A Teacher of History


IN writing on these school affairs I am entirely conscious of these facts: first, that distinguished ability is always rare; second, that the character of the teaching suggested requires a very special kind of teacher — a teacher already endowed with many gifts which have been denied to most people, and therefore to most teachers. And this also is true — that those who have not this endowment can never get it.

You can graft a good apple on a poor apple tree, but you cannot graft a good apple on even a good walnut tree or cherry tree. In other words, the species cannot be changed. Operations in normal schools or teachers’ colleges will not change the species to which a person belongs.

And the grave and overshadowing consideration about a teacher is whether he or she belongs to the teaching species, or is only trying to imitate the habits of that species and thereby draw a salary. The rules of the teaching game are fairly well made out, and are being daily elaborated and extended by pedagogues, by psychologists, by medical experts; and all for good where the intelligence is sound and disinterested.

But it will always be true that the imponderable influences of individuals of the actual teaching species will outweigh any set of rules and definitions and methods of teaching.

What is this supreme symbol that educational establishments like to use on their stationery? It is one hand holding a torch and another hand open to receive it. If it means anything, it means that something illuminative is passing, or can be passed, from one human being to another — from teacher to scholar. And so it can be. ‘Wisdom cannot be passed from one having it to another not having it’; but this strange subtle undercurrent, this wind of the spirit which bloweth where it listeth, — which cannot be defined or confined or expressed in any formulæ, — this whole core and substance of the educational process, can be passed. It can be passed on one condition, and only one, namely, that the teacher is actually a source of illumination — not a reflected light, but a light-producer; not a moon but a sun; and that the scholar is capable of catching fire, is combustible, is spiritually organic.

The great thing about a teacher of youth is not at all how much he knows of the science of education, the laws of learning, the administration of a school, or of the particular subject which he teaches. The important thing is his personal radiative power as an illuminant along the highways which his pupils have to travel. One could weep, one must weep, to observe how, in place of this, something manufactured is substituted.

Did you ever read about the teacher in Nexo’s Pelle the Conqueror ? Read it and reflect on what constitutes the thing we call education. Where shall children get their Light — not their knowledge of arithmetic and spelling, but their Light?

Well, you say, why not at home or at church? Are not schools designed for the particular purpose of doing the thing the home and the Church cannot do as well, if at all, namely, teach certain definite topics and end there? That is what they were designed to do; but it is as plain as can be that if they don’t conserve all the by-products from the teaching of the subjects intrusted to them, and also add things that used to be entirely domestic or ecclesiastic, children as a whole are not going to be fit for anything except the paths of life beaten hard and sterile by prejudice, complacency, and inarticulate or bellowing ignorance.

It is not to be supposed that children will be equally sensitive to the stimuli which this ideal teacher provides. Are not commonplace teachers therefore good enough for commonplace children? Is not society composed almost entirely of ordinary humdrum people, from all eternity predestined to be so: to be possessed of rather bad taste, of pretension, showiness, shallowness, and a blissful, mischievous, or malevolent ignorance?

No doubt about it, at all. But who can tell how much this huge percentage could be reduced if, at a certain early period in their lives, people went through a better process of screening? There would still be prodigious piles of refractory material, and certainly something very unpleasant and unfortunate would happen if there were not.

But some extremely valuable qualities would be saved from obscurity by a certain spiritual specific gravity in their possessors, by hidden capacities to respond, as the gold button forms in the fire-assay when there is gold in the ore.

And these constitute, so far as we know, — and that is not far, of course, — the sole raison d’être of the universe. So that you come to a rather astonishing realization that the business of a teacher seems to be to prove that our solar system is worth while; and the real teacher does it.

When it comes to finding teachers for different subjects, there is a certain area within which you can capture real teachers if you have a clear idea of their habits, and can therefore recognize one when you see him. Against a background of school-routine these rare spirits are often indistinguishable except to a hunter of discrimination.

Many a teacher-hunter goes out with a net like the Roman reticularius, which he throws over something that looks inviting, without considering, without having the experience or the understanding to warn him, that for one real teacher there are ten imitations, and that these imitations are either terrible things to get entangled with and may easily ‘bite you first,’ as the saying is, or else are too thin and watery, and in both cases, therefore, useless as nutriment in his school.

You may remember a dialogue by the roadside between a young and curious angel and a hard-working spider in Stephen’s Demigods. Mostly, he said, he caught thin little flies without much eating on them; but that was better luck than the lad below with the thick hairy legs had, for yesterday he caught a wasp.

‘What did he do then?’ inquired the angel.

‘Don’t ask him, sir; he don’t like to talk about it,’ said the spider.

The area in which you are likely to find real teachers is not the school-area only. In the public schools you are confined to certified people — professional teachers.

Does it not seem unfortunate that a superintendent of discretion should not be able to use non-professional people who are peculiarly qualified to teach certain subjects? This is the privilege of the private school and of the college, and it is a privilege rarely abused. But the ‘safeguarding of public institutions ’ peremptorily forbids it.

When the president of a college wants a man to teach history, for instance, he has a right and a duty to pick the very best man he can afford. President Eliot picked Henry Adams to teach mediæval history at Harvard. Adams had never taught before, and did n’t want to teach at all; but such was the President’s way with people he invited, that Adams taught the mysteries and obscurities of mediæval history for six years.

If you have read his book, Mont St. Michel and Chartres, you can easily understand President Eliot’s determination to have that man on that subject. In other words, it would be an excellent thing if teachers could be taken where found, and not always out of the confinement of the normal school and the teachers’ college.

When it comes to a teacher of history, you would think that such a teacher must be capable also of teaching natural history and geography.

There are too many compartments in schools. Education is all of one piece, and yet a school is a place of compartments. They try to join things up, but you can’t join things up very well that are so separated by walls and by textbooks and by narrow minds, with their partitions over which there is not much opportunity for children to look.

Even music must be taught — if it is to be adequately taught — by those, and those only, who are much more than musicians. Nothing is deadlier than the effect produced on a child by a music-teacher who knows of little but music — who is incapable of connecting music with all art and all experience.


The history teacher must in some way account for history. And when you are called upon to do that, then you are compelled to go back of the recent, to those huge foundations laid in century piled upon century of astronomical time. To such a teacher the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal man, the Glacial Epoch, and rivers and mountain-ranges are even more interesting than the Punic Wars and the Crusades.

It happened that I knew one geography teacher — a man; and it happens that I also know one history teacher — a woman. A woman, and an elderly woman; a woman who understands that the history for her children must be the philosophy of history, and who therefore has to teach natural history and arrive at human history as human history was actually arrived at; and who knows as much of geography as of history, and loves it with an equal passion.

Having, as Stevenson says, ‘thrown her soul and body down for God to plough them under,’ she has grown up out of that furrowed field with a certain fierceness of joy in life that can best be contained in the robust and tireless body which fifty years have seemed only to tune to pitch, and to leave humming to the great winds of heaven. And yet such a simple woman, without an affectation, without a single pose, without self-consciousness, without pride of intellect, with apparently nothing but prodigious good-will, gigantic good sense, and brimming goodhumor, and unlimited patience, and an energy and interest and curiosity equal to the sum of the energies and interests and curiosities of all the children in the school.

You would not think that this plain elderly lady, of Quaker ancestry and Quaker bearing, had traveled most of the trails of history on her own feet; that she read Latin and Greek quite as well as she read German; and that she spoke three languages. Nor would you think that she knew as much about the literature and music of nations as she did of their history. Is there no place for a Leonardo like this in a school — in a public school?

There is a place, and I will tell you where: it is everywhere. But it is especially in the eighth, ninth, and tenth grades, in the ages of fourteen to sixteen, in that restless and dreaming age, the age of adolescence, of great beauty and potential danger. And in these grades she taught.

I have been many times in her classroom — that is, I have been present on occasions when she was teaching, her classroom being as often in a ditch by the road as in a building.

But I first met the lady sitting alone in front of the Hermes of Praxiteles in the little museum at Olympia, whither she had come on a donkey from some obscure part of the Peloponnesus, talking modern Greek with the peasants as she passed along their vineyards.

