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

I who write this am Nebraska born. Most of my education, too, was given me by Nebraska, where I attended grade and high schools and finally the state university, in which I have now passed ten years of my mature life as a teacher. The public schools of Nebraska, grade and high and collegiate, form a single system, having for their purpose the education of the up-growing citizens of the state. It is of these schools and of this education that I propose to write, addressing the public school teachers of the state, the great majority of whom are, like myself, native-born and educated in Nebraska; and I trust that what I shall have to say will be of interest, also, to teachers whose work falls in other parts of the nation, where the problems of life, and of education as a part of life, do not, it appears to me, radically differ from those which I perceive in my own environment. I shall hope also to reach citizens who are not teachers by profession; for I am sure that all good citizens realize that the object of public education is to so train its youth that they will live honorably and well, and make the commonwealth pleasanter and more habitable for mankind; and I am sure that so great a concern as this cannot fail of their attention. In the long run, citizen and teacher and youth have one common aim–to make and keep human life wholesome and sane and in the highest sense happy.

I should like to speak first of all of those things in Nebraska that I cherish. I have reached that age when a man begins to realize that memories are as rich in life’s portion as are hopes, and that what is dear out of the past must color and warm all that is to be dear in the future. Life is, to be sure, a kind of adventure, and our best prayer for each is that his life may prove to be a beautiful adventure; yet we should not forget that this adventure of living has an end, even as it had a beginning, and that the value of a life is to be found in what it is as a whole, not merely in the expectations and desires which happen to engross its present hours. As men grow into maturity they begin to realize that the true gold which they have amassed is their treasured memories; and realizing this they become the more solicitous for their children, knowing that the only fortune which no change can take from their heirs will be the memories that live on into the after years.

The main part of the years of my boyhood were spent in a country village of southeastern Nebraska–just such a village as scores of others which today dot the map of the state. My earliest recollection of it is of a place bare and windswept, open alike to the unrelenting suns of summer and the unremitting gales of winter; and there seemed (so my memory reports) something quite audacious in the group of crude frame buildings, standing unrelieved and nude in the midst of miles of almost treeless praire. Today, this village is nearly hidden in summertime by the luxuriant green of its leafage, and the country round about is one continuous chequer of hedgerow and field and grove; nor can winter at its whitest take away the impression of snug comfort that has changed the whole face of nature.

It was with this change from a raw pioneer town to the snug trading hamlet of a well-seated farming community that I grew up; and the Nebraska I know best of all is, I suspect, the Nebraska of the transformation from virgin prairies into cultivated farms–a Nebraska of some hardships, but of a great adventure done once for all; for the prairies which I knew as a boy were just such as they had been, for century upon century, since the great ice had melted away to the north, leaving on them the strewn gravel in which I used to find onyx and agate; and the farms as they are now are surely much what will be through as many centuries more, perhaps, until a new age of ice comes again to drive away their summers. The transformation was surely a very wonderful period, and I am glad that I have lived in that good time.

Of course I did not realize all this, as a boy–what boy could? But I felt its stir, none the less. There was always a thrill in seeing the prairie broken, the horses even in double team tugging and sweating, and the long ribbons of sod turning in neat parallels. There was beauty, too, in the fires that swept through the dried grass of autumns, tanged with danger, and illuminating the hills at night for miles around. Then there were tree-plantings and house-raisings and auctions and busy market days–all occasions when folk gathered to the enterprise with a hearty vacation spirit, naturally attractive to boys; while, from another angle, there were old-timers with stories of freighting days and Indian fights. Nor was the “wild west” so far remote; every year cowboy traders came through with droves of half-broken mustang and broncho ponies, and not a few exhibitions of hardy horsemanship; while hardly a season passed without at least one encampment of Indians journeying on their endless tribal visits from reservation to reservation. But most affecting of all to the imagination were the prairie-schooners of the new settlers–streams of them, spring and autumn, drifting westward, westward, into their land of promise.

With other boys I used to explore the country; wandering up and down the banks of the wooded Nemaha; playing at Indian with bows of ash, arrows of reed, and spears of dried sunflower stalks; searching for occasional arrowheads and flints in the gravel beds; or gathering treasures from the limestone quarries, abundant with fossil relics of the time when as yet this land was not and where Nebraska is was the teeming life of old Devonian seas. With other boys, too, I went to the village schools–old-fashioned, I suspect the teachers of our day would call them, or perhaps old fogy; certainly, as I recall, grammar and arithmetic were regarded by the pupils as the real tests of their mettle, while spelling-down appealed to our sporting instincts. I learned a trade, too, as did many of the others, and planned and hoped with them for the great day when–like the movers in the prairie schooners–should set out to discover the wide world beyond the prairie horizon and make unclaimed lands my own.

