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

The grace, imagination, and generosities of childhood and youth form such a treasure, in the whole economy of human life, as deserves not only the sympathy of those who have passed the golden age, but their most ardent appreciation–for it is from the sun of youth, shedding its changing but endless glories upon the days of mankind, that the workaday and sunset years derive their own most precious illumination. I am here returning to a former theme–the enrichment of life which the presence of youth gives to all–for I am convinced that it is from this point of view alone that the schools, as the especial provision which society makes for its youth, will be accorded their true dignity as institutions of the state. And of all the problems which beset the teacher, none, I conceive, is more difficult, nor should be the cause of more self-searching criticism, than is that which has to do with the teacher’s attitude toward those enthusiasms for things of the imagination which the practical years of maturity look back upon as dreaming, but which, in the order of nature, are God-given to youth.

There is, in all human handiwork, whether it be wrought in the fragile form of the arts or in the brick and iron and brown earth of the industries, a character of phantasmagoria. To the worker, of the middle years of life, the product of his toil looks hard, matter-of-fact and seems building for the ages. But to the old man, whose hands rest after his years of labor, and to the young, whose mind is vivid with the lines and colors of what is yet to be builded, the material world is all of the stuff of dreams, and man’s most stable cities are but as lodges erected for their passing season, as camps set up for the night. And it is more for this than for any other reason that these two, the young and the old, are drawn to a common understanding. They live in a visionary universe, wherein man’s part is to adventure, to discover, to snare the evanescent charms, and as best he may to make a brave show of his captures against that swift-come day when all shall be wiped clean, and the earth renewed for a new race; for it is not what man leaves, but what he lives that makes life’s wealth.

The young and the old see this, one by a morning, the other by an evening sun; but we of the middle years are ready at forgetting it, absorbed as we are in what we a bit pompously call the “world’s work.” Yet teachers, at least, cannot afford such a forgetting. Theirs it is to be the guides and gatekeepers betwixt youth and maturity–theirs, therefore, to understand the ambitions and impulses of both periods of life. They must forewarn the young without disillusioning them, for there are few spiritual disasters so fell in consequence as is the thing we name disillusionment,–and naming, misname, since (as old age knows) the most fatal of illusion’s is to be bereft of hopeful imaginings. They must also recall to the mature the meaning of fancy in life’s economy, keeping alive the creative flame which is all too easily snuffed by the routine of toil. In brief, the teacher must comprehend the age of romance not only for the sake of those young folk in his charge who are living out its hey-dey, but also for the sake of all folk–lest it be forgotten by men that all that is kingly in human achievement gets its crowning glories from romantic fires, and that of all man-built habitations the most wonderful are castles in Spain.

It is for the sake of their romance that I believe in keeping the fairy tales and the Halloween customs and the Santa Claus myth bright with their native fantasy. Take Halloween for example. How many realize out of what antiquity this festival comes to us? For it is assuredly older than recorded history or than the art of writing–probably by many millennia. Whenever, in October, I pass down the street and see in the shop windows their decorations–witches and black cats, jack-o’lanterns and sheaves of corn–I go back in thought to the great autumn harvest and all souls’ festivals which our ancestors celebrated in the old world, centuries before Caesar, centuries before king Cheops and his pyramid. Already in the village communities of that olden time there was the great feast of the “harvest homing,” when sheaves of corn were brought in, the last sheaf tied like a doll, to be the “spirit of the corn” during the winter months. The youths and maidens danced and sang, while as Homer describes it, “a lad with delicate voice thrummed the clear-toned viol and led the choric chant in praise of Linos.” Afterwards, there were bon-fires (at least in the Celtic north), and the bobbing of apples, and the telling of fortunes, and maids gazed into mirroring waters to see the images of them they are to marry. At night food was set out, for the souls of the dead returned then to share in the feast, and thus it was the feast of “all souls,” of the living and of the dead. Doubtless this is the oldest of our festivals, and the games and divinings that go with it the oldest that we still follow, out of the immemorial past; and when the children are out, as Halloween mummers, and the boys and girls with their games and parties, for myself I am grateful that they keep, unconsciously, this bit of romance vital and fresh; it is to me a symbol of man’s true heritage, that life of the spirit which outlives all his material monuments.