‘Before this thing my soul is prostrate,’ she whispered as she rose. Afterward we walked beside the Alpheus, and ‘Listen!’ she said; ‘there’s some live Greek history, the exact thing!’

It was the frogs of Aristophanes, — the brack-ki-ki-wax, brack-ki-ki-wax, — totally unlike any sound of frogs I had ever heard; and there they were, at home, as usual, in their old river!

The last time I saw her she was standing by a roadside in New England, with a turtle in her hand, engaged in unveiling the mysteries of sex to a group of ten-year-old boys in such a way, with such directness and such delicacy, as Fabre himself might have used in speaking of these things with his own boys and girls. Wherever she went she was quietly building bridges over places where fatal accidents might happen to children through the ignorance or timidity or laziness of parents.

What teacher of natural history do you know who is capable of making her subject the occasion to illuminate for pupils the origin of life and processes of reproduction, so that thereafter the vulgarities and familiarities of the less fortunate can only repel these young people, the truth about this matter having made them free from the contagion that breeds in unenlightened minds?

But schools have to leave that sexquestion out; yes, democratic institutions must be safeguarded, and therefore they have to leave out almost everything that is really important.

If I describe the schoolroom in which this teacher meets her classes during the school year, you will learn still more about her, because the rooms where people live always reflect pretty accurately their lives and minds.

One side is occupied by windows, and almost half the windows are occupied by aquariums, so arranged that the light comes through the water from the top; and the quiet, cool effect produces an antidote to the feverishness of schoolrooms in general.

The opposite wall is covered by a map of Europe, Asia, and Africa, in the flat relief so exquisitely worked out by George Thomsen, showing the mountain-ranges, river-valleys, high plateaus, and all the elevations, depressions, and barriers which have produced diversity of life, and have therefore produced natural history and human history as it was and is and evermore shall be.

On shelves everywhere are fossils and relics — Assyrian, Egyptian, Etruscan, Roman, Greek; Archæological, Palæontological, Geological.

At the upper end of the room are two statues, each about four feet high: one of the Stone-Age Man, and near it a reproduction of St. Gaudens’s Lincoln. I could easily guess that those two figures had a very definite significance in that room, without anything at all being said about them.

At the other end of the room stands an equally large reproduction of Barnard’s great symbolic statue, The Two Natures.

Now history taught in a room with these things in it might still be dull and profitless. But you might be pretty sure, to say the least, that the teacher who put these statues in a history classroom, who had to go to great trouble and expense to get them, no doubt, was quite likely to be a teacher of history who proposed to make that subject contribute something more than names, places, and dates to the minds of children. A certain intelligence of the heart was evident there. It was not difficult to see that she proposed to connect her children up with history, and, in some sense, promote an allegiance to that mysterious upward thrust which we call ‘ goodwill,’ which is the only worthwhile thing ever produced or to be produced, except beauty — and it is, of course, a part of that.

And yet there would be no moralizing. You heard both sides; you took your choice. When a case is adequately presented, choosing is not so difficult.

Perhaps most of the mistakes in ethics everywhere are due to the misfortune of never having heard the case presented as it ought to be, to conform to the truth of the matter.

If you look at Barnard’s statue long enough, you learn certain things which thereafter help to deliver you from your adversary. And yet Barnard never made that statue for that purpose — or for any other purpose except the recondite purposes of art.

Nevertheless art cannot escape its ministrations, protest as it will.

A much abridged statement of what this teacher had to say one evening, at a meeting of the Parents’ and Teachers’ Association, on the subject of history, will further illustrate her way of looking at things in her department, and also her theory of the relation which should exist between a school and its pupils.

She spoke in that confidential quiet manner of the person who gives you something, rather casually than by design, out of a great store of experience, quite as if you knew it already, — as if everybody knew it, — but, lest you might forget it, she would remind you. And while you listened, you increasingly, and, finally, intensely realized that here was one of those burning bushes of Moses — which it was well for you to have turned aside to see.

