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

I wonder if any of my readers shared with me the feeling of distaste for the term “teaching profession” with which I headed my last letter. I cannot quite explain the feeling–a combination of vague apology and vague resentment, both directed to no particular source, and yet firmly attaching to just this union of words; as if there were no truly professional character to teaching or as if to acknowledge oneself to be a teacher were somehow discreditable. The title of “professor,” which goes with certain sorts of teaching, seems to share this same nameless opprobrium–mild, but omnipresent; so that, when introduced by the title, one feels, as it were, a spinal invitation to cringe as half expecting to be met by a supercilious, “Ah, indeed!” Certainly we shall all be rejoiced when the practice of the teacher’s art is relieved from such questionable honorifics, meantime wearing them with such grace as may be ours.

And yet (there is always an “and yet”)–and yet teaching is a profession, as noble as the noblest. It has not, in its outward forms, the recognitions that attach to many other professions; it is notoriously a field of disproportion of material returns for preparation and labor expended; it suffers from uncertainty of organization and indefiniteness of status. But in spite of all these defects it has attractions which keep the ranks filled with not incapable men and women, willing to devote to it the years of a lifetime. It owns, indeed, a certain inner and subtle fascination which is far easier to perceive than to define. And this, it appears to me, it is of the greatest importance for teachers themselves to understand. Accordingly, I propose to devote this, my last letter, to an effort to show wherein I conceive it to lie.

What first comes to mind as the true satisfaction of the teacher is the oft-spoken privilege of observing the growth of that most wonderful and various of growing things, the human mind. It is a great part of all human gratification to observe and influence change, and especially such changes as are intimately connected with human welfare. Thus, the farmer takes a solid satisfaction in the growing crop, quite apart from its market-price; the tradesman in the expansion of his business; the physician in his cures; the engineer in the success of a difficult project, pitting his wit against the forces of nature. Something of the same thing, but assuredly in increased measure because of the subtlety of the psychical forces with which he deals, comes to the teacher in watching and molding the development of the minds of the young. My dear colleague and one-time teacher, Dr. Wolfe (born to the art if ever teacher was)1 puts it: “I like to watch their eyes change,”–well knowing that the changing expression of the eyes is the most sensitive of all the expressional barometers of the mind.

Such an interest is, of course, profoundly personal at the core. It rests upon mutual confidence and friendship,–qualities upon whose significance we might devote much reflection; for the very foundation of all human welfare is ultimately confidence and friendship. The Greeks (whom all the world agrees in naming wise) devoted many a discourse to the praise of friendship, and told many a tale of Damon and Pythias. I suppose the most famous of all teachers and the greatest of all is Socrates; and you will remember that Socrates was friend first and teacher only through his friendships. You will remember, too (in the Meno there is an amusing description), how Socrates always turned from the elder and devoted himself to the younger men, as if more confident of youth and its promise. Which is just to the point. Boys and girls are not, as their elders are apt to be, ready concealers of their natures and dispositions; they have not yet put on a mask; rather, they are open and unsuspicious, and show their souls’ depths quite unconsciously. Hence, it is that friendship comes easily to youth; and the teacher, perpetually dealing with youth, is granted the perpetual privilege of finding new friendships, which for other men and women become more and more difficult as the years increase. What with their faculties, ideas, ambitions, aspirations ever changing into brighter and more variegated forms, and, with the intimacy of instruction, ever more generously shown, pupils naturally become comrades, and teachers are their natural friends. Thus the most precious of all treasures, a sense of mutual faith and of human fellowship, is made warm and vivid and in a special sense the teacher’s privilege.

This, I say, is what is most often looked upon as the great reward of teaching. Frequently it is likened to the parent’s reward in the rearing of children. That it is a genuine and precious addition to the teacher’s life none can deny who have at all experienced it; nor need any one who has seen examples (as assuredly I have) doubt for a moment that with many teachers–those born, I should say, with a genius for friendship–it is an all-sufficient reward for the labor of teaching. But for all that, from certain points of view and to many teachers, especially of those who have become worn through long years of teaching, it is insufficient. For, after all, there is something perpetually one-sided in the friendship of teacher to pupil. The teacher is the unceasing giver, the pupil. the unceasing recipient–a relation of a transitive rather than of a reciprocal type. I do not, of course, mean to say this of individuals (for there are abundant exceptions, truest friendships originated in the class-room); but I do say it of the teacher as such and of the pupil as such. The former occupies a fixed position, the latter is a bird of passage; and in a certain true sense the teacher is in the situation of mine host of the tavern, who gives his whole life to serving transient guests. It is here that lies the fundamental difference between the parent’s and teacher’s relation to the child. The parent gives freely and devotedly through a term of years, but the time comes when the antique virtue of filial piety reverses the relationship and the child becomes the giver and caretaker and the perpetuator of the family name and honor. For the teacher there is no similar return; the giving is utterly altruistic, and that means (if it be not balanced by some other type of compensation) in the long run a spiritual impoverishment–for it must be well borne in mind, that love, to be fruitful, must be mutual. The teacher’s affection for his charge is to parental love very much what platonic love is to true love. It is true, that in certain rare ways Plato’s Uranian love gives rise to very fine and noble human relationships, but it is also true that the normal spiritual health of mankind lies not in this direction; the thing may be ridiculous. Observers have long and often noted “the tired, altruistic faces” of school teachers,–haloed, as it were, with the beauty of giving. But there is also a certain truth in the cruel, even if commonplace, jests directed at the school teacher’s face. Men’s countenances are the speaking books of their characters; and it would be simple defeat of the truth to deny that in the expression which long service has ingrained into the features of many a teacher, the plain reading is spiritual impoverishment. Against this it should be the whole desire and duty of those who cherish the profession to guard: their desire, because the teacher, too, has a right to the fulness of life; their duty, because the worn teacher is like an abused soil, barren and fruitless.