Christmas which falls just after the change of the year at the winter solstice, and Easter which is near the spring equinox and in the season of returning life, are two great religious festivals which, by some subtlety of providence, fall also at the time of very ancient solar feasts: for both were holy to our pagan ancestors before the Christian era. Perhaps it is alike providential that our national birthday, the Fourth of July, should fall so hard upon the summer solstice, celebrated with bale-fires and Druidic rites many centuries ago. At all events our four chief festivals, Easter, the Fourth, Halloween, and Christmas, have a double significance; being not only what directly we observe them for, but also memorials of the antiquity of our race, which, already in the dawn of time, was celebrating with the seasons the vernal birth of life, its summer maturity, its autumn homing, and its winter quiescence. Surely, there are few things that are essential to human nature and existence that are not betokened by these old fetes, all still dear to the hearts of children.

Doubtless it is an easy task for the schools to keep such celebrations healthy and living, to broaden and heighten the manner of their observance, and to interpret them afresh to each generation of youngsters. This festal life of the year is the beginning of the romantic interpretation of all life, in the keeping up of venerable and picturesque traditions as well as in the deeper meanings which attach to religious and patriotic sentiments. It may also form the beginning of a lively interest in astronomy, through association with the solar changes which mark our seasons and show how intimately human fate and welfare is dependent upon the circling heavens–whose courses, Plato tells us, are the bright and true image of the courses of intelligence in our own souls.

A more difficult task–pertaining still to the age of romance–is that which has to do with other and even more fundamental human dispositions. For the young venerate the past less than they live in the present and look to the future: they are the great plotters of mankind, and their minds are full of forethought. It is this that makes of them heroes and adventurers and knights errant, eager to explore all lands and confident in the undertaking of all deeds. The proper direction of this spirit of adventure, which is the very heart of romance, is as important as any part of the task which falls to the teacher; and it should be, in method, as remote as any from school-room regimentation. For it is here that the quality of chivalry, which is the great virtue of the romantic age, must be awakened and cultivated, and this can never be by command but only by volunteering. The courage and loyalty and generous helpfulness which are the prime traits of chivalry come naturally to youth, once they are ideally shown; but in order that they may be made living they must have opportunity for exercise–for with all his imagination, your boy in the teens is a hardy realist, demanding space within which to move and effortful deeds to be done in the world about him. Hence, there must be action in his life, to make it real, and chivalric action to make real his chivalric ideals. And of all our recent educational innovations none seems to me so promising as the institution of the boy scouts and the camp-fire girls. For here is supplied in just the right mode that combination of free opportunity and unconstraining instruction which will bring to its natural flower the knightliness which is in the soul of every youth, awaiting only its self-discovery. Assuredly no school system is complete without, not only the liberal opportunity for these movements, but also the positive provision for them and encouragement of them. Soon (and it cannot be too soon) there will be no American community in which scout and camp-fire will not seem as essential as the schools themselves; nor any school whose spirit and method will not be greatly and profitably modified by their presence. Their introduction will be in a community which has known them not, like the throwing wide of the windows to sunlight and free air.

The spirit of chivalry, on its adventurous side, wherein it calls for courage and self-sacrifice, is understood already in childhood, and may guide action already in childhood. Nor can there be any other preparation of more value for that other phase of chivalric romance which becomes the ardent impulse of elder youth. It is often and truly said that “romantic love”–meaning thereby that love whose heart is all loyalty and devotion–came into the world with medieval chivalry, that it was unknown to the pagans both of the ancient Mediterranean and the ancient Baltic, and existed only when Christianity had raised woman to a position of dignity and all men to a sense of spiritual companionship. Nor can youth which has been reared in the chivalric tradition, itself a thing too precious to lose, ever fail of a nobler and truer sense of the duties of lovers as well as of the lastingness of true love’s troth, when this shall become the great adventure of life. The institution of marriage, as all men know, is at the foundation of the state; and in the control and interpretation of this institution, too, the schools, whether willingly or not, must play their leading role. It is in the school room that youth and maid first meet on a social plane, and in the school that perhaps most of the marriage unions get their first impulse. To this there can surely be no feeling of objection; for to a student of the institutions of mankind, among the various races of men, no fact can be more obvious than that of all modes of match-making humanly devised (and they are many), none is comparable with the free association of the young of the two sexes, intimate without being either prudish or familiar, in the public schools of democratic states.

Of course, with such a responsibility theirs, the schools are more than ever bound to the cultivation–early and late and assiduous–of all ideals that ennoble human relations, most of all, therefore, to the cultivation of those ideals of chivalry which are the grace and illumination of romantic love. It must be, then, the teacher’s solicitude that each boy shall be in his own conscience “chevalier without fear and without stain,” and that each maid shall read in her mirror the love of an inner as well as the quest of an outer beauty. The age of aristocracy is gone by; ours is an age of democracy: but the spirit of chivalry is a thing too precious for mankind to lose, and the schools must be its preservers.