She began by saying that, as her father and her grandfather had both been ministers, she could rarely resist the temptation to use a text: it was something that seemed determined to come out, resist as she would. And when she talked about children in schools, she felt that there was one biblical text that covered the case — that expressed for all time the sort of thing a school should be and the attitude of parents and teachers toward children; and she repeated, slowly, ' And he shall be like a tree, planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season.’

‘ I am not going to expound this text,’ she said; ‘it is quite unnecessary. All you need to do is to repeat it, to repeat it in reference to your own son or your own daughter; to demand, then, that a school shall be more like a river of water, that flows, that sparkles, that lies out under the sun and the stars. And also you must not be in a hurry. You must allow this tree of yours, planted by this river, time and space — leisure to grow in, quiet to grow in, so that in his season, not in your season, he may bring forth his fruit.

‘The entire philosophy of education is there — from Rousseau to Dewey.

‘But I am supposed to-day to talk to you about history — that is my subject. You want to know what sort of a history teacher I am. Then you must come to the classroom — not once, but often. How is it that parents go so seldom to see their little trees, to see what sort of irrigation they get at school?

’I wonder whether you will agree with me as to the origin of history — of human history.

‘Human history started in the sun. — Why, of course; why not? The trouble is, you never heard anybody say so before, did you? The trouble is that people don’t go back far enough to arrive at the root of things. All the seething and boiling and explosive energy was inherited from that perfectly impossible conflagration we call the sun. So easy to call it that— ‘the sun’; but what is it? Do you suppose anybody knows what it is? Not a living soul! But at any rate, the earth is a minute piece of it, cooled off but still kept going by the heat and the light from the original lump.

‘The gases, condensed, made water, and the salts, the chemicals, in the water, acted upon by the sun’s rays, made protoplasm. The inorganic got worked into the organic by one of these miracles which only time can perform.

‘And in that protoplasm were things as incredible, as incomprehensible, as huge, as turbulent, as fierce, and as fiery as the sun itself. The single word for the whole thing is Energy. Now there are two predominating elements in this protoplasmic energy, and they are two expressions of solar energy, I suppose, simply transformed and finding a new expression. These are Hunger and Fear; and they are confronted by two other very strange and violent ingredients, namely, Love and Death.

‘So, you see, with stuff in it like this, history is bound to be, not only extremely dramatic, but even tragic. History is a mixture; it is a bowl as large as the earth, at any rate, filled with the most terrible brew concentrated from stardust, from violent gases and flames, from water and air and dirt of every sort, and it boils everlastingly.

‘ What we propose to do in school is to get a little of the odor of it and a little of the taste of it. We are in the pot ourselves, but for the time being we must get outside the pot.

‘And then history is part of our present daily intimate life: history is not just a story! Is your own past life history? Is n’t it the most vivid and intense history to you, and a big part of your present life, and is there any story of it? History is life a day or two past, — life forty centuries past, — and history is part of us. And the accounts of history are often the feeble mumblings of old stick-in-the-muds, who, in a frantic effort to ‘embrace the subject,’ as they would say, were squeezed to death by it, were turned to stone because they were false lovers, or too rash.

“‘Here is the earth,” says Emerson, “complete in every detail — sound as a nut; but the theories of the earth, and the accounts of the earth, are things of shreds and patches.”

‘And while I am on the subject, I might as well go a bit further. The life of the past is significant to us because it is the life of men, women, and children very much like us, although in different skins and costumes.

‘And that means this: it means that it would not be worth a moment’s thought, if the bulk of it was really only a mass of wars and the perfectly atrocious antics of most of the folks on top — their speeches and their parades.

‘You understand this, and you understand the inner nature of society. It is the little things that count. What is it that keeps the earth fruitful — that is, that keeps the soil which we depend on for producing vegetable life from becoming sodden and unproductive?

‘Earth-worms! Now what is that curious statistic about these beasts? Why, as I remember it, the whole surface of the land — that is, arable land — goes through the long muciferous stomach of the worm-tribe every five years or ten years — something like that.

‘The soil of Society is worked by this same myriad of swallowers and digesters and excreters, and out of it therefore things grow — heroes grow, and artists, poets, and musicians. Let old Carlyle talk about his heroes — and how gloriously he does it! The fact is that it was all in the black dirt of the hero’s ancestry, the dirt he goes back into when his day above the surface is done, and his works frequently follow him.

