lodge HC, ed. Hall F, intro. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.