The (Moral) Education of John Quincy Adams

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Young John Quincy

What’s more important: intelligence and knowledge, or wisdom and goodness of heart?

I think most of us would say wisdom and goodness, but that’s not always how we approach education, is it? We worry about our tots getting into the right preschool because this could determine the rate of their early cognitive development, which could mean the difference between a public school and a magnet school, which could mean the difference between a great and just an average college, which could make or ruin their lives! We put time and effort seeking ways to make our little ones smart, whether through having them listen to Bach from the womb, to buying everything Dora the Explorer so that they can learn Spanish (this is in fact a great idea if your child lives in the United States), to putting them in Chinese immersion schools or classes so that they can compete in the global economy.

Of course, none of these things is bad in itself. But it’s worth asking if we’re neglecting our children’s moral formation at the expense of their intellectual development. Here we can learn from our nation’s second president, John Adams. As we learn in Harlow Giles Unger’s excellent biography John Quincy Adams, though Adams was deeply concerned about and demanding when it came to his son John Quincy’s education, he recognized that character trumped intellect, that the “sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head,” as he wonderfully put it. Listen to Adams, abroad serving as an ambassador, instructing his wife Abigail on their son’s education:

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“I am under no apprehension about his proficiency in learning. With his capacities and and opportunities he can not fail to acquire knowledge. But let him know that the sentiments of his heart are more important than the furniture of his head. Let him be sure that he possesses the great virtue of temperance, justice, magnanimity, honor, and generosity, and with these added to his parts, he cannot fail to become a wise and great man.

“… Treachery, perfidy, cruelty, hypocrisy, avarice, &c & should be pointed out to him for his contempt as well as detestation” (18).

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