Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

In my second letter, I think it was, I defined the gifts of a liberal education to be love of truth and of virtue and of beauty. If I did not remark in that connection it is perhaps occasion to do so now that these three loves are the essentially educable interests of man’s nature. They are by no means the only human appetites and instincts; we possess many others, most or all of which we share with the balance of animal creation, and most of which, like the instincts of the animals, come to their due and seasonal expression unurged and untrained. For the discovery of such instinctive desires–ours and all creation’s–we need no schooling; although for the control and direction of their proper expression nothing is more important than the power of judgment and will which schooling should give. And it can give this control primarily through its education, through its bringing out in true Socratic wise, of those other and rarer loves, of truth and virtue and beauty, with which man is so strangely and fortunately endowed. Self-control–to fall back to the old phrase–is not only the highest quality of the liberal man, but it is his essential quality and the very one which makes him deserve the name of freeman; and it is self-control which is created by the right schooling of the educable desires.

Now I have spoken in those previous letters which dealt with the curriculum of the means for bringing the love of truth into the conscious life. All that part of education which has to do with the imparting of the tools of knowledge and with the acquisition of knowledge itself, if it be in the hands of a wise and truth-loving teacher, will be answered, in the pupil’s soul, by a spontaneous and inevitable treasuring of all that is honest and genuine and true; nature has seen to this, human nature, in giving man, out of whatever Eden constituted his first innocency, an insatiable taste for the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

Further, and in many ways, the love of virtue comes with the school’s direction of life. This is, indeed, the one meaning which can be attached to the word “discipline” that is a proper value. Heaven forefend that any should mistake my meaning here! For by discipline I do not at all mean the regimentation of youthful lives, with all the varied paraphernalia of red-tape regulation and unintelligent suppression and punishment; that is merely fantastic and monstrous, and it imprisons rather than frees human souls. But by discipline I mean the imparting of that conception of duty and desire of action which will lead a mortal to put himself through the test of effort, that he himself may conquer the obstacles which he has been taught to see for himself, and attain ends equally self-foreseen and self-commanded. Discipline means putting child or man on his mettle, in situations where mettle is needed-and it is for this reason that school represents and should rightfully represent hard work. That schoolroom which is all ease and delight to its occupants, which never wears nor wearies, is surely failing of a portion of its mission–the training of the ability to stand up under punishment which no man can safely dispense with.

But it is not of devotion to truth nor fidelity to virtue that I purpose to write this letter. I have mentioned these rather to indicate that their cultivation in the school has methods of its own, which are not, as it happens, the methods which educate the third great love of the human spirit, the love of beauty. There is a certain measure of the stem and the repressive where truth and virtue are the stake, without which the stake is lost. Truth is a kind of alignment amidst the deviousness of error, which it is always a toil to follow–even if the toil be an exalted one. Virtue is built upon inhibition, upon the suppression of the waywardness and lassitudes everlastingly besetting mind and body, and the way of virtue, too, is a way of effort. One has to be tremendously alive to keep one’s moral balance and tremendously alert to keep one’s rational balance,–and it is perhaps this that leads us to speak of the “uprightness” of virtuous living and of the “steadiness” of sound thinking. But by a kindly compensation, the third and perhaps final love of them all, the love of beauty, is simple and easy and spontaneous; and needs, on the part of the teacher, only the soft magic of suggestion in order that it may come smilingly into flower.

“Poetry springs from two instincts lying deep in our nature, the instinct for rhythm and the instinct for imitation.” If Aristotle had pointed to no truth save this, he would still deserve his place as greatest of all the critics of art. The instinct for rhythm is the expressive instinct and at the same time the form-giving instinct; it reflects in its forms the very subtlest truth of physiology, the laws of life itself, as they are manifested in pulse and breathing and indeed in that whole wonderful organic economy which makes of a living creature not a substance nor a chemical compound, but a form of motion and an equilibration of forces. Why, for example, should the young not dance when the whole of their supple bodies, like the foliage of a tree swaying in a summer breeze, is a complex of varied and rhythmic motion? And why should not their voices echo in pulsating song when they themselves, body and mind, are like Aeolian instruments played upon by the free airs of heaven? Singing and dancing and flashing eyes are the very image of the fullness of life and of that high animation which out of a handful of sunkist dust and a few brief years creates the form of man. Wherefore, let no teacher who hon- ors what is fairest in humankind and no school which would truly free human nature fail to give opportunity, and indeed the cry of speed to all who in motion and song will at once praise and realize life’s beauty.

