Study Guide

Adam Bede Education

By George Eliot

Education

"So it will go on, worsening and worsening," thought Adam; "there's no slipping uphill again, and no standing still when once you've begun to slip down." And then the day came back to him when he was a little fellow and used to run by his father's side, proud to be taken out to work, and prouder still to hear his father boasting to his fellow-workmen how "the little chap had an uncommon notion o' carpentering." What a fine active fellow his father was then! When people asked Adam whose little lad he was, he had a sense of distinction as he answered, "I'm Thias Bede's lad." He was quite sure everybody knew Thias Bede—didn't he make the wonderful pigeon-house at Broxton parsonage? Those were happy days, especially when Seth, who was three years the younger, began to go out working too, and Adam began to be a teacher as well as a learner. But then came the days of sadness, when Adam was someway on in his teens, and Thias began to loiter at the public-houses, and Lisbeth began to cry at home, and to pour forth her plaints in the hearing of her sons. (4.63)

Thias Bede taught Adam how to be a good craftsman and showed Adam the importance of instructing others. However, Thias's screw-ups also taught Adam quite a bit. Thanks to the bad example his father set, Adam has yearned to be a responsible person—and taught himself to live a productive life. This time, father doesn't know best. And, amazingly, that's not all bad.

Adam looked round as he heard the quickening clatter of the horse's heels, and waited for the horseman, lifting his paper cap from his head with a bright smile of recognition. Next to his own brother Seth, Adam would have done more for Arthur Donnithorne than for any other young man in the world. There was hardly anything he would not rather have lost than the two-feet ruler which he always carried in his pocket; it was Arthur's present, bought with his pocket-money when he was a fair-haired lad of eleven, and when he had profited so well by Adam's lessons in carpentering and turning as to embarrass every female in the house with gifts of superfluous thread-reels and round boxes. Adam had quite a pride in the little squire in those early days, and the feeling had only become slightly modified as the fair-haired lad had grown into the whiskered young man. (16.6)

Here, George Eliot depicts education with a touch of humor. High-five, George. Our Eliot narrator doesn't really insult Arthur's education in carpentry, but this practical learning does seem comically superfluous.

"Why, yes, sir; but that's nothing to make a fuss about. If we're men and have men's feelings, I reckon we must have men's troubles. We can't be like the birds, as fly from their nest as soon as they've got their wings, and never know their kin when they see 'em, and get a fresh lot every year. I've had enough to be thankful for: I've allays had health and strength and brains to give me a delight in my work; and I count it a great thing as I've had Bartle Massey's night-school to go to. He's helped me to knowledge I could never ha' got by myself."

"What a rare fellow you are, Adam!" said Arthur, after a pause, in which he had looked musingly at the big fellow walking by his side. "I could hit out better than most men at Oxford, and yet I believe you would knock me into next week if I were to have a battle with you." (16.19-20)

Adam's attitude toward education combines pride with humility. He is aware of his advantages, but equally aware of the role that teachers like Bartle Massey have played in improving his prospects. Also, Arthur succeeds in making Oxford students sound like a bunch of 98-pound weaklings

"No indeed. It's well if I can remember a little inapplicable Latin to adorn my maiden speech in Parliament six or seven years hence. "Cras ingens iterabimus aequor," and a few shreds of that sort, will perhaps stick to me, and I shall arrange my opinions so as to introduce them. But I don't think a knowledge of the classics is a pressing want to a country gentleman; as far as I can see, he'd much better have a knowledge of manures. I've been reading your friend Arthur Young's books lately, and there's nothing I should like better than to carry out some of his ideas in putting the farmers on a better management of their land; and, as he says, making what was a wild country, all of the same dark hue, bright and variegated with corn and cattle. My grandfather will never let me have any power while he lives, but there's nothing I should like better than to undertake the Stonyshire side of the estate—it's in a dismal condition—and set improvements on foot, and gallop about from one place to another and overlook them. I should like to know all the labourers, and see them touching their hats to me with a look of goodwill." (16.33)

With a touch of self-deprecating humor, Arthur here discusses his university learning. He doesn't belittle education on principle (and neither do we!), yet he recognizes that a different kind of knowledge—practical knowledge of farming and building—will take him farthest as a landlord.

It had cost Adam a great deal of trouble and work in overhours to know what he knew over and above the secrets of his handicraft, and that acquaintance with mechanics and figures, and the nature of the materials he worked with, which was made easy to him by inborn inherited faculty—to get the mastery of his pen, and write a plain hand, to spell without any other mistakes than must in fairness be attributed to the unreasonable character of orthography rather than to any deficiency in the speller, and, moreover, to learn his musical notes and part-singing. Besides all this, he had read his Bible, including the apocryphal books; Poor Richard's Almanac, Taylor's Holy Living and Dying, The Pilgrim's Progress, with Bunyan's Life and Holy War, a great deal of Bailey's Dictionary, Valentine and Orson, and part of a History of Babylon, which Bartle Massey had lent him. He might have had many more books from Bartle Massey, but he had no time for reading "the commin print," as Lisbeth called it, so busy as he was with figures in all the leisure moments which he did not fill up with extra carpentry. (19.8)

Here, Eliot's narrator gives a survey of Adam's education. Adam gravitates to practical writings (Poor Richard's Almanac) and religious treatises. His learning has a strong element of self-improvement, and his scholarly pursuits have helped to cultivate his spirit of hard work and constant endeavor. Nowadays, a guy like Adam would have a whole shelf full of those Idiot's Guides in his bedroom.

