Good Business

‘WOULD you like to see an interesting document, Professor?’ the millionaire banker asked. (He meant quite sincerely to flatter me with the sonorous title, but I have been out of conceit with it ever since I heard of the Southern man who addressed Booker Washington as ‘Professor’ — ‘because,’ he explained, ‘I wouldn’t call any nigger Mister, so I call him Professor.’)

It was a warm, delicious spring evening and I had strolled over after dinner at the Faculty Club to chat with the banker, who was Senior Trustee of the great university which I served as a humble instructor. The bond which had drawn us together was our mutual admiration for the genial wit and lyric grace of the poet Horace. The banker had gathered a rare collection of early editions which he delighted to display to another enthusiast; and it had become a habit with me to spend an hour now and then in his study, handling the beautiful volumes and matching his favorite quotations with my own. And so on this particular evening I had walked through the shadowy campus, down the main street of the little college town, passed through the imposing gateway into the banker’s grounds, circled the private lake and the deer park, and finally entered the vast house, being ushered by an incredibly correct butler to the owner’s study. He was writing at his massive desk as I came in, and nodded a cordial greeting; then presently rose with a slip of paper in his hand and said, ‘Would you like to see an interesting document, Professor? ‘

‘ Surely,’ I replied, and took the green paper from him. It was a bank check, whose sum ran into six figures. ‘Good heavens! ‘ I exclaimed, vastly impressed, ‘that’s the biggest check I ever saw or am likely to see. You’re not making me a present, are you ? ‘

He grinned amiably. ‘No, it’s just an installment on my income tax.’

For a minute I was stunned by the thought of this man’s vast possessions and power; then I had an inspiration. By the veriest luck, I had that afternoon paid my own income tax, amounting in all to $8.67, and had the duplicate ‘work sheet’ in my pocket. Here was the opportunity for a grotesque contrast. ‘Would you like to see an interesting document?’ I retorted, and proffered him my paper. He studied it for a moment with a puzzled look; then a sheepish smile overspread his face, and he handed back the paper without a word.

‘Now, sir,’ said I, determined to follow up my unexpected advantage, ‘before we talk Horace, I should like to ask you two or three thoroughly impertinent questions. You need not answer them, of course, unless you choose to.’

‘All right,’ he replied genially, ‘fire away! ‘

‘Very good, sir,’ I began. