A Father to His Freshman Son

No doubt, my son, you have got out of me already what there was to help or mar you. You are eighteen years old and have been getting it, more or less and off and on, for at least seventeen of those years. I regret the imperfections of the source. No doubt you have recognized them. To have a father who is attentive to the world, indulgent to the flesh, and with a sort of kindness for the Devil — dear son, it is a good deal of a handicap! Be sure I make allowances for you because of it. Ex eo fontefons, masculine, as I remember; fons and mons and pons, and one other. Should the pronoun be illo ? As you know, I never was an accurate scholar, and I suppose you’re not— Ex eo fonte the stream is bound to run not quite clear.

My advice to you is quite likely to be bad, partly from the imperfection of its source, partly because I am not you, and partly because of my imperfect acquaintance with the conditions you are about to meet. When I came to college my father gave me no advice. He gave me his love and some necessary money, which did not come, I fear, as easy as the love. His venerable uncle who lived with us — my great uncle — gave me his blessing and told me, I remember, that so far as booklearning went, I could learn as much without going to college. Still he did not discourage my going. He was quite right. I could have got more booklearning out of college than I did get in college, and I suppose that you, too, might get, out, more than you will get, in. Of course, that’s not the whole story; neither is it true of all people. For me, college abounded in distractions, and I suppose it will for you. And I was incorrigibly sociable and ready to spend time to get acquainted, and more, to stay acquainted, and if you have that propensity you need n’t think it was left on the doorstep. You come by it lawfully. Getting acquainted is, for most of us, one of the important branches. But it’s only one of them, and to devote one’s whole time to it is a mistake, and one that the dean will help you avoid if necessary, which probably, if I know you at all, it won’t be.

It is important to know people, but it is more important to be worth knowing. College offers you at least two valuable details of opportunity: a large variety of people to know, and a large variety of means to make yourself better worth knowing. I hope, my son, that you will avail yourself of both these details.

This is a mechanical age, and the most obtrusive of the current mechanisms is the automobile. It has valves and cylinders and those things that give it power and speed, and rubber tires that it runs on, and a wheel and steering-gear and handles and treadles by which it is directed. Your body, especially your stomach, is the rubber tires; your brains are the cylinders and valves; and your will and the spiritual part of you are the chauffeur and his wheel.

I beg you to be kind to your stomach, as heretofore. It needs no alcohol at your time of life — if ever — and the less you find occasion to feed into it, the more prosperous both your physical and mental conditions are likely to be. I do not aspire to make a teetotaller of you, and I am aware that life, and college life in particular, has its convivial intervals; but you might as well understand (and I have been remiss, or have wasted time, if you do not understand it already) that alcohol is one of the chief man-traps, abounding in mischiefs if you play with it too hard, Be wary, always wary, with it, my son, and especially with hard liquor. There is some fun to be had with the stimulating beverages, and there is something useful to be learned about the handling of them that can hardly be learned altogether by observation. If you are open-eyed and abstemious, you can have the fun without paying too dear for it, but never forget that alcohol is a risky plaything; a test; on occasion a lawful joy, but never for the young a safe prop or a salutary habitual refreshment. Drink light, my son, drink light.

Your mind, like your body, is a thing whereof the powers are developed by effort. That is a principal use, as I see it, of hard work in studies. Unless you train your body you can’t be an athlete, and unless you train your mind you can’t be much of a scholar. The four miles an oarsman covers at top speed is in itself nothing to the good, but the physical capacity to hold out over the course is thought to be of some worth. So a good part of what you learn by hard study may not be permanently retained, and may not seem to be of much final value, but your mind is a better and more powerful instrument because you have learned it. ‘Knowledge is power,’but still more the faculty of acquiring and using knowledge is power. If you have a trained and powerful mind, you are bound to have stored it with something, but its value is more in what it can do, what it can grasp and use, than in what it contains; and if it were possible, as it is not, to come out of college with a trained and disciplined mind and nothing useful in it, you would still be ahead, and still, in a manner, educated. Think of your mind as a muscle to be developed; think of it as a searchlight that is to reveal the truth to you, and don’t cheat it or neglect it.

As to competitive scholarship, to my mind it is like competitive athletics, — good for those who have the powers and like the game. Tests are useful; they stimulate one’s ambition, and so do competitions. But a success in competitive scholarship, like a success in competitive athletics, may, of course, be too dearly bought. Not by you, though, I surmise, my son. If you were more urgent, either as a scholar or as an athlete, I might think it needful to warn you not to wear your tires out scorching too early in life. As things are, I say to you, as I often say to myself: Don’t dawdle; don’t scramble.

When you work, work; when you play, play; when you rest, rest; and think all the time.

When you get hold of an instructor who is worth attention, give him attention. That is one way of getting the best that a college has to offer. A great deal you may get from books, but some of the most valuable things are passed from mind to mind, and can only be had from some one who has them, or else from the great Source of all truth. I suspect that the subtle development we call ‘culture’ is one of those things, and the great spiritual valuables are apt to come that way.