‘One thing has saved society from rotting at the core — or, I should say, two things; two things in the life of man make it worth while — worth talking about and worth thinking about. The two things are Virtue and Suffering — Courage and Pain.

‘Did you ever realize that the man who wrote Revelation, the Book of the Revelation, — the man John of Patmos, — was a tremendous mural painter? Do you read Revelation much? Well, read it, and let that pageantry work on your mind. One of these scenes illustrates the inhabitants of the Earth, the inhabitants whose courage had raised them into a great light — a light which illuminated those millions of eager faces and stretched arms and fingers as they sang there an oceanic sort of song like one of Bach’s or Palestrina’s; and underneath that picture John wrote, “These are they who have come up out of great tribulation.”

' History is the threshing — the terrific threshing — of life; that’s history: that is what we are studying.

‘Two great flails — Time and Chance, or Time and Destiny — beat down on the groaning centuries and the wheat and chaff get separated. So much suffering, so much bewilderment, so much failure—and so much courage.

‘But, you understand, this mangled and disfigured body of human history is like Samson’s old lion that lay where he left it, torn in two, by the road. “Out of the strong cometh forth sweetness.” Out of the vitals of history comes whatever is lovely and of good report, and the chaff gets blown into the place that is reserved for chaff—not a bad place, but a place where chaff can be used. Not a bit of it is wasted; nothing is wasted.

‘ See here — here is a little piece of clay; what is it? It’s an Assyrian book. On a book just like this, written 4000 years before Christ and dug out of the hot sand in Arabia the other day, are these words in cuneiform: —

‘Trembling one, pursued by Evil, dash
thyself against the bosom of thy God.

‘And have we anything new to say to-day? Have we found any substitute at all?

‘The next time you sing Dr. Newman’s hymn “Lux Benigna,” — “Lead, kindly light,” — remember this old Assyrian!

‘Now I propose to talk to your children about those things in some way or other which they can understand, so that they may appreciate a little, perhaps, what they have come from, and may not be fooled too much by the racket, by the maddening slam-banging and apparent speed of the present; by people making deafening noises and proposing impossible things. It’s slow — it’s fearfully slow — it will never be anything but slow!

‘For instance, suppose we were talking about the Nile. I should hope to make them visualize that old Nile, so slow and so muddy, but so beneficent to Egypt just because it was slow and muddy. It was opaque, and it was full of fecundity. Things grew because of it, things grew amazingly, and see what happened: Egyptian civilization brought forth its fruit in its season.

‘Now, whether this Egyptian civilization was worth all the time spent on it, they will have to determine themselves after they know more about it.

‘Civilizations happen just the way the Nile mud happens — there is no choice about it. They are deposits; and if, out of all the mixture of mud and water, passions and tears, and centuries of sunlight to stew in and to bake in; if, after all the frenzies and terrors of conflict, the endless and deadly toil of generations of slaves, there is a residue of something very precious and very rare as a contribution to the human spirit, to science and to art and to religion, then it was worth while — and they will see that there was.

‘They are going to tell me all about it. They are going to write delightful essays on that subject; they are going to museums and libraries; they are going to have a perfectly grand time living in old Egypt if we — you and I — will assist them a little.

‘You see, my dear people, a schoolroom must be a high place, a place from which we can see off and see enough to excite our most intense interest and curiosity. Things started there have got to carry. We have to put that old discredited stuff they called “phlogiston" into the lives of children, to keep them from becoming soggy.

‘I look out of my school-window across the street, to a large wholesale millinery store, and see the processions of girls in and out of that establishment, each one clothed in the latest mode — all their little goods, as the saying is, in the show-window. What would you do? What’s a school for? Where else will they get this thing in the shape they can get it here? A school which clarifies the selections, the ethics, the interests, the tastes of its pupils, which heads them positively toward that furnishing of the interior as opposed to the furnishing of the exterior which you see over there, — a school which teaches the “ Mystery of Life and its Arts,” as Ruskin had it, — is an educational establishment; otherwise not; otherwise absolutely not!

