to Raleigh Blake
I wish you had written to me at greater length telling me more about your likes and dislikes, your ambitions, your expectations, and your natural abilities and disabilities. I can’t hope to do much more than suggest to you a few generations that apply to most people who are beginning college.
About Northwestern first. When one has watched the colleges as long as I have, one realizes that the best education, and indeed the only education possible, is self-education. That is possible at almost any college, certainly at Northwestern, and one might look at certain handicaps that North W puts in the way of the students as so many benefits, as stimulants to the attainment of education. Still, I hope that you will not decide on NW if you find it decently possible to go elsewhere. This for a number of reasons. To begin with, there are neighboring colleges that are distinctly better from nearly every point of view, Wis., Ill., Minn., Mich., Chi. But what is more important, if you were at NW you would be too near home. I don’t like that for anyone. In the first place, a young man of college age should be without the supervision of his parents. He must accustom himself to making his own decisions, directing his own actions, and choosing his own goals, and directing his efforts toward them — and to accepting the consequences. In any given choice, he must be at once free and willing to make up his mind without reference to anyone but himself, and he must be far enough from home to escape the natural wish of his parents to share the choice, and his own natural with to share the responsibility. Again, he must be able to enter completely into the life of his college and his companions; he must not be subject to either his duties or his affections at home. And again, the farther he is from home, the more strange and various people he will meet, and the more widely he will be able to enter, imaginatively, the life around.
Those are generalizations. I suggest that, since you aren’t going to college this fall, you defer for a while the choice of your college. Your point of view will change considerably during the next year, and many things may happen that will conceivably be of importance to your decision.
Let me now take up more personal questions. You say that you have not been a good student in New Trier. Well, that isn’t of much importance. What is of importance is your cause of failure to be a good student. You want to be one when you go to college — else why go there? — and if you can understand yourself and the problems of education sufficiently well to avoid making the same mistake hereafter that will be a great gain for you. I cannot, of course, at this distant short acquaintance pretend to be accurate about you. But perhaps I can give you something to think about. I’m going to begin with your attitude toward your teachers.
First, let us assume that your attitude toward them is wrong. We’ll take the other point of view in minute — but you must understand that the first step in education is the willingness to be corrected if one is wrong, in fact not mere willingness, but passionate eagerness. What is a scientist? A man who exercises every possible effort to prove himself wrong in every step he takes and rejoices if, at the end of a lifetime’s work, he can prove that everything he did in that time was erroneous. You say that you have sat in classes and acted bored, that the teachers seemed to be dummies, that the material was cut and dried and formal. You are afraid that the atmosphere in college will be similarly irksome, that the teachers will be cut and dried old fogies, incapable of original thought.
My dear boy, the world is under no obligation to entrance you. There was no thought of pleasing you when it was created. The difference between any two of us is so slight that ten feet of darkness annihilate it, so immaterial that the notion there is any at all may well be an illusion. From the distance of half a mile, or fifty years, what is the difference between Raleigh Blake and Bernard DeVoto, or between either of them and a Chicago gangster, or between either of them and an Australian Bushman who has no more than forty words at his command, and has never learned to make a fire? Very little. Very very little if there is any at all. I mean to suggest merely that the world looks with equal indifference on us all. It presents itself to you and whether you find it a magical drama or whether you find it an intolerably dull tale is equally indifferent to the world, which goes about its cycle without reference to your pleasure or ennui. There is nothing interesting or dull in any subject you have studied or will ever study. The interest and dullness inhere in you, and in studies as in most other things, you will get out of them what you bring, and no more. Bring to Mathematics no more interest , curiosity and will to explore than, in my time, I have brought to it, and you will never be able to balance a check book with more self-assurance than I have at the job. Bring to Mathematics the fierce curiosity and will of a Newton or Einstein and you will very considerably alter the appearance of the world with them.
