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

A man’s political education should never be completed. It was more than mere antique sentiment, it was the wisdom of the truest sage, that led Solon, when he described to Croesus the happiest of men, to make his hero–after he had lived a virtuous life, reared a family, and enjoyed an honorable share of what men call goods–end his career and fulfill his happiness by death in battle for his country. Perfect citizenship is a thing not easily to be attained; while a man lives he must fight for it (most of all with his own anarchic soul), and death must overtake him fighting for it; and not until he has fallen can his fortune be accounted and the final credit set to his estate.

In a certain broad and true sense the bestowal of the ballot is a recognition of this fact. The ballot is very properly called a weapon and an election a battle; in the possession of the ballot there is a defensive safety, and in the exercise of the vote a military responsibility demanding an alert mind and an eye unwaveringly set on the good of the state. The ballot is not a security that can be put in a safety deposit and draw comfortable interest; its employment is its preservation. This means that he to whom it is committed must be relentlessly in training, learning through use the better mastery of his citizen’s rights and, like a surgeon or a soldier or a man of law, improving his skill with practice–which can only signify practice of civic judgment in that study of human nature and choice of good men which is the true life of a democracy. Such a process is necessarily educational, and it is the great virtue of democracy that it recognizes no finished men–your perfect valet, for example, or hussar, or beau–and no classes save citizens, active or preparing; and both of these are in process of education.

Of course, there is a distinction between the boy at school and the man at the booth. The latter is doing what the former is preparing for, even though we own that the preparation must continue with the practice. And certainly it makes a huge difference in the voter if the boy has been properly trained. For there are principles which underlie the education of democrats in their school days, just as there are principles governing the school training of those who are to become docile subjects of an autocracy. Next to the goose-step (which is but its automatic display), the docility of the German, schoolboy and subject, has come in for our most copious contempt; but as a matter of fact, this docility is merely law-abidingness, which among ourselves we surely regard as a virtue; and if we were to analyze our antipathy, it would be found to lie not against a spirit of obedience to law, but against a spirit willing to accept laws which it has had no part in making; in brief, we are angry with the Germans because they are not democrats. Obviously (and this is what we hold against the German schoolboy), it has been the design of German education to train anti-democratic citizens–primarily, I suspect, by impressing upon the youth that admiration for loyalty, that hero-worship and fidelity to the kingly, which appeals so warmly to the youthful temperament. Their success in this design irks us, and the more because we have so widely and uncritically copied German educational methods and ideals when we should have been creating a schooling appropriate for a democracy.

The key to democratic education, like the key to democratic institutions, is liberalism. Along with the freeman’s ballot, the free public school is the great fortress of democracy. But the school must be not merely free of access, it must be free in spirit; that is, it must stand for a liberal education. This means, first of all, that it must avoid early specialization. In Germany there is one type of public school for the child of peasant or laborer; there are other types for merchants, soldiers, legislators: the whole system is based upon the hypothesis that the state must be a class-state, each man born to his appropriate moves and from infancy assigned to his possible squares, like the pawns and pieces of the chess-board. America has escaped this, luckily, for its primary schools; but overhead we have been assiduously copying the Germans, and the superstructure is weighing more and more heavily upon the common–school foundations, tending constantly to contract their native liberalism. Undoubtedly, for that kind of efficiency which sees all ends from the beginning, the German method is best; but no free state can afford to foresee its destinies–except the one destiny of holding open the possibility of choice.

Liberalism means, then, primarily the training of youth to choose their own careers; which, in turn, should mean a belated entrance upon a career. For it is not to be supposed that this choice is to be made intelligent by an early smattering in many subjects and arts; such a notion springs from the fallacious confusion of means with ends, and it is only knowledge of ends that can make choice intelligent. Such knowledge cannot be acquired from anything short of a comprehension of the history and organization of society in connection with a fair internal estimate of the nature and possibilities of man. That is, it is knowledge that is possible only with a certain maturity–as much, at least, as is required of the voter; and it should be the aim of a democracy, in the interests of its own perfection, to keep its youth in the tutelage of liberal studies up to their majorities. The expense of such a schooling would of course be great; but its returns (granting wisdom in the process) would be inestimable. Further, if we look upon the schools, as we should look upon them, not as eleemosynary burdens, but as part of the returns which society gives its citizens, we should find in the richness of their life our reward. In no institution is the faith of a people so honestly shown as in its schools; what a generation of men is willing to teach to its children is the fairest measure of what it really believes in; and if democracy is a part of our vital faith, then by every means at our disposal our children will be trained for its preservation, which can only be through their comprehension of it.

