Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
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Sarah O. Jewett
I am sorry to say that the best remembered part of my life, while I was at Berwick Academy, is the out-door part. I have a much more vivid recollection of a certain ground-sparrow's nest in the grass, and the progress of its young tenants, than of my grammar lessons, and I remember the view from the door-way, as we saw it then, of the snow-covered White Mountains in clear spring weather, much better than any outlook I ever got toward the higher mathematics. There does not seem to be any good reason why I should not have learned to study and have had all my out of door experiences and pleasures beside; in fact, one should have ministered to the other. I believe that I could go now to the very spot and very tuft of grass where I found the bird's nest, but, alas! I know not the lessons which should have been learned in the same early summer.
I dare say that almost all young readers of what I am now going to write, will believe that I have chosen a dull subject. I must brave their opinion, for I have long wished to say what my guilty heart has taught me about the mistakes of my own school days. Nothing inside the school walls, unless it was the pleasure of being with some of my friends among the teachers and scholars, quite repaid me for the hardships of being shut away from open air life. I do not remember that I had any proper sense or clear idea of the use, present or future, of going to school, or of the reasons why I should be sorry all my life long because I had no understanding of that part of my education. Now that years have gone by, and I have had a great deal of work to do and perhaps special need of the development and training that I missed then, I long for the sake of the young people, for whose help in the world's affairs I and many others beside me watch and wait, to put before them some of my unlearned lessons.
I am afraid that many of my readers are going to school ignorantly, just as I did, without understanding that school asks of us the habit of attention and that it gives in return the power of learning--the use of a trained mind. We are not at our lessons just for the sake of those lessons themselves, but for the sake of learning to learn any lessons. If we were equipped for the duties and problems of life with the information in our reading books and arithmetics, that would be one thing; but the truth is that life is always bringing us new facts and problems, our own special lessons, and we need for them all the discipline of mind we can possibly gain. It is for this that we are set as early as possible to the training of our minds by the best methods, so that they will be fit to serve us whichever way we turn. I never understood this when I was at school; the lessons of the text books were only an end in themselves to me, not a means by which I was being fitted to learn other lessons. The lack of a discipline which I might so easily have had then, has made my work of writing a great deal more difficult, for when I put my mind down to close study it flies off, and I miss very often the delightful sense of facility and accuracy, and the power, as we say, of getting things by heart. I never really learned to learn, and when I am busy with the deeper lessons that make the foundations of even the lightest stories, I am reminded over and over again of those idle misunderstood school-days when I was unconsciously missing the golden gift of proper school training.*
The word culture is so often misused and degraded that I like to remind myself of the definition that Matthew Arnold has made so famous: "To know the best that has been thought and said in the world." The habit of attention, the power of study, are most necessary for furthering us on our way toward culture, and this noble sentence of Mr. Arnold's is a test of moral and mental quality. It marks a line between serious, satisfactory people who are trying to make and to take the best of life, and people who live on low levels thoughtlessly and willingly; those who are growing and those who are not growing. Many useful men and women have been greater observers than readers, but we must keep growing, however we may get our growth, if we mean to be adequate to our positions and our work. We find a large part of the best that has been thought and said in the world stored away in books, we must go a long way round to get at certain truths in any other fashion, and even if some of the wisest people cannot be called great readers, one is sure to discover that there are two or three of the world's best works which they know almost by heart. It seems to me that there are two kinds of 'best books' for us, those that advise us and those that companion us. But, without a well drilled power of understanding, how much that concerns our own quiet, yet inexpressibly important lives is locked away between the covers of those books that stand on our own shelves. Beside the needs of our personal characters, and our duty to our neighbors we must not forget the need of trained minds and clearheadedness in this young rich country of ours. We are in great danger of degrading our national wealth and power to unworthy ends. Through the possession of culture only can we come to the real meaning and possession of aristocracy: the rule of the best. The definition of this word is as much degraded in common use as the meaning of a word can be, but we must never forget the true sense of it, and keep that high ideal always in our minds. We must not have the rule of brute force in town or state, or the rule of money, or of political trickery, but the rule of the best. Knowledge is power, not ignorance; ignorance can only delay, not advance.
When we come face to face with the great business of life, what a thing it is to feel a sense of equipment. I warn you that if you are not lending yourself gladly to the proper training of your mind, if you lounge through school because the other young men and women go, and as if it were a favor to your family and even to the teachers and the school itself because you lend your presence, you will miss this delightful sense of equipment, and cannot use what you do know, by and by when you need it most. Your pride will be hurt and your self-love, and you will feel that the world conspires against you as so many un-equipped workers do. What is industrial training worth without ideas and a clear mind behind it? What misery comes to any man who has natural ability and who cannot use it! He thinks of things too late, he sees people of less real gift distance him every day. Nobody knows until he is fairly in the middle of life how all the idle school days count, how it weakens and degrades a man face to face with great questions and competitions to fumble about in his brain for a power that is not there, or to find his power of learning and understanding new things slipping away year by year because it is not helped to grow. A slow mind needs training--a quick mind needs it even more.
I am tempted to write longer, but I hope that I have said something that will make the use and purpose of school a little more plain, that will make my younger schoolmates covet hard study instead of evading it, and help them to make the most and best of their lives. Out of ordinary ability and great, conscientious industry joined, have come some of the most wonderful, useful characters know to humanity.
I beg you not to do things now that you are sure to be ashamed of, by and by, dear schoolmates of the old beloved school! Make your school days inside and outside the Academy walls just as kind and busy and loveable and respectable as you possibly can. Youth has no past, that is its one lack, but you are making your past on which to look back a few years later with pleasure or displeasure. It is not enough to think only of sharpening your wits for living successfully when you are men and women, weighted with the demands of our complex modern life. Think most of learning the deeper lessons of being good, for the heart rules the inner court of character, and the mind is, after all, only the heart's servitor.
*I wish that everybody who reads this page would also read a fine essay by President Hyde, of Bowdoin College, which was published in the December number of The Atlantic Monthly.
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"Unlearned Lessons" appeared in The Berwick Scholar, Vol. II. No. 6. Berwick Academy, February, 1889, pp. 1-2. This piece is available here courtesy of the archives of the Berwick Academy, South Berwick, ME.
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Matthew Arnold: See Matthew Arnold's preface to Literature and Dogma. "Matthew Arnold, b. Dec. 24, 1822, d. Apr. 15, 1888, was a major Victorian poet, the principal English literary critic of his generation, an important commentator on society and culture, and an effective government official. His father was Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School." (Source: Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia).
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a fine essay by President Hyde: Jewett refers to William De Witt Hyde, "The Future of the Country College," Atlantic Monthly v. 62; Issue 374 (December 1888) 721-726.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.
Uncollected Pieces for Young Readers
Main Contents & Search