You know you are still growing, both in mind and body, and will continue so to be for years to come, — I hope, always. One of the valuable things about college is that it gives you time to grow. You won’t have to earn any money and will have time to think and get acquainted with yourself and others, as well as with some of the wisdom that is spread upon the records. You would be so engaged, more or less, in these years, wherever you might be. But in college, where you are so much your own man, and are freed from the demands and solicitudes of your parents, the conditions for it are exceptionally favorable. I suppose that is one thing that continues the colleges in business, since I read so often that at present they are entirely misdirected and teach the wrong things in the wrong way.

But nobody denies that they give the young a breathing-spell. Breathe, my son; breathe freely. Remember that the aim of all these prospective processes is to bring out the man there is in you, and arm him more or less for the jousts ahead. It is not to make you over into somebody else: that can’t be done, — not in three or four years, anyhow; but only to bring out, and train as much as possible of you. There’s plenty in most of us if we can only get it out; more, very much more, than we ever do get out. So will you please think of college as a nursery in which you are to grow a while, — and mind you do grow, — and then, presently, to be transplanted. It is not as if college was the chief arena of human effort. Nevertheless, for your effort, while you are there, it is the chief arena, and I am far from giving you the counsel to put off trying until you leave.

I hear a good deal about clubs and societies: how many there are, how important they are; how it is that, if a youth shall gain the whole of scholarship and all athletics and not ‘make’ a proper club, he shall still fall something short of success in college. Parents I meet who are more concerned about clubs than about either scholarship or deportment. They are concerned and at the same time bothered: so many strategies and chances the clubs involve; so bad it may be to be in this one; so bad to be out of that; so much choice there is between them, and so much choice exercised within them, by which any mother’s hopeful may be excluded.

There is a democratic ideal of a great college without any clubs, where the lion and the lamb shall escort, one another about with tails entwined, and every student shall be like every other student, and have similar habits and associates. This ideal is a good deal discussed and a good deal applauded in the public press. Whether it will ever come true I can’t tell, but there has been some form or other of clubs in our older colleges, I suppose, for one or two centuries, and they are there now and will at least last out your time; so it may be you will have to take thought about them in due time.

Not much, however, until they take thought of you.

You see, clubs seem to be a sort of natural provision, just as tails were, may be, before humanity outgrew them.

I guess there is a propensity of nature toward groups, and the natural basis of grouping seems to be likeness in feathers and habits. The propensity works to include the like and, incidentally but necessarily, to exclude the unlike. Whether it is the Knights of the Round Table or the Knights of the Garter or the Phi Beta Kappa, you see these principles working. The measure of success in a club is its ability to make people want to join it, and that seems to be best demonstrated and preserved by keeping most of them out.

Now the advantages of the clubs are considerable. To have a place always open where you can hang up your hat, and where a hospitable welcome always awaits you, and where there is enough of a crowd and not too much, and where you can in your later years inspect at all times a family of selected undergraduates, — all that is valuable and good, and pleasant besides,and this continuity of interest that the clubs foster among their members helps to keep up in those members a lively and helpful interest in their college. The drawback to the clubs is their essential selfishness, and their disposition to take you out of a large family and limit you to a small one, and one that is not yours by birth, or entirely by choice, but is selected for you largely by other persons.

In any club you yield a certain amount of freedom and individuality, the amount being determined by the degree in which the club absorbs you. Don’t yield too much! Don’t take the mould of any club! A college is always bigger than its clubs, and the biggest thing in a college is always a man. The object of being in college is to develop as a man. If clubs help in that development, — and I think they do help some men, — they are a gain; but, of course, if they dwarf you down to the dimensions of a club-man, they are a loss. Some men take their clubshape, such as it is, and find a sufficient satisfaction in it. Others react on their clubs, take what they have to give, add to it what is to be had elsewhere, and turn out rather more valuable people than if they had had no club experience.

At all events, don’t take this matter of the clubs too hard. For those youths, comparatively few, who by luck and circumstances find themselves eligible to them, they are an interesting form of discipline or indulgence, and I will not say that they are unimportant. Neither would I have you keep out of them because of their drawbacks. If you begin by keeping out of all things that have drawbacks, your progress in this world will involve constant hesitations. Alcohol has numerous drawbacks, but I don’t advise you to be a teetotaller. Tobacco has drawbacks, but I believe you smoke it. Money has drawbacks, and so has advertisement. But, bless you, we have to take things as they come and deal with them as we can. The trick is to get the kernel and eliminate the shuck. A large proportion of people do the opposite. If you can manage that way with the clubs, — provided you ever get a chance, — you will be amused to observe in due time how large a proportion of your brethren value these organizations chiefly for their shuck, and grasp most eagerly at that. For the shuck, as I see it, is exclusiveness, which is not valuable except to persons justly doubtful of their own merits. Whereas the kernel is the fellowship of like minds which has always been treasured by the wise.

