Henry Adams on the illiteracy of Harvard students

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Those inclined to the optimistic view that anti-intellectualism in America dwells primarily in remote Appalachian hamlets, or has been produced by television and its digital descendants, will be dismayed to read Henry Adams’ 1857 assessment of his Harvard College classmates’ reading habits:

There are not . . . twenty students in College who ever read, of their own accord, fifty pages of Homer, or Euripides, or Aeschylus, or Demothenes, or Cicero, either translated or untranslated. The number of those who appreciate or even like the classics is absurdly small. It is so too with modern languages, or nearly so. English literature is the bound [i.e., limit], and even in English literature, little except the lightest and most common portion is at all known. The fishes all swim on the surface, and neither dare nor wish to go deeper.

—from “Reading in College,” published in Harvard Magazine, October 1857, and quoted by Edward Chalfant in the first volume of his biography of Adams.

Chalfant goes on to describe the response to Adams’ critique: “His classmates looked carefully at his ‘Reading in College’ and told him he was conceited” (Both Side of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams, by Edward Chalfant, pp. 83-84).

So there you have it: even at Harvard College in 1857, people who enjoyed reading were regarded as snobs.

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