The creation of such a comprehension should be the guiding principle of our public-school organization. Not variety of skilled technicians, but humanistic breadth of mind, is the true token of the liberal state. The two things are not incompatible, but they do not necessarily coexist, and it is easy to sacrifice the second to the cheaper production of the first (as Germany shows, and as we, alas I are in peril of showing). We must face the fact that democracy is dearly bought and dearly maintained, and that its liberalism is a kind of delicate oscillation of the soul which can be preserved from fatal overthrow only by an eternal gymnastic, for which no training is too precious.

If we ask what should be the form of this training, how our schools can be made liberators of the spirit, fosterers of democratic citizenship, we need not go, for our program, beyond what is already stated. For we have said that the youth of the land are to be educated to become choosers of their own careers, and this means choosers of the whole life that they are to live, private and public: they are to be taught statesmanship in that final sense in which the statesman is the discoverer of the good of which human nature is capable. Each generation of men must make of its heirs a generation of discoverers of the good (not easeful spendthrifts of their fathers’ fortunes): so only may men remain noble.

As sought concretely, this object is not beyond attainment. Man is by nature limited. He is an animal with simple appetites and few senses, whose satisfactions are the chore of our technical skills engineerings, medicinings, purveyings. He is also a spirit, limited in his spiritual nature: for there are just three forms of the good, in a final sense, of which he has inner apprehension, and these are the goodness of truth, the goodness of beauty, and the goodness of virtue or nobility of character. Educators should be thinking of these forms of the good. to which studies are the means, when they seek to liberate the soul of youth; and in the light thereof, surely they could simplify their scholastic machinery. For we are constantly losing the end of education in our absorption with its means, forgetting that all that is harmonious and beautiful in human progress (art and science and statecraft alike) comes from the supple and simple adaptation of means to ends conceded to be good–from the law of parsimony, which is the key to all honest discipline. Or, briefly, what can compare with mathematics as giving inevitably a perception of truth and error? What betters our imaginations of beauty more than beautiful poetry or noble prose? What criticism of the virtues of one’s own soul is more capable than is admiration for the ideal man as the history of human deeds and of men’s utmost desires has portrayed him? The means to all these are as free as the art of printing–plus the little sacrifice of time which we should give for our democracy’s sake.

So giving, with a rounded understanding of the meaning of liberalism, we may escape falling into the fallacy of the past three centuries of European civilization, which have cultivated the technical intelligence of man at the cost of the liberal and spiritual, and have brought us to the dread pass of today. Rather, thinking of truth and beauty and nobility, we should be ever portraying–since these are the essence of our humanity–the form and features of the ideal citizen, the hero and king of a democratic society.

For the Germans are not wrong in holding before the eyes of their youth the image of a heroic German and bidding them be loyal to him. All great nations have been built up in character and soul by the images of heroes–such a one as Achilles or Roland or Arthur or Siegfried. Our distaste for German schooling should not be that it makes idols of its heroes, but that it confuses unheroic princelings with the heroic-the Crown Prince medalled as Siegfried is an example. Democracy, too, must have its hero–perhaps a composite of its noblest, as we Americans make a kind of composite ideal of Washington and Lincoln. All liberal education should be directed to the delineation of such a national hero, whose portrait, in the nature of things, could never be completed; it would grow in stateliness with each new achievement of the humane spirit and with each renewed participation in its character. Liberal culture, indeed, can only mean that this character of the ideal citizen is in some degree manifested in all citizens; and the true meaning of equality in society is but the common possibility of men to share in such salvation.

If we would seek example, we need only tum to the greatest of all democratic movements in human history. For the living heart of Christianity is that simple faith in the redeemableness of the common man which Jesus made the prime article of its faith. In a direct and unavoidable sense the soul of all that is Christian in Christendom is the Imago Christi. Through this image an ecclesia of the spirit has been created which, with all defects, is still the noblest of human gains. It is an image of faith, faith in an ideal character gifted with perception of the ideal good; and upon faith of no other type can any true democracy grow or be made secure. For in a political as in the ecclesiastical democracy the fight is never ended while life lasts, and only unto the departed can the final credit be set to their estate.