As the instinct for rhythm is the expressive instinct, so the instinct for imitation or mimicry is the receptive and appreciative one. All the world is full of colors and forms and sounds and motions in themselves tantalizing to the shaping fancy and challenging to the imagination. The smallest nub of humanity in the crib hardly makes the discovery of his fingers before he begins to grasp and arrange to his own sweet will whatever is graspable and arrangeable within reach; and each child creeping to the window seat is a new aspirant after the moon. It is the most natural of continuations that the youth, with each new craft made familiarly his own–the craft of song, of colors, of words,–should weave fanciful snares for all the intangibles by which his faculties are surrounded; and it is out of this that are born the passions for painting and poetry and acting out dramatically the passions of others which make of your youngster an inevitable even if unskilled artist. The world is for him a veritable palace of suggestion, with a spell for the opening of each magic portal, half the mystery of which consists in its independent finding. One might indeed say that the passion for expression and for rhythmic form finds its full complement in the gorgeously varied suggestiveness of all that the eye sees and the mind construes; the union of the two, sense and motion, rhythm and imitation, is the thing we call art.

Partly what I wish to indicate is that art is not a thing apart from life, but that it is a part of life, and most of all a part of the young and growing life of the school child. There used to be the notion that music and painting and polite letters were all in the nature of “accomplishments,” suitable for young ladies with matrimonial aspirations and for young gentlemen of drawing-room habits. Now neither the aspiration nor the habits are incompatible with a cultivated sense of beauty, and undoubtedly there is this truth in the old view, that the cultivated appreciation enhances social qualities. But what is important for teachers to understand, and for the world with them, is the fact that the love of beauty and its expression in art is something that is deep and instinctive and humanly indispensable in man’s nature; and again that (this being true) it is part of the school’s task to summon forth the love and to indicate the means of expression.

And what are these means, as the schools and teachers possess them? I should answer, poetry and pageantry. And in this answer I should mean by poetry, not merely formal verse, but, in the Greek sense, the whole art of aesthetic creation; the poet is literally a “maker,” and poetry, therefore, should represent the inventive or expressive side of the love of beauty, leading to manifestation in all forms of music and acting and imaginative recounting, and the whole round of artistic forms. By pageantry, again, I should mean what the word first stands for, and that is the aesthetic structure, the scene, which is given by nature and by the. world and by all the great abode of the human mind, historical and cosmical. The universe is the vastest and most magnificent of all pageants, wherein, as Longinus says, we are entered, to be not only spectators of her contests, but ourselves most ardent competitors and ourselves candidates for the prize–those crowns of laurel which are the poet’s one reward. I am but repeating in more ranging terms the complementation of rhythm and imitation, which now should be seen to be not only instincts deep in our nature, but veritable laws of life and of the whole universe within which we dwell.

Quite literally, too, poetry and pageantry are the natural modes of the school’s expression of its understanding of beauty. Poetry in its literary forms comes naturally as a theme for study, and again it should come in the library, through a liberal supply of the great poetic books. It comes likewise in song and in the forms of music, for never has poetry been merely a literary form, but always also a musical form. Music and singing, as everyone knows, belong by right to school years and to all years. Pageantry, also, comes in a variety of forms. For I suppose that it is clear that the use of a pencil and paint, form and color, is an art of pageantry–the great art of reproducing and preserving the scenic loveliness and the picturesque fantasies which enrich our understanding of nature and history and indeed of the panoramic environment of everyday life. Further it is pageantry which plays perhaps the first part in the dramatic and festival features of the school; for it is the spectacle that is the key to our love of stage and masque, and gives to splendid mummeries an undying fascination. Youth is ever on the alert for these things, ready, with every zest, to bring them to realization whenever the chance is given. All that is needed is the suggestion,–a magic wand which should be in every teacher’s hand.

I do not think I need undertake practical hints; the whole matter of art and pageantry is nowadays a recognized feature, of school organization. But I should like to indicate what seems to me a peril of the practice,–and this, again, is the peril of regimentation. I believe in instruction in the technique of the arts–this of course; and I know that expertness in them comes only from work. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that training in art ought to stand in the curriculum on the same footing as other branches. It ought to stand as a special opportunity, rather than as a requirement, to be pursued spontaneously and out of love of it. For this reason I should make it extra-curricular, and give opportunity for its cultivation in irregular hours, and whenever the interest is keen. I believe that proficiency in the expression of beauty, like the understanding and desire of beauty, comes less by routine than by intense devotion; and that the moments of intensity must be seized upon. Of course I also believe in offering every encouragement which resources permit for the development of taste and the manifestation of artistic powers. It is mainly for this reason that–as I said once before–had I the making of the calendar, it would be full of red-letter days, days of festival in which the children and youths should be the fete-makers, the artists. For this same reason (as also for its value in giving an understanding love of home and country), I should encourage the pageant based upon national history or local life, in which the nobility of American character or the beauties of our native traditions should be brought home to young and old alike. For, after all, it is not merely the young that partake of the richness of life in giving expression to whatever is lovely, it is also their elders, in whom the imagination is a bit staled by care and disappointment, who are to be won back into the first and freshest of inspirations, the love of beauty, which is also surely the last and divinest of inspirations.