From a Father to His Daughter at College
MY DEAR GIRL:
That phrase in your last letter, “the adventure of college,” has given me deep satisfaction. You know how pleased I am to learn that the change from school to college is agreeable. Yet you can hardly appreciate my delight that you should call this change and adventure, for it tells me in no uncertain manner that you are beginning to view life with a proper perspective. Four years of adventure, as you say, lie before you – four years of new friendships, new activities, new experiences. Four happy years, I am sure they will be, although their happiness will largely be of your own making. You will realize this without words from me. But let me tell you of what I have been thinking.
It is now several weeks since you left us. When I think that you will be away for most of the weeks during each of the next four years, I cannot escape one brief pang of regret. You have meant so much to your mother and me, although we realize, of course, that your entire eighteen years of girlhood has been leading up to this period of separation. Year after year we have made preparations and pictured to ourselves the time when you would be a college woman. The fact that college means larger self-development for you compensates in some way for the loss of your cheerful presence. We want you to increase in knowledge and wisdom. And if graduation gives you fine understanding and noble idealism of true womanhood, we shall be more than satisfied.
You are going to college to be educated, as folks say. Doubtless you have already formed some conception of what education means. You will not, I know, consider it mere book learning. Unfortunately so much modern education is nothing more than instruction and can never be more than this so long as public educational systems are administered on a dollars-and-cents basis. I think I can see progress in the right direction and the war, with its revaluation of things, should hasten this progress. The new democracy, I hope, will realize that the best government “of the people, for the people, by the people” is not a matter of politics but of rational, vital education. It will secure in time the best and most capable directors of education, providing them with the means of training subordinates and selecting curricula that will impart an appreciation of the beautiful as well as the useful, that will elevate and dignify life by establishing broader conceptions of life’s fundamental purpose – not the accumulation of wealth or knowledge but the widespread promotion of greater individual health and happiness.
There; I have done with theorizing. And you are fortunately placed under really capable direction. Much, however, depends on you. Your curriculum has been carefully chosen with a view to developing your abilities to the full. It is for you as much as for your instructors to help you coordinate this development with life. I think it was Herbert Spencer who defined education as a “preparation for complete living.” To my mind that is a just and proper estimate of its purpose. In this twentieth century we cannot isolate this process of education as something distinct from life. Life is to be lived, not contemplated. “Loads of learned lumber in the head” do not make life more useful or more enjoyable. Contact with the world has sharpened my recognition of this; faith in education, religion, morals or business is worth nothing without works. It is only as we translate thought into right action that we accomplish anything desirable.
Look upon college, then, as a preparation for the greater adventure of living. So many people can say truthfully as well as sententiously that their education was interrupted by their schooling. You, I trust, will consider education as coincident with living. As long as your attitude is such you will make the most of living for both yourself and your associates. If life is the touchstone of your studies you will gain wisdom, the true understanding, as distinct from knowledge or information. Your brain will be not only a storehouse of facts but also a supreme court of judgment in whatever activity you engage.
I am so eager for you to avoid the mistakes that marred my education. It took me at least five or six years after graduation before I learned to look upon certain studies as other than necessary evils incident to college. I left the university with no clear perception of what is vital in literature. English literature for me was a course of lectures about books rather than the enjoyment of the noblest and best writings in the language. Latin meant cramming certain books with the aid of a “crib,” and a tedious recitation of rules and irregularities. So with French. We read fragments of prose and poetry, and then, with the aid of a ponderous guidebook, wrote stupid essays about the author’s complete works. I recall reading in class a collection of De Maupassant’s and Merimee’s tales – literary masterpieces and forerunners of the modern short story. It was nothing but a sad, mechanical exercise, mere words after words. I learned to translate, but never really to understand or appreciate.
Since those days I have read and reread the “prescribed books” of college days as a discoverer. Dead authors speak to me as if they had a message of importance to communicate. This means that I have come to look upon literature as the faithful expression of the thoughts of a human being who writes or once wrote of contemporaneous life. Literature has rightly a practical as well as a cultural value when it is not divorced from life.
As you progress in your studies you will appreciate the more this interrelation of literature and life. You will recognize it as the surest test of what is true and enduring in the world of letters. To read dead authors in a dead language is by no means to read dead thoughts. I would have you understand these thoughts in addition to studying their manner of expression. You are not destined to study the more humane letters (litterae humaniores) in the strictly classical sense, for specialization in Greek and Latin – particularly as these subjects are taught – will not round out and shape your intelligence for the fulfillment of life’s duties any better than the varied course of modern studies which you have selected – if as well.