Your job is not to go into a class room and dare the teacher to make his subject as dramatic as the last reel of a movie. Neither he nor the subject is under any obligation to be vivid to you. The subject’s obligation is merely to display before you a set of facts or theories or observations that the experience of many men has made available and that you have decided may have some bearing on your life, either as preparation for something else or as data in themselves. The teacher’s obligation is merely to help you understand and master them. Now, if the subject is merely a means to an end, a preparation for something else, you are being very foolish if you stop to consider whether or not it is interesting, if you let the notion of “being interesting” enter your mind at all. It is a step toward an end, an end that you have foreseen and chosen — either of your own thought or because you have been willing to trust the wider experience of others. If you are taking the subject as an end in itself, to familiarize yourself with its material and to put its data to the use of immediate knowledge, then how foolish it is to complain that it has not been made interesting for you. Do you see?
Let me give you an example from my own education — which I assure you is continuing from day to day, though I am six months past my 32nd birthday. . . . For five years I have been studying the life and work and times of Mark Twain. The end of this study is to achieve as complete an understanding of Mark Twain as is possible, so that I may write a book about him. That has immediately necessitated a comprehensive study of life in the primitive Missouri where he was born. Do you think that latter study was interesting? Well, try sometime reading say a hundred thousand pages of county histories, intolerably dull accounts of lumber rafter down the Mississippi, the number of tons of hay produced in Clay County in 1841, the destruction in the flood of 1857, the amount of malaria in Arkansas in years that cannot possibly be of importance to anyone any more, tons of statistics, oceans of births and deaths, millions of lies. Well, I have had to spend months at this sort of thing, and months more at much duller stuff, till my mind was sodden, and my whole impulse was to quit the job and take up bookkeeping as an employment full of thrills and excitement. That sort of thing is tolerable when one gets usable material from it. But what of it when day after day produces only this fact: there is nothing here? Dull? It is the abysmal nadir of ennui. But, don’t you see? It is essential to the larger purpose, the understanding of Mark Twain, which I assure you, is breathlessly fascinating. Was it my business to complain that the material was dull, cut and dried, unoriginal? Such a complaint would be as irrelevant as to object to a sheet of music because it wasn’t printed in green ink on pink paper. My job was to do that work, to go through the material and report the results. And the result “there is nothing here” is just as important as if every line of print carried an important fact hitherto unknown about Mark Twain. Before, neither I nor anyone else could say what that material was worth. Afterward, I knew. Do you see the fable?
Now as to teachers. Is it not presumptuous for you to judge them and find them wanting? A high school teacher is a very humble person, scholastically, compared to such a scholar as Professor Michelson or Professor Kittredge. But, with young people, he does a job they could never do. And whatever his training and his personal defects, he knows more about the subject he is teaching than the students in his class. I don’t think it is very mature to say “Lo, here is a very dull fellow, a thick-witted zany indeed; go to, I will not learn in his class — I’ll show the beggar he can’t get dull with me.” That’s a childish response — a boy of eight quitting a game of follow-the-leader because he isn’t satisfied with the way the leader jumps the fences or crawls thru drainage pipes. A much more intelligent response would be: Lord what a dull fellow. (If you’re sure he is dull.) — Well, I’ll learn what I can from him, and then get out of his way.
