Here are a few valuable tips on education and wisdom from the diaries of John Quincy Adams.1
Writing and Language
Adams was born on July 11, 1767. If we do the math, we can see he begins his diary when he was 12 years old with the first entry being on Friday, November 12, 1779. He kept his diaries until shortly before his death, nearly 70 years later. At one point, there was a string of consecutive daily entries spanning 26 years. When he was 15, his father, not yet President of the United States, reminded him:
“Have you kept a regular Journal? If you have not, you will be likely to forget most of the Observations you have made. If you have omitted this Usefull Exercise, let me advise you to recommence it, immediately. Let it be your Amusement, to minute every day, whatever you may have seen or heard worth Notice. One contracts a Fondness of Writing by Use. We learn to write readily, and what is of more importance, We think, and improve our Judgments, by committing our Thoughts to Paper.” – John Adams to John Quincy Adams, May 14, 1783 (emphasis mine)
To add to his writing, John Quincy Adams expanded his ability with language by becoming fluent in French, Dutch, and German. He was also skilled in Greek and Latin.
At age 11, Adams went with his Father to Europe where he would spend the next seven years.
Around age 14: “The years 1781–1782 he spent in St. Petersburg [Russia] as private secretary and interpreter to Francis Dana, U.S. minister to Russia.” (Massachusetts Historical Society)
At age 16 John Quincy Adams writes:
“Aug. 11th Monday. This morning Mr. Hartley the British Minister for Making Peace, came to pay a visit to my Father, but as he was out he desired to see me. I had some Conversation with him. he says he hopes the Peace will be soon signed.”
The relationships John Quincy Adams developed during his time in Europe were remarkable. Here are a few journal fragments with a few well-known names:
[1783/1784] – Age 16
Aug. 10th Sunday. This morning at about 10 O’Clock, I accompanied my Father to Passy to see Dr. Franklin whom I knew already, and Mr. Jay . . .
Aug. 15th Friday. This day I dined . . . at Dr. Franklin’s with numerous Company.
[Jan] 21st Paris. Dined at Mr. Jeffersons.
[Feb] 7th Dined at Mr. Jefferson’s.
[Feb] 14th Dined at Dr. Franklin’s
[Mar] Dined at the Marquis de la Fayette’s (Lafayette)
[Mar] Dr. Franklin’s early in the morning.
After spending time with Thomas Jefferson, Adams makes this note: “he is a man of great Judgment.”
The first few pages of his journal, Adams has notes about his exploration of the arts, architecture, and theatre.
At one point in his life, in one of the most remarkable leadership quotations I’ve ever seen, his mother Abigail Adams advised:
“These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.” (Abigail Adams)
Ultimately, our greatest education may come from “contending with difficulties”. Imagine a parent explaining to her child, difficulty, not the “calm of life” is what is going to move you forward. “Contending” is such a great word. It’s about struggling to overcome verses enduring the difficulty or running away.
The point of this post is not that we need to travel the world, learn six or seven languages, or rigorously apply in detail the education of John Quincy Adams to our own situation. But, Adams (and his parents) provide us with some great principles for a quality education.
- Learn to sharpen our thinking and our judgments. We will learn this best through writing and quality conversations.
- Spend time with people who have great judgment.
- Take on responsibilities that are “too big” for us — and we can learn to handle them.
- Face and overcome the difficult challenges of life verses running away or simply enduring them.
- Embrace the arts as central to education – not simply as an add on.
1John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779-1821. David Waldstreicher, editor. The Library of America. Penguin Random House.