The Greeks were the original but not the only thinkers. The Romans, the French, the Italians, the Germans, the English and the Americans have each their quota of individual thinkers – poets, artists, scientists and philosophers. Reading their writings and thinking their thoughts will impress you with a sense of the continuity of life and will show you at least something of the moving forces which have made the modern world. Your studies will thus become humanized. You will see the relation of the part to the whole.
I do not seek, however, to lay down rules for your guidance. You must learn to make your own rules and draw your own conclusions. Naturally you will err in this respect, for you will not reach maturity of thought until your actual perception of things corresponds with your abstract ideas. This will require years of living and experience. Meanwhile training your mind along these lines, testing conclusions as far as possible with your limited experience, should prove invaluable. It should develop a logical habit of mind so that, instead of “jumping to conclusions,” you will first examine and measure the meaning. It will enable you to know yourself and the world – “to see life steadily and see it whole.”
So throw yourself joyously into the adventure of college life and welcome every opportunity that offers new experience. You will not be studious, I hope, at the expense of the social and athletic sides of life. Unfold your individuality to the full. Join the various clubs and societies. Make your chosen sorority. Continue your basket ball and play hockey if you wish. We should never forget that life has a physical basis. The fitness of your body determines the fitness of your brain, a part of that body. Relaxation from study is, therefore, as important as concentration, and this relaxation may be mental or bodily.
The friends you make and the activities you indulge in will help. Religion will heal and comfort. Music, poetry and the arts will feed your imagination and invite your soul. One thing further: Dominate your life or your life will dominate you. Without constant watchfulness the details of existence will increase and multiply to the extent of crowding out all perception of the larger issues. Keep your purpose in life clearly before you and, in working toward the chosen end, you will go far toward solving the riddle of human happiness.
“My purpose in life?” I seem to hear you repeating the words with quizzical little tilt of your head. There is a purpose, as you are aware. What it may be you cannot yet determine exactly. The four years ahead of you will have much to do with its evolution. When with cap and gown and sheepskin in hand you face the world after graduation, you will, I think, know fairly well the course you wish to adopt. You may choose the quiet home or the world of business. Whatever the choice, you will remain, I am confident, a woman – true, noble, faithful to your ideals.
Did you ever stop to consider the mission of woman in life? It is the loftiest and most inspiring of all. In the hurly-burly of making his way in the world, man loses much of the high moral tone, the faith, the idealism that cling to womanhood. Strive as we may, men become of the earth, earthy. Woman can hold up the light of truth and honor and high courage before us. Woman can lift man’s head out of the murk till he sees the clear-shining stars of worthy desires and virtuous ambitions. Not a light, frivolous woman; not a snob, not a shallow cynic or pessimist; not a bluestocking; just simple, honest, whole-hearted and healthy-bodied loving and lovable woman. That you may fulfill this function of womanhood, whatever your place in life’s scheme, is – my dear girl – the first and last wish of your father.
As I write these lines to you I recall with much joy one evening of your last school year, when you were reading the graceful essays of Elia, that we briefly discussed this very question. You will remember that Charles Lamb congratulated himself on the companionship of Bridget, who “happily missed all that train of female garniture which passeth by the name of accomplishments.” As you go through life you will encounter many such women who make broad their phylacteries of petty accomplishments. They may even be college women. Yet that will not prevent you from recognizing their pitiful folly. Education, wherever it may be conducted, is not education when it only trains the individual to be smart in society or to cut a dash in the world of fashion. It is the very antithesis, stultification.
But I have no such fears for you. I know that you will develop the God-given gift of intelligence for the noblest and most humane purpose. You will learn, I am assured, to understand the ways of the world, to assess things at their proper value, to cultivate your mind so that you can think clearly and discern the truth for yourself. Your college education will thus be a boon that will follow you throughout life. If occasion demands, it will provide a means of self-support. Above all, it will prove a passport that will gain admission to human hearts everywhere.
And now, my dear girl, farewell. Go forth to your adventure joyously. And may our wishes speed you along at all times, as you press forward to your goal.
(Written by Thomas A. Baggs, published in The Ladies Home Journal, December 1919)