And now I’m going to tell you something about the way our minds work, especially when we’re at the age you now have. We are born with a furious necessity of dominating others, of being first in everything, of showing our superiority to everyone else. Psychologists call this the ego urge. Our ego frantically requires us to be always asserting and proving this superiority to everyone else. The urge reaches its greatest intensity about your present age. After that the world has tamed us so that we begin to be satisfied with superiority in one thing, then with leadership in it, then with competence in it, and finally with mere normal functioning at it. This declaration is called growing up, or attaining wisdom, or what you will. But pending that final stage, the mind plays tricks on us. Daily experience proves to us that there are hundreds of things that we do less well than others do them, that can never be superiorities of ours. Now, the mind won’t accept that idea, finding it intolerable that we, WE, should be in anything inferior to anyone. So the mind begins to discover unsuspected causes that bore on that only apparently disastrous result. WE could have won that race if only we hadn’t pulled that tendon last week; we could have scores that touchdown if only we hadn’t developed a headache. We could have beaten out Joe in the rivalry to take Mary to the dance, if only we hadn’t been convinced that we didn’t really want to take her. WE could have been first in the Ancient History test instead of a dumb little dimwit like John Smith if only the teacher hadn’t been so dull that we lost interest in the whole subject. The mind has a really terrifying power. Have you ever seen athletes pale with headache or actually vomiting from acute nausea before a contest? They were going into the contest resolved to do their very utmost. . . . so much that the idea of defeat, of failure, was actually intolerable. But deep down in their minds, suppressed or never even consciously felt, is either the knowledge that someone else is better than they, or the fear that someone may be. Out of that fear springs the headache or the nausea. They could not live at peace with themselves after defeat if the reluctant mind had to acknowledge that it had crossed swords with an actual superior. The thought is intolerable. So sickness came upon them Then if they were defeated, there was a perfect explanation for the eyes of the world, and much much more for the eyes of the mind. I don’t expect you to see now that a great part of the dullness of your teachers has been the unconscious fear in the back of your mind that you wouldn’t be distinguished in their classes. But very certainly a great part has been.
This has all been in my experience, and I have had to work through to a realization that honesty with oneself is the best thing in life, that to know the truth about oneself is infinitely finer than to luxuriate in the false consolations of the ego-urge. I think that every intelligent person works through the same experiences to the same conclusion.
Let me now turn to the other assumption that you are right in calling your teachers dull. I can at once partially confirm it by my observations in the classroom at NW. There is no question, if my experience is valid, that the students that came to us from New Trier were, as a group, more inadequately prepared than those from other high schools in the Chicago area. So that my prepossession is that you were in part right about the teachers, and I add to that, knowing your mother, and having your letter to judge by, the further assurance that you are an intelligent chap and likely to be right about them.
Well, what if they were dull? What if the teachers you will have in college prove dull, old fogey-ish, cut and dried? Are you going to sulk like a small boy and refuse to use them? The world is full of dull people — there are many to whom you will be dull to the verge of intolerability — and you’ll have to live with them as best you can. And these particular people, the teachers, are the material offered to you with which to get an education. They are the tools you must use in order to master the larger tools that comprise an education. And education, remember, is not something you can buy like an automobile, or earn like a merit badge in the Boy Scouts. It is merely a certain expertness in the use of certain tools, the languages, mathematics, the historical method, the scientific method, and so on. If you are to lead an intelligent life, do intelligent work, enjoy intelligent society, then you must get that expertness, that skill. Well, the teachers are tools. Some of them are good tools, some of them bad tools, more merely indifferent. The wise man of course wants, for any given job, the best tools he can get. But he doesn’t throw up a job and quit when he only has a two dollar saw to cut planks with while there are forty dollar saws on the market. If getting from one place to another is the whole desideratum, then a 1911 is fully as good as a 1928 Rolls. Some day I hope you will read the life of Pasteur. No man who ever lived did more to revolutionize the outer world and the world of the intellect — he was a very great genius and he actually changed the conditions of life and our understanding of it. When you read his biography, observe the materials that comprised his laboratory. A little room in a barn. A few cans to hold solutions, a simply microscope so faulty that the veterinarian who takes care of my dog would throw it away, a handful of candles and an oil lamp, some glasses such as my mother used for jellies (which by the way she was able to preserve because of what Pasteur discovered). Not much, is it? The dark room I have brought into the woods so that I can develop pictures is complicated and expensive compared to it. You probably have a more complicated outfit to take care of the family radio. But simple as the tools were, they sufficed him for his experiments with ferments — and those led to what one might soundly consider the greatest discovery of all time. Later, Pasteur had one of the finest laboratories ever made up until then, and in it he made magnificent discoveries; but he never again equalled the first one, which was made with tools we could buy today in Woolworth’s. Or read about the family physician, Koch, who in his own kitchen, in hours when he wasn’t spraying tonsils, revolutionized the science of bacteriology. Or Count Rumford, who laid the foundation of modern physics with this equipment: a team of horses, a barrel of water, and an auger.
