The Adams game: an exercise for educators in 2018

I’d like to propose a game or exercise.  It can be played in person or online, including in comments added to this very blog post.

It starts with this famous 1780 quotation from John to Abigail Adams:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

How might that statement change in 2018?

Adding women, of course. Some might update the spelling.  The bigger challenge is thinking about today’s curricula.  What is our equivalent of studying politics and war?  Perhaps learning business and coding.

Consider, too, what we forecast to change over the next 50 years (approximating the quote’s two generations: “my sons” and “their Children”).  If today’s Adams must study business and coding, should their children learn, say, information management (to get a job wrangling automation) and Chinese (to speak with the world’s next superpower)? And then their children – do they turn to the humanities and arts, like Adamses 3.0?  If so, which humanities and arts?

Adams quote

A scan of the letter itself.

The advanced version of this exercise situates the speaker in a certain context.  You might not be in a position like John and Abigail Adams in late 18th-century America. What’s the updated quote for a Latinx adult learner in the US, as opposed to an eighteen-year-old male Briton, or a female war veteran?

An alternative version of this game reverses course.  We start with previous players’ answers, then analyze them to determine their assumptions about education, work, politics, and culture.

Who wants to take the first turn?

(thanks to Mike Sellers for support and for hashing out the idea)


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24 Responses to The Adams game: an exercise for educators in 2018

  1. Roger C. Schonfeld says:

    Fascinating post. Really has me thinking. It looks like he actually scratched out “Painting and Poetry” for his sons in the original. Replacing it with mathematic and philosophy. I suppose coming to the realization that it would require two generations.

    • mkt42 says:

      Yes, in the scan of the original it does indeed look like Adams scratched out painting and poetry. This makes a big difference, to postpone things for a generation. IMO it’s probably accurate in a certain context: I believe it is still true that children of low-income immigrants are more likely to major in say STEM or business than in painting and poetry. Grandchildren though might be as likely as anyone else to major in them.


      I’m guessing that Adams was thinking more of the status of the US as a nation (and as an economy) than about the status of an individual immigrant family. In 2018, the status of the USA as an independent nation with a high-level economy is not in question.

      Moreover although Adams two-generation timeline might’ve been accurate in his era, there may be greater opportunities and choices for say an 18-year old John Quincy Adams today.

      And although a child of immigrants might opt to major in something “practical” or vocational, they can (and I would argue should) still take some classes in painting and poetry. I.e. one doesn’t have to major in the humanities or arts but one can and should study them. Steve Jobs made his mark in a technical field but he sat in on calligraphy classes at Reed College and talked repeatedly about the difference that that made.

      Which gets me to an actual answer of the Adams question.

      Work on reading and writing; the value of those skills isn’t going away, ever. Or more broadly, communication and rhetoric.

      And quantitative skills; it doesn’t have to be and perhaps shouldn’t be calculus, it can be statistics, data analysis, and I would include coding in the category of quantitative skills.

      And at the risk of stuffing three different areas of inquiry into a single pigeonhole, having the ability to use those skills wisely and to put them into context. Meaning humanities, social sciences, and the arts: what is your culture about, what is your society’s history, how does your society work, what are the universal and not-so universal human quandaries and conflicts and tradeoffs and how should we resolve them?

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        On the quote: this is what I get from blogging on planes and trains.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        mkt42 , thank you for thinking hard about this. Good points about different populations.

        It sounds like you’re recommending liberal education for this and subsequent generations.

  2. Phil Katz says:

    I happened to read your post right after I read Andrew Taggart’s article, “How workers killed the liberal arts”: He provides something of an “anti-Adams” or “reverse Adams” narrative, devolving from the liberal arts to a higher education bound by “expediency, practicality, and utility.”

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      And yet he concludes with the reverse, calling some a new LA education.
      Strange essay. I might take more time with it soon.

  3. William Moner says:

    I must study computer algorithms so my bots can produce painting and poetry.

  4. Peter Shea says:

    For me, the most striking aspect of the Adams quote is how it anticipates the advancement of American society where there is sufficient capital dispersed so that people can attend to the study of things they enjoy as opposed to devoting themselves to subjects that are remunerative. The post-WWII decades with its flourishing and growing middle-class represent the third generation of which Adams speaks. What we are seeing now is a reversion to stage 2. (Replace “geography” with “data analytics.”)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s fascinating, Peter. So his three-generation structure played out with Boomers, Xers, and Millennials?

      • Peter Shea says:

        I think the Boomer generation represented the culmination of Adam’s prescient vision. Xers and Millenials inherited the cultural expectations of the Boomers, but not their economic advantages. In the Boomer age, a young American could graduate with a degree in the arts and still expect to enjoy a comfortable, middle-class existence. This is no longer the case. Part of the trouble facing higher education is that, in many colleges, the programs of study reflect a boomer society–not the economic realities of the Xer/Millenial world. The colleges/universities that understood these altered circumstances and responded with changes in the curriculum are the ones that are thriving (ex: Northeastern).

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Excellent point about changing generations, Peter.

          Does this clobber the humanities, or lead to a reversal of Adams’ sequence?

          • Peter Shea says:

            I think stage two of Adam’s sequence may be the new normal–at least during our lifetimes. The humanities remain, but the formal academic study of the humanities (and the promise of making a living as an academic in these areas) will decline. This means that the number of graduate programs devoted to the humanities need to be reduced or closed altogether. It is irresponsible to keep training people for a job market that is no longer there. All that has done is create a tremendous pool of people who try to scrape together a living as adjuncts.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Alas, I agree with you about the academic humanities, Peter.