Fortunately the way of salvation is not far to find. It has been pointed by philosopher after philosopher in the course of human history, and its name is the Idea. I mean the kind of Idea that Plato talked about, not a mere present possession of the mind, but a pattern of minds and men and human natures and states to be. Of all earthly things that men create, their own more perfect societies, their Utopias, are surely the finest; and amongst all Utopias those of teachers are first and foremost. This is, and should be, their perpetual source of invigoration and their perpetual and greatest service to mankind. It is theirs (as I have said in other letters) to preserve out of the past its great inheritance of human ideals, the thing we call civilization. But i t is also to them, and to them more than to any other class or profession, that is committed the task of framing the future. Teachers are statesmen by their very art, and it should be their one deep and abiding interest to become wise in statesmanship. This, assuredly, is a fulness of life.

Doubtless I should explain. The matter comes from the very fact of that intimate and changing contact with youth, the teacher’s friendships, of which I have already spoken. Youth is the formative period; it is the period of the shaping of generous and disinterested ideals, the period of true public spirit, the period of Castles in Spain which are none the less one. day to become models of earthly estates. It is in this period that the teacher’s influence is all-powerful, and it is because of this influence that his is perhaps the greatest of all forces in the fashioning of the future–wherefore I speak of him, and truly, as a statesman.

And in one very important particular he is the most qualified of statesmen. We all recognize the fact that wisdom in statecraft is in large part dependent upon knowledge of human history: our American in politics must know history and understand the ideals of his country; the international politicians must comprehend the generations of men gone by and the ideals toward which they strove through the slow toils of the centuries. The historian, by the very nature of his concern, is put in a position of detachment with reference to human affairs, and he acquires therefrom the ability to judge impartially and to select out of the past wisdom for the future. But necessarily he suffers from one great defect; and that is that he can know the past never directly, as man to man, but only remotely and imaginatively, divided by the screen of the years from the facts which he scrutinizes; so that he can never quite get at their human, living reality. It is only God who can know history directly and truly.

Now the teacher, as it happens, has a source of knowledge nearer in its nature to a divine detachment than has any other mortal. For the generations of students who come and go under his charge are like the generations of men whom the historian surveys. Only, and in this he differs from the historian, the teacher sees these generations of youthful minds face to face, and thought to thought; there is nothing dead or passive in their succession, as is the case with the historic successions of the past; rather, all is living and shaping and life-creating. This it is which gives to the teacher the opportunity of forming an unique type of judgment of human nature and of its possibilities, and this it is which makes his work of such tremendous significance in the ordering of the policies of the future; this, too, which makes it imperative that your teacher who is true to his profession is of necessity an Utopian, in that fair sense in which Utopia is a forecast of the future of mankind.

Most of all, this means that the teacher must be framing and depicting the man, the citizen, of the world that is to be tomorrow. From the acts and ideas of the eager youth that pass before him in the class-room he must come to know human powers and to select among them the best and noblest; and he must cultivate those better powers; and he must create vivid images of the character which they represent, that the youth may consciously behold them, and beholding may set themselves to their realization. This is a truly prophetic task; it calls for the insight of the seer and the creative power of the man of imagination. It demands patience, patience, for the labor is slow; but its rewards are as precious as can be aught human. For surely it is no small thing to be an architect of the habitations of the future and no small thing to become a portraitist, in the living flesh, of that Man of the Future who is to embody and re-embody all those Utopian dreams which are the essence of human hope and the solace of all human life. Wherefore I say, let us rejoice in the task of the teacher, which is none other than pilotage in the great voyage of spiritual discovery.

  1. Died July 30, 1918.