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

The states of the American union have each their own sovereignty. No doubt the twentieth century American, with his strong sense of the central nation, has grown away from the intense state patriotism of the earlier years of the republic. To a considerable degree he has even lost his feeling for the federal nature of our constitution. Particularly in the newer commonwealths, with their migrant populations and uncertainty of tradition, it is easy for the citizen to focus his attention upon the national aspects of his citizenship–upon the flag and the imperial grandeur of our domain and upon the high statecraft of Congress and the White House–rather than to permit it to become absorbed in the less showy manifestations of his local sovereignty. And yet each commonwealth of the United States is a sovereign, and exercises sovereign rights, and in a sovereign manner determines the destinies of its citizens. Nor is there another single feature in which this sovereignty is exerted with so much force and significance for human life as in the schools–those free public schools which are the mainstay of all free human society. Assuredly, in the support of such an institution the citizen of any commonwealth may feel that he is furthering the ends of the truest statecraft and manifesting the most enduring patriotism.

In democracies the sovereign is the people. But a people can be sovereign only when it understands the nature and duties of sovereignty. It is the first principle of public education that it shall secure this understanding; and the free schools of the commonwealth are, therefore, the final fortification of its democratic rights. The two great institutions upon which Americanism rests are the ballot and the public schools, and the latter are the true preparation for the former. When, therefore, in the ordering of American institutions, the organization and conduct of the schools are left in the hands of the several states, this is the truest recognition not only of their proper sovereignties, but also of the fact that the sovereign power of the nation as a whole is the creation and summation of these state sovereignties. It is also a pledge of confidence of the states in one another that each may be relied upon to broaden and preserve the conceptions of liberty and justice and human right which form the bond and cement of our national unity–and the proud soul of our Americanism.

By far the largest single item in Nebraska’s annual budget (and doubtless this is true of most of our commonwealths) is the educational expenditure. This is as it should be, but it should be so primarily for the reason that the schools of Nebraska are the safeguards of her democratic institutions, and hence of the free life of the whole community. The schools exist for the betterment of the life of the state as a whole, and therefore of the United States as a whole–this is the first principle upon which, in a truly American education, all other educational principles must rest. The tax which the school system imposes upon the community is justified by the returns which the schools make in the preservation of the community and in its betterment, and by nothing else. In brief, the first aim of public education is to train qualified citizens.

This principle must not be applied in a narrowly political sense, as teachers are sometimes inclined to apply it. It does not mean an intensive concentration upon, say, American history and civics, important as these are. Rather, it means the cultivation of a true liberalism as the core of all our schooling– grade, high school, and college–and the dissemination of this liberalism among the greatest possible number of our youth. Liberalism is the one essential qualification for the citizen of a democracy; and what we mean by democratic equality is the opportunity–nay, the duty–of every citizen to share in this essential. Free education must first of all be liberal education; that is the starting-point of our philosophy.

In later letters (indeed, it shall be my central theme) I shall endeavor to explain in detail what I regard as the proper schooling of a democratic liberal. Here I shall but seek to give a broad conception of what qualities in the man a liberal education must cultivate. And these, I should say, are a love and understanding of truth and virtue and beauty. Love of truth means honesty with one’s self as well as frankness with one’s fellow–“to thine own self be true … thou canst not then be false to any man”–and it means this for the sake, most of all, of the great gain that comes from free human intercourse. The value of free speech and of the free press about which we say so much is directly dependent upon the honesty and truth-loving spirit of society; without this spirt, there is no freedom. Love of virtue–the second quality named–means the power of self-control. The Greeks meant this when they made the first rules of conduct “Know thyself” and “Temperance in all things”; for knowledge of self is the first step in self-control, just as temperance, self-restraint, is its achievement. Human conduct is ordered by two great forces, our instincts and our virtues; and if you will reflect upon the nature of the virtues (courage which overcomes fear, temperance which conquers appetite, industry which outfaces sloth) you will perceive, I am sure, that the virtues are in the nature of curbs and reins upon the instincts; the instincts are given us by nature, it is the virtues that can be trained. Nor is self-control less essential to freedom and to a society of equals than is love of truth; for it is the practice of a free society to be able to give as well as to take–to abide by the rule of the majority, for example, and take one’s turn for the expression of opinion or the execution of a policy rather than to rush into revolution or tyranny. The third factor in a liberal education is love of beauty. This is not less essential to an enduring society than is either of the others; for love of beauty means an ability to idealize and to imagine better things, and hence to be inventive and creative, and therefore interested in the work which men find to do. Without this idealizing power men sink naturally back into an animal indifference to all save material comforts; they become swinish, and willing to fatten at any trough; and for such a state of mind all democracy is illusion. Love of beauty is, in truth, the final and completed salvation of the state.