  5. Peter Hess says:

    I feel the same way about that Adams quote as I do about some other relics of the same era: the 2nd amendment, lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, Jeffersonian Democracy. (Though the sayings of Ben Franklin somehow held up pretty well.) They only serve to point out how much more complicated things have become as the population of the country has increased 130-fold and communications, travel, cities, social structures and medicine bear virtually no resemblance to what they were then. And we keep harkening back to our “originalist” past with irrelevancies.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      (Don’t forget copyright, that 18th-century invention)

      Peter, I do not in any way intend to suggest an originalist interpretation of the Constitution in creating this post and game, if that’s what your last sentence implies. Instead, I wanted to see how that Adams quote would prompt people today to think about curricula and generations, not to endorse its views, nor to think we could simply transpose colonial America to 2018.

      I think the prompt works in that way, based on comments here and elsewhere. I’ll follow up soon with a summary, if you’re interested.

      If I’ve misunderstood your comment, please let me know.

      PS: I’m also not an Adams fan, being instead a support of civil liberties. Although the recent movie was very good.

  6. E. Alex Floate says:

    One item of humanity that Adams reveals here is the desire for succeeding generations of our offspring to live better lives than we ourselves have. That, IMHO, is the basis for hope that we, as a species, will rise above the troubles we have created, and will seek those preferable futures that benefit posterity more than our individual selves.

    Of course the determination of what is “better” is set in the values of our cultures, religions and social classes. Unfortunately, the reigning minority in the USA appears to favor wealth and power over all other values, which in many ways directly contradicts a better future for so many others.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Alex, thank you for that comment.
      Re: better futures, what do you make of Peter’s comment up above?

      What is better: I think the sense of favoring wealth is actually more widespread than just the reigning minority. Neoliberalism theory holds that such beliefs become widely held, if not necessarily with enthusiasm.

  7. E. Alex Floate says:

    With all due respect to Peter Shea, I disagree that we are going backwards. For one, the prosperity of post-WWII America was an anomaly in that it was partly brought on by being the only industrialized nation that wasn’t destroyed during or diminished after (i.e. British Empire) the war. Although this allowed for increased prosperity overall, it was not exactly a new enlightenment. However, many of the advances made during that time (such as computing and strategic foresight!) has led to broader information flows and better educational opportunities for anyone with access to the internet.

    Secondly, just a quick look at the types of bachelors degrees being conferred today versus 1970 shows a slightly more than doubling of total degrees, while an area such as visual and performing arts has more than tripled.

    I am actually excited and jealous of my 20-something children. Whereas my educational access consisted of physically going to the library, or staying in at recess and reading encyclopedias (what a freaking nerd!!!) these kids have access to all kinds of information, analysis and educational opportunities without leaving their room.

    Although we are far from any utopia of knowledge and reason, as long as the basic human instinct of doing better for your children persist, I’m hopeful that humanity will continue to improve for everyone.

    • Peter Shea says:

      “I am actually excited and jealous of my 20-something children. Whereas my educational access consisted of physically going to the library, or staying in at recess and reading encyclopedias…these kids have access to all kinds of information, analysis and educational opportunities without leaving their room.”

      Adam’s comment isn’t about access to educational resources. It’s about the development of a nation’s economy which, as it advances, affords its members more opportunities to devote their attentions to studying subjects that are intellectually gratifying but not necessarily remunerative. With regards to higher education, the increased diversity of programs of study over the past few decades was fueled in part by the economic anomaly to which you referred. My point is that while people can still investigate a great range of topics, they can no longer afford to assume that they can devote themselves primarily to areas of study they find most gratifying–at least not as career paths.

      • E. Alex Floate says:

        I interpret Adam’s comment as being about access to resources, economics and being in a society that is secure and free from threat. On the point of contemporary individuals not being able to devote themselves to their primary area of study, I would need additional data to see this as widespread or different than previous generations. Perhaps this is my small town/blue collar bias; my family was GI Gen w/Baby Boomer offspring, and the entire lot, save me, was blue collar without understanding that college or entrepreneurial undertakings were an option. (Even then, I didn’t truly pursue and graduate college until I was 30). Economic success for our family meant they were able to step up from poaching deer in the 50’s just to get food, to finally getting a color TV in the 70’s.

        From this bias, and the success I’ve seen of people who are younger than me (Gen X’ers and Millennials) I don’t currently see a diminishment of opportunities to succeed, just different paths from their parents that must be taken to get there. In that sense, I see current conditions as offering more opportunity, especially for the children of small town, blue collar families.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Different, E. Alex, but neither better nor worse?

          • Edwin Alex Floate says:

            Somewhat better, but somewhat narrower in approach, which some will construe as being worse.
            One clarification: I don’t see Adams comment as having a terminus. He was putting his optimistic hope that what he had to do, would allow his offspring to do something ‘better’. From a blue collar perspective that might look like…
            – I assemble cars on an assembly line so my children can be the ones to design them.
            – I design cars so my children can….etc, etc, etc.

            If each generation maintains that hope, and works to make it happen, the lives of our posterity will be better, and our short meager existence as individuals will not have been in vain.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Great point about hope, Edwin.

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