‘ I want to know whether the keels of men and women are laid the way they used to be. I don’t know. Down at Fairhaven last summer they were building a four-masted schooner. It was a magnificent thing, prodigious, standing there in its ribs and bones only, and apparently equal to any kind of strain and stress, besides having that subtle, indescribable beauty of a ship even in this early stage. Everything they built into her helped — helped her strength and helped her beauty too; that was perfectly plain.

How about children? Does everything we build into them help their strength and beauty, do you think? Really, it is a lucky thing that they are able to resist or escape a great deal of it. They have a certain protective coloration and a certain imperviousness, which may be there because, if it was n’t, the world would n’t get on; the necessary faith in itself would n’t survive; disillusionment would set in, and the game would be up.

‘ But one day I asked an old whaling captain who lives down on the “Drift Road,” as they call it, whether he had seen that vessel up there. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I was there when they was stretchin’ of the keel; and I ’ll say this — they ain’t puttin’ the keels into vessels now that they used to.” ’


One evening at her house, instead of talking over these very profound and serious things, we devoted part of the time to trying to locate a tree-toad, and part to playing with her Amazonian monkey.

‘Let me introduce you to a child of a million years ago,’ she said, as she brought in the creature with his quizzical face, a little black hand wrapped around his owner’s thumb. ‘Just think — here’s one of those early efforts of nature to get herself humanized, to get herself sinning and repenting, sinking hospital ships, singing the “Messiah,” weighing the planets, painting, praying, writing, massacring, educating — What a mess it is!

‘And what can an individual do, tell me that, but just distribute such little gifts as he has to give, which increase the chances for happiness by increasing the appetite for — what? The things of the spirit ? And for the teacher there is but one way, one way by which you can keep going. You have to take in a very great deal more than you give out. And then you have to wait. You must have seclusion — enough seclusion in which to wait, to “suspend judgment,” as Powys says; to “ wait upon the Lord,” as the Bible says; and by some such process, — by waiting after having done your job each day, — and each year, you renew your strength.

‘ Look there at your feet — do you see that little green light, like the starboard light of a tiny ship? That’s the larva of the firefly. He’s going to carry that light down underground, away below the frost-line, and he’s going to bring it up again in June and flash it in the air, and at last transmit it to his heirs, to the children of light.’

On my way home, through the massive shadows and mysterious presences of trees, with a great glory of stars arched overhead and the autumnal cricket chanting his own In excelsis, I felt as anyone would feel who comes from even a very casual conversation with that teacher, that almost all of us have gone through life without catching fire from a source like this — a source where high emotions glow, burn, sparkle, flame up into passionate, resolute, and tireless effort to refine the ore of life. Therefore we remain, if not a little stony and cynical, at least rather damp with doubts and reservations, or very sure that personal or corporate or political efficiency will make the paths straight through the wilderness. The American mind opens and closes; but in general, and in comparison with the European mind, is generously open, and its spirit still capable of being set alight. That has been the effort of the great schoolman at Washington, namely, to light these millions of inward flames from his own. And that is the mission of every real teacher everywhere.

But that inward fire — what a rare thing and how beyond all telling is its worth, fed from those emotions which go back into the darkest recesses of human history!

Among the tall grass, briars, and weeds of the twentieth century, all drenched with the rains of modernity, of hurry and violence, how steadily and clearly that old emotion burns; how buried, but how immortal, that ‘Lux Benigna’ of Cardinal Newman, that ‘Lux Perennis’ of an ancient verse of plain-song taken from the black bag of mediævalism and sung so beautifully by the students at Princeton the other day, in their desire to express in the loftiest and holiest manner their sorrow and their faith in remembrance of the boys who died fighting for what they believed, and what we believe, to be some Kingdom of Light: —

Jam sol recedit igneus,
Tu Lux Perennis Unitas,
Nostris beata Trinitas,
Infunde lumen cordibus.
As fade the fires of the Sun,
Thou, Light Eternal, Three in One,
Oh, ever-blessed Trinity,
Illuminate our hearts, we pray.