It isn’t the tools that count: it’s the skill you develop with them. Not the teachers, but the use you make of them. You want the best you can get of course, and therefore you want to go to the best college open to you. But what happens once you get there depends entirely on you. Any teacher on earth will bore you, and any subject, if you are willing to be bored, if you inwardly challenge him to interest you. But if you are wise, if you really want to get out of life the pleasures and compensations that an education can afford you, you will disregard the teacher except as a tool. Find out what larger tools you want. Take the courses that will make them available to you. And then use the minor tool, the teacher, to the full extent of your ability. I assure you that you won’t anywhere find many college teachers who are actually unfit for their jobs. You may of course, but if you think you have, be at first suspicious of your own judgment — always a desirable habit of mind to cultivate — and consider that experts that know rather more about it than you have passed on his fitness. If you become finally convinced that he is unfit, then drop him cold, without reproaching him or felling superior, and move your efforts elsewhere, to some place where they can be made fruitful. Don’t for God’s sake pride yourself on having exposed a bore — that is perhaps the easiest accomplishment in the world, and nothing to be proud of.
It might be illuminating now and then to frame to yourself the picture of you in the teacher’s mind. Teaching, you know, is hard work. I’ve held a variety of jobs, many of them calling for great physical labor. But none ever took such energy out of me, not a fourteen hour day in a hay field, not sixteen hours in a saddle roping nervous steers or marching all day with sixty pounds of field equipment and fourteen of rifle, as three class sessions of one hour each. A teacher is always at the limit of his strength — and he isn’t particularly inspired to do his best for a student when he realizes, as he always does, that that student who knows less than nothing about the subject being taught, is sitting inert before him gently warmed by a specious feeling of superiority, and damning him because he isn’t being brilliant.
. . . . The conclusion of all this is that you’re probably wrong, most of the time, about teachers and subjects being dull, and that, even if you’re right, the fact of their dullness has nothing to do with the question of education. No pleasure in the world has quite the adventurousness of learning. But if you are to enjoy it, you must have first the desire to learn. After that, you must have the courage to learn, and that includes the willingness to be rigorously stern with yourself. You must be prepared to sacrifice all of your self-esteem and all of the protective devices with which the mind ministers to its own comfort. You must learn to be humble, which means to count the proved fact, the real thing, the entity that is, as worth far more than any bearing it may have on yourself or your ideas or your prejudices or your emotions or your affections. And you must be prepared to sacrifice, in order to attain the fact whatever it may cost. The truth, we have been told, maketh alive. I think it does make alive those who are daring enough, and hardy enough to seek it out. But I know that it kills the less fit who purposely or accidentally get in its way — which is why most people should never set out for it. The pursuit of truth — or the similitude that in an illusory world seems to be the truth — is the most splendid adventure open to us. But in order to undertake it one must first be a man.
There are doubtless many things that I should discuss specifically. I will, if you will suggest which ones you would like me to. Don’t hesitate to. You are not likely to say anything that will seem ridiculous. And don’t consider my time. I have always plenty of time for such discussions as these.
As for athletics — I should advise you either to do no more than will suffice to keep you in good health and can be made enjoyable, or, if you want to adopt the pseudo-professional career of college athlete, to go to a small college such as Wabash. In the Big Ten you would probably not be a success anyway — that time has passed when the genuine amateur can be an athlete in the universities, which employ professionals, trained in the rolling mills, frankly as publicity-gatherers. And the mere effort of trying to keep up with the competition of Slovak professionals would strain you unbearably, rob athletics of all pleasure, and certainly frustrate your efforts to get, incidentally, an education. The small colleges remain on an amateur basis; you could be in one of them, at one time an athlete, a student, and a gentleman. In the Big Ten that is quite impossible.
But of course I ought to tell you my own opinion. I attribute no value to it beyond my own point of view. It is this: college athletics are the diversions of boys, the intellectually immature, the retarded. And college students should be men.