It was touching to see these three big men, with the marks of their hard labour about them, anxiously bending over the worn books and painfully making out, "The grass is green," "The sticks are dry," "The corn is ripe"—a very hard lesson to pass to after columns of single words all alike except in the first letter. It was almost as if three rough animals were making humble efforts to learn how they might become human. And it touched the tenderest fibre in Bartle Massey's nature, for such full-grown children as these were the only pupils for whom he had no severe epithets and no impatient tones. He was not gifted with an imperturbable temper, and on music-nights it was apparent that patience could never be an easy virtue to him; but this evening, as he glances over his spectacles at Bill Downes, the sawyer, who is turning his head on one side with a desperate sense of blankness before the letters d-r-y, his eyes shed their mildest and most encouraging light. (21.8)

Eliot's narrator views learning, or at least the desire for it, as a sign of personal dignity. So does Bartle Massey, who checks his otherwise over-the-top temper and shows great patience with his grown students' "humble efforts." Or is he just scared that one of these "big men" would throw him out the window?

"A man that had got his heart in learning figures would make sums for himself and work 'em in his head. When he sat at his shoemaking, he'd count his stitches by fives, and then put a price on his stitches, say half a farthing, and then see how much money he could get in an hour; and then ask himself how much money he'd get in a day at that rate; and then how much ten workmen would get working three, or twenty, or a hundred years at that rate—and all the while his needle would be going just as fast as if he left his head empty for the devil to dance in. But the long and the short of it is—I'll have nobody in my night-school that doesn't strive to learn what he comes to learn, as hard as if he was striving to get out of a dark hole into broad daylight. I'll send no man away because he's stupid: if Billy Taft, the idiot, wanted to learn anything, I'd not refuse to teach him. But I'll not throw away good knowledge on people who think they can get it by the sixpenn'orth, and carry it away with 'em as they would an ounce of snuff. So never come to me again, if you can't show that you've been working with your own heads, instead of thinking that you can pay for mine to work for you. That's the last word I've got to say to you." (21.10)

On principle, Bartle Massey does not despise unsuccessful students. He's no Simon Cowell. Rather, good old Bartle has little patience for students who lack the desire to succeed—who should easily benefit from the "good knowledge" he is giving them, but don't.

"You're so young, you know, Hetty," he went on, almost tenderly, "and y' haven't seen much o' what goes on in the world. It's right for me to do what I can to save you from getting into trouble for want o' your knowing where you're being led to. If anybody besides me knew what I know about your meeting a gentleman and having fine presents from him, they'd speak light on you, and you'd lose your character. And besides that, you'll have to suffer in your feelings, wi' giving your love to a man as can never marry you, so as he might take care of you all your life." (30.9)

Adam, here, is offering Hetty an education in human nature. He has a wider acquaintance with the ways of the world, and alerts Hetty to social realities that her inexperience has blinded her to.

"I'm no reader o' the paper myself," he observed to-night, as he filled his pipe, "though I might read it fast enough if I liked, for there's Miss Lyddy has 'em and 's done with 'em i' no time. But there's Mills, now, sits i' the chimney-corner and reads the paper pretty nigh from morning to night, and when he's got to th' end on't he's more addle-headed than he was at the beginning. He's full o' this peace now, as they talk on; he's been reading and reading, and thinks he's got to the bottom on't. 'Why, Lor' bless you, Mills,' says I, 'you see no more into this thing nor you can see into the middle of a potato. I'll tell you what it is: you think it'll be a fine thing for the country. And I'm not again' it—mark my words—I'm not again' it. But it's my opinion as there's them at the head o' this country as are worse enemies to us nor Bony and all the mounseers he's got at 's back; for as for the mounseers, you may skewer half-a-dozen of 'em at once as if they war frogs.'" (53.24)

In this passage, Mr. Craig argues that "reading and reading" is no sure path to knowledge. Fair enough. Instead of sharpening the mind, the newspaper reading that Craig discusses simply distracts from problems that are close to home.

But it is not ignoble to feel that the fuller life which a sad experience has brought us is worth our own personal share of pain. Surely it is not possible to feel otherwise, any more than it would be possible for a man with cataract to regret the painful process by which his dim blurred sight of men as trees walking had been exchanged for clear outline and effulgent day. The growth of higher feeling within us is like the growth of faculty, bringing with it a sense of added strength. We can no more wish to return to a narrower sympathy than a painter or a musician can wish to return to his cruder manner, or a philosopher to his less complete formula. (54.8)

Eliot's characters do not have creative temperaments, but they do share important traits with artists, musicians, and philosophers. Of course, nobody in Hayslope wears berets or reads weird poetry in out-of-the-way coffee houses. Instead, these "important traits" go much deeper. Personal growth can be an arduous process, but the struggle creates a stronger, more complex identity.