Most of the boys who were my companions grew up to fulfill their hope of adventuring out into untried frontiers or strange lands, and today they are scattered in many a far place. I, also, departed, and for a decade dwelt in distant cities; but unlike many, I returned again to my native soil, and with I believe a new veneration for what is beautiful in Nebraska. For I have discovered that those beauties which most endure in human experience are not to be found in the novel and spectacular moments of the traveler, but in familiar and intimate things, and especially in those impressions which come to childhood and youth, when the mind is eager with curiosity and fresh with hope. To me the prairies of Nebraska are wonderfully beautiful, with their broad curves and modulating distances. I love, too, the animation of the cornfields, stirred by cruising winds; the sudden thunderstorm with its avalanche of lightning and the impetuous rain sweeping up after the great billow of cloud is the very raiment of majesty; and I think I have never seen such stars as ours, over the whole dome of heaven, of a winter’s night. Nor can I ever forget that once-seen sunset sky, gold and burnished copper from circumference to circumference, which will be for me forever the image of the sublimities of the judgment day.

My eight-year-old, like his father, was born in Nebraska, and in the same city. It gives me a certain satisfaction to recognize this continuity of generations, and to hope that it may go on in the future. I hear his shout of joy at play; I watch him trudge off to school; and I think of him–as I suppose other parents think of their children–as gathering day by day that store of vivid impressions which are one day to come home to him as a precious treasure. It is pleasant to know that a part of the kinship with his father which he will some time realize will be that deepest of all comradeships which rests upon a common understanding of the same earth and sky with all the companioning changes of nature. It is out of such common understanding that love of home and love of country grow to mean so much to men.

Of course I recognize that the Nebraska he will know cannot be quite the Nebraska that I have known. For instance, where I as a boy, was interested in ponies and mover’s wagons, he is interested in automobiles and railroad trains; and I have discovered from his chance comments that the schoolroom for him has a color and tone different from those which cling to mine out of the old days. But more than all, I am sure that he will never know the exuberance and adventurous hopefulness which belonged to the pioneer days, when everything was to be done, and nothing was complete, and the whole face of nature was to be changed to suit men’s new needs. That was a great enterprise which our fathers took in hand; and they performed it well, and once for all; so that what Nebraska now is many generations will continue to see it. Nor could so great a deed have been achieved without inspiration in the souls of them that did it, and a kind of glory enveloping their lives.

What will take its place–have you never asked the question–what will take the place of the great adventure of the pioneers, to put in the souls of their children the old fire and the old enthusiasm that seem so precious to us as we look back? It was good, we can see, for them to be building a pleasant habitation for their heirs in the land; they lived creative lives, stalwart and honorable, but is it so good for their children’s children? Are these simply to inhabit the pleasant house, making no addition? Could such a life be a good life, inheriting all, creating nothing? Or are there still such tasks to perform, here in Nebraska, as shall test the mettle of the best of them, and give them all that buoyancy of soul which comes but when life is touched with the noble generosity of fine deeds to do? To the minds of all citizens such questions must come at times; but most of all they will occur and recur to teachers and parents, for it is teachers and parents who most fully realize that the one true heritage which a passing generation can leave to its youth is a noble task.

I have no qualms as to this with respect to my boy. My life has been cast in a great generation; but his, if he be spared, will be lived in a greater. Its achievement will not, I believe, be of the character of those which have made my generation great; marvels of physical achievement, such as the mastery of earth and sea and air by machines, the uniting of the seas by great canals, the discovery of Earth’s two poles, and here the transformation of the great North American wilderness into civilized states, uniting in amity men of all nations. But the next generation will have set for it tasks more stupendous than these, pertaining not to mechanical and physical but to human and spiritual problems. The most terrible of all wars began in 1914 and at this writing is not yet ended. This war has shaken human civilization to its foundations; it has destroyed cities and devastated nations; but of more lasting significance are the deeper destructions of men’s political and economic institutions and the more harrowing devastations of men’s souls. The secret of sane living must be rediscovered by the next generation, the world must be reorganized for a better and purer and nobler race of men; nor is there a phase of social or intellectual life that will not have to be renewed and reillumined by the men and women of the future.

I watch my son trudge off to school, here in Nebraska, and I am glad in the hope that he may play a man’s part in that great task. I have a feeling, no doubt partly a bias for my native soil, that the sons and daughters of this great west, so lately virgin sod and still shining with the generous glamor of the spirit of the pioneers, should be well qualified for a great part in the great task. I realize, of course, that this qualification cannot be merely one of natural advantages or of inherited spirit; that in addition there must be the soundest and most genuine education which state and parents can afford, or by thought and care find out. I am convinced, too, that our schools and the whole commonwealth whose ideals they reflect have not yet risen to the measure of this opportunity or of the hour and of the duty which is theirs. Further, I believe that the surest means of reaching not merely the schools, but even more the public of the commonwealth, who must be reached if a true conception of education is to be attained, is through the teachers in these schools–the teachers of Nebraska, of all America. Therefore I am addressing to them these letters in the hope that what I have to say may seem worth consideration and inspire discussion and lead–in some better form than I can suggest–to action. For it is to action that we are called; even as our fathers were called to the great task of redeeming a wilderness, even as our children must be called anew to regenerate the nations, so we, in our day, are summoned to prepare the way for them, training their bodies and opening their minds to vision,–our part in the eternal deed of human progress, O Adventurers!