Now there is one characteristic which these traits have in common, and it is the one characteristic which makes them truly liberal. Love of truth and love of virtue and love of beauty are all unselfish and impersonal. Not one of them is based upon self-seeking and self-gratification in any narrow mode. Indeed, they move in quite the opposite direction. Love of truth, for example, is closely allied to humility; it implies a willingness to be taught, and absence of that conceit which is the customary mark of ignorance. Love of virtue comes only from a self-understanding, and that means from a full appreciation of what temptation signifies in human life, and of human weaknesses, and especially of one’s own weaknesses. Love of beauty is most of all a native generosity of soul, implying sympathy and an ability to enter into other lives than one’s own, understandingly and without envy. Thus each of the three means a kind of liberation from what is selfish and animal in one’s nature and a willingness to find the good of life in what is universal and humane. It is in such liberations that true liberalism is to be found, and especially the liberalism that makes possible democratic states; for it is in democracies, where men must get along together by mutual agreement and free self-surrenders, that willingness to learn and understanding of men’s weaknesses and a generous sympathy are most indispensable.

There is a very important inference to be drawn from the nature of liberal education so defined–an inference thrice important in our own day when so much stress is laid upon what is called vocational training (and really is technical and mechanical training). For clearly, if the end of free schools is primarily the liberal education of citizens who can, through understanding and love of it, preserve the state, it cannot be the first purpose of these schools to give the scholar training in particular crafts for the sake of his individual career. The vocation is something that pertains to the private rather than the public life of the man; it represents what he does for himself or what his parents or family do for him rather than what the state should be called upon to do. There is, to be sure, a good coming to the state from the fact that it possesses citizens highly trained in special crafts; modern society is complex and cannot continue without specialists and technicians. But, on the other hand, a community composed of men who are specialists and technicians without first being liberally trained citizens cannot continue as a democracy; inevitably it will develop into a society of classes, castes, unions, federations, mutually hostile and exclusive. Vocational education, by itself, is purely aristocratic. The first duty of a democracy is to remain a democracy; and the only schooling it can tolerate, therefore, is one which first of all secures to all its citizens such a heart and constitution of liberalism as shall insure the maintenance of democratic freedom amid all the complexities of technical human pursuits. This is a matter of huge importance, which no teacher (even of the most special subject) can ever afford to forget. Undoubtedly there is room in our schools for technical and vocational training; but it is equally undoubted that no true patriot can ever allow such training to infringe in the slightest upon the needs of a broad and fundamental liberalism.

In the interests of that liberalism the school-child, from his primary years, should have it impressed upon his mind that his public schooling, while a free gift from the state, is not given without expectation of return. He should have it impressed upon his mind that his privileges imply responsibilities, and that the first and last of his duties is to bring to the service of the state and the community such an understanding of human life as only an impersonal outlook can give. It is altogether a mistake to permit young children even to think too seriously of their own careers in the world. They should rather be concerned with mastering its history and problems, and in acquiring such an understanding of human nature as shall make them judges of the general good. Without such an attitude of mind the liberties of society cannot be safeguarded, while it is hardly conceivable that all the time and effort devoted to its cultivation will react otherwise upon our technical and industrial life than for greater intelligence of direction and fruitfulness of achievement.

There is, of course (and this is in the nature of a caution), possible misdirection of devotion to others. Youth is naturally eager and generous and quick with desire to serve. “Social service,” indeed, has become a perilous term nowadays, our danger being that we shall get too many servants and too little that is worthy of service. It is essential, therefore, that the lesson of modesty be learned well, and this can best be achieved by the truest liberalism. Say to the young, “If you would best serve the state and best serve mankind, this will be most fully accomplished and to the height of your abilities by a cultivated interest in the best and solidest in human thought and the noblest in human nature; such an interest you can obtain by study, without thought of self, which in making you an intelligent human being will thereby make of you a true guardian of the social good.” Service of mankind is, after all, not best realized in alms to individuals, apart from their deserts, but in devotion to the best that human nature is capable of; and this can be known only through study of what men have thought and done.

Liberal education is not a cheap thing, either for the generation which gives it or for the generation which receives it. The one must make sacrifices of material comforts for the sake of the upbringing of its young; and it should endeavor, for the sake of that progress, which means social health, to pass to its youth something more in the way of opportunity than it had received from its own fathers. The other must give hard and unselfish effort to the work which sound schooling always implies; for neither understanding of truth nor of virtue nor of beauty comes without some toil. Fortunately, deep in human nature is a generous devotion of parents to the good of their children and a generous devotion of youth to all that appeals to what is noblest in man’s soul. It but remains for the teachers, first, to understand the spirit of liberalism, and second, to be able so to make its needs manifest, to parents and children alike, that through understanding they will desire it and will devote their efforts wholeheartedly to its attainment.