Henry Adams: “A Teacher Affects Eternity”


by David Safier

In keeping with the tradition I’ve established of Sunday meta-Ed posts (I just made that term up to describe posts that deal with larger issues than the day-to-day workings of our schools and school districts), today I’m pulling some educational quotes from my favorite book of all time: The Education of Henry Adams.

Adams was one of our best 19th century American historians, as well as a novelist and poet. The Education of Henry Adams is rightly considered one of our great autobiographies and great works of literature. He was the grandson and great grandson of Presidents John Quincy Adams and John Adams. As an extra bonus, I believe he shares a broad family tree with our new blogger, John Adams.

Henry Adams was an idealist and a cynic, as you’ll see in these quotes. This first quote, which may be the most glorious thing ever said about teaching, was a reflection on his seven year tenure as a Harvard professor:

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

This is how he describes a teacher’s task:

“Education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world.”

And, writing about himself, he reminds us all that sometimes, the more we know, the more confused we become:

“Adams read and failed to understand; then he asked questions and failed to get answers. Probably this was education.”

Now to Adams the cynic. He didn’t think much of his formal schooling. He described a schoolmaster as:

“a man employed to tell lies to little boys.”

In fact, his experience as a student led him to this conclusion:

“The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.”

Though I find many other words of wisdom in the book, I will close with his reminder to old teachers like myself, as well as to seasoned politicians and ministers:

“No man, however strong, can serve ten years as schoolmaster, priest, or Senator, and remain fit for anything else.”


  1. Dear Maria, what a wonderful surprise! To think I could help someone in Argentina locate a quote, and point you to other things he said as well! Welcome to the community. Are you a teacher in Argentina? If so, I welcome your comments and contributions in the future.

  2. Thank you for sharing your comments on Henry Adams’ book.
    Long ago, I heard the famous quote in a conference but I could never get who the author was. Today, thanks to google I could find it and by chance, I found your blog.
    I am so grateful to technology and new means of communication!
    Friendly, ma.ma.
    Posadas, Misiones

  3. Good to hear from a fellow admirer of Henry Adams. We’re hard to find these days.

    Can you point me to the Online Reading Room discussion? I didn’t see it, and I would love to look it over.

  4. “The Education of Henry Adams” is one of my favorite books, too, and I’ve had the pleasure of teaching it (although I can’t say all my students found it a pleasure). I hope you had a chance to look at the recent New York Times Online Reading Room discussion of the work by various commentators, including former Senator Gary Hart.

    Adams was not someone I totally admire: he was a snob and a bigot, and it’s kind of hard for the contemporary reader to understand how he can just excise his marriage and Clover’s suicide from the pages of his book, but his purposes were a lot different than a current author’s would be.

    Anyone who wants to sample the book should take a look at “The Virgin and the Dynamo,” in which he seems to predict nuclear weaponry.