Of the many themes in Joseph Andrews, one of the most complicated issues is the value of a formal education. Throughout the novel, Parson Adams is depicted as a man who has been educated in the classics, and a formal education is important to him. Adams carries with him a large Greek text by Aeschylus, writes eloquent sermons, and enjoys discussing famed philosophers whenever he has opportunity. The narrator describes him as, “an excellent Scholar. He was a perfect Master of the Greek and Latin Languages; to which he added a great Share of Knowledge in the Oriental Tongues, and could read and translate French, Italian, and Spanish. He applied many years to most sever Study, and had treasured up a Fund of Learning rarely to be met with in a University” (65). Though he is a well educated, virtuous, and charitable man, he is innocent when it comes to the schemes of man, and comedically falls victim at several times in the novel. Much like Squire Allworthy, another character of Fielding’s in Tom Jones, Adams is so benevolent and kind that he does not expect anyone to treat him with anything but honesty and good naturedness.
Despite his formalized education, Parson Adams sometimes lacks the discernment skills required to understand the true motivations of man. Parson Adams relies on book learning because he is presumably unable to learn from his past experiences, continually lacking skills in intuiting the true nature of malicious persons. His naiveté lands him in comedic situations while it also separates him from the rest of the characters in the novel as an idealist in a bleak world.
Near the end of the novel, when he claims he may never be able to pay his debt at the inn, the host forgives his bill because of Parson Adams’ honesty. What starts as a friendly conversation eventually ends on less cordial terms when Adams and the host begin to dispute over the nature of knowledge, and speculate on the value of various forms of education. The host, who had spent time at sea and traveling the world, takes the stance that worldly experience imparts knowledge, which of course opposes everything Adams stands for. The host explains, “He who goes abroad, as I have done, will always have opportunities enough of knowing the world without troubling his head with Socrates, or any such fellows” (198). The host has learned from experience, and though he may not be able to quote Socrates as the Parson can, he is still knowledgable on affairs of the world. By contrast, the Parson, whom as we have seen does not learn well from experience, must rely on his formal education as the root of his own knowledge. This passage allows Fielding to explore the theme of formal education versus the education gained by life experience.
Parson Adams represents formal education. Fielding hints at his wide breadth of knowledge by the allusions to classic texts, which is another intentional literary device used by Fielding. In the above scene Adams states, “I will inform thee; the travelling I mean is in books, the only way of travelling by which any knowledge is to be acquired…if a man should sail round the world, and anchor in every harbour of it, without learning, he would return home as ignorant as he went out” (198). With this, Adams dismisses knowledge learned by experience, which in turn is dismissive towards his kind host. To Adams, one’s own life could not impart the same wisdom as reading Aristotle, Socrates, or Scripture, and he is unable to expand his beliefs to include the type of wisdom that is acquired by experience.
The conversation then moves to the value and morality of trade and men who work in trade, to which the Parson seems to have offended the host by dismissing trade and then doing a bit of backtracking. The host describes all the luxuries of life that are afforded because of the trade industry to people and parsons alike. To this, the Parson responds, “…there is something more necessary than life itself, which is provided by learning; I mean the learning of the clergy. Who clothes you with piety, meekness, humility, charity, patience, and all the other Christian virtues” (199)? This is a fair point that the Parson attempts to make, that men should set their sights on heavenly rewards instead of material possessions. However, the Parson perhaps momentarily forgets that it is the host who has just shown a great charity to him in forgiving his debt. The host declares he never gets fed or clothed from the parsons, yet he still acts with hospitality.
Adams is the moral compass to which the reader ultimately holds all supporting characters up to. He becomes a moral instructor to a young Joseph, whom Adams sees as a person with potential and good character. The reader, in turn, may draw a similar conclusion on the morality of Joseph, because if Adams gives his approval, why shouldn’t the reader? As far as Joseph is concerned, he often seems to be one step ahead of Adams, doubting the words and promises of strangers, and is learning to be wary of what seem to be proper upper class elite, knowing that they are not above manipulation. Through Adams, Joseph learns virtues of charity and generosity, while also learning that many parsons, Adams excluded, do not embody these traits. Joseph respects the counsel and teaching of Parson Adams, and seems to be gifted with the ability to both absorb knowledge through the counsel of Adams as well as his own experiences. In this way, Joseph bridges the gap that seems to exist between Parson Adams and the host in the above passage; he is able to absorb formal learning from the Parson, and also reflects and matures through his experiences throughout the novel.