The clubs, my son, some more than others, are recruited considerably from what is known as the leisure class. To be sure, I don’t see any very definite or important leisure class about in our land. Everybody who amounts to anything works, and always did and must, for you can’t amount to anything otherwise; but the people who have money laid up ahead for them, are apt to work somewhat less strenuously than the rest of us, and not so much for money. Don’t get it into your head that you want to tie up to the leisure class, or that the condition of not having to work is desirable. Have it in mind that you are to work just about as hard as the quality of your tires and cylinders will warrant. Plan to get into the game if you have to go on your hands and knees. Plan to earn your living somehow. Don’t aim to go through life spoon-fed; don’t aim to get a soft seat. If you do, you won’t have your fair share of fun. There is no real fun in ease, except as you need it because you have worked hard.

I say, plan to earn your living! Whether you actually earn the money you live on, makes no great difference, though in your case I guess you ’ll have to if you are going to live at all well. But if you get money without earning it, it leaves you in debt to society. Somebody has to earn the money you spend. In mine, factory, railroad, or office, somebody works for the money that supports you. No matter where the money comes from, that is true: somebody has to earn it. If you get it without due labor of your own, you owe for it. Recognize that debt and qualify yourself to discharge it. Study to put back into the world somewhat more than you take out of it. Study to be somewhat more than merely worth your keep. Study to shoulder the biggest load your strength can carry. That is life. That is the great sport that brings the great compensations to the soul. Getting regular meals and nice clothes, and acceptable shelter and transportation, and agreeable acquaintances, is only a means to an end, and if you accept the means and shirk the end, the means will pall on you.

I said ‘agreeable acquaintances.’ A very large proportion of the acquaintances you can make will be agreeable if you can bring enough knowledge and a sufficiently hospitable spirit to your relations with them. I don’t counsel you to cultivate the arts of popularity, for they are apt not to wash, — apt, that is, to conflict with inside qualities that are vastly more valuable than they are. But keep, in so far as you can, an open heart. There is no one to whom you are not related if only you can find the relation; there is no one but you owe him a benefit if you can see one you can do him.

Don’t be too nice. It is such an impediment to usefulness as stuttering is to speech, — a sort of spiritual indigestion; a hesitation in your carbureter. By all means, be a gentleman, in manners and spirit, in so far as you know how, but be one from the inside, out.

If you had come as far as you have in life without acquiring manners, you might well blush for your parents and teachers. I don’t think you have, but I beg you hold on to all the good manners you have, and get more. Good manners seem to me a good deal to seek among present-day youth, but I suppose they have always been fairly scarce, and the more appreciated for their scarcity. Tobacco manners are uncommonly free and bad in this generation; more so, I think, than they were in mine. Since cigarettes came in, especially, youths seem to feel licensed to smoke them in all places and company. And the boys are prone to too much ease of attitude, and lounge and loll appallingly in company, and I see them in parlors with their legs crossed in such a fashion that their feet might almost as well be in the ladies’ laps.

Have a care for these matters of deportment, Be strict with yourself and your postures. Keep your legs and feet where they belong; they were not meant for parlor ornaments. Show respect for people! Lord bless me! the things I see done by males with a claim to be gentlemen: tobacco-smoke puffed in women’s faces; men who ought to know better, smoking as they drive out with ladies; men who put their feet on the table and expect you to talk over them! Show respect for people; for all kinds of people, including yourself, for self-respect is at the bottom of all good manners. They are the expression of discipline, of good-will, of respect for other people’s rights and comfort and feelings. I suppose good manners are unselfish, but the most selfish people might well cultivate them, they are so remunerative. In the details of life, in the public vehicles, in crowds, and in all situations where the demand presses hard on supply, what you get by hogging is incomparably less than what you get by courtesy. The things you must scramble and elbow for are not worth having; not one of them. They are the swill of life, my son; leave them to swine.

You will have to think more or less about yourself, because that belongs to your time of life, provided you are the sort that thinks at all. But don’t overdo it. You won’t, because you will find it, as all healthy people do, a subject in which over-indulgence tends rapidly to nausea. To have one’s self always on one’s mind is to lodge a kill-joy; to act always from calculation is a sure path to blunders.

Most of these specific counsels I set down more for your entertainment than truly to guide you. You don’t live by maxims any more than you speak by rules of grammar. You will speak by ear (improving, I hope, in your college environment), and you will live by whatever light there is in you, getting more, I hope, as you go along.

Grow in grace, my son! If your spirit is right, the details of life will take care of their own adjustment. Go to church; if not invariably, then variably. They don’t require it any more in college, but you can’t afford not to; for the churches reflect and recall — very imperfectly, to be sure — the religion and the spirit of Christ; and on that the whole of our civilization resls. Get understanding of that. It is by far the most important knowledge in the whole book, the great fountain of sanity, tolerance, and political and social wisdom, a gateway to all kinds of truth, a rectifying and consoling current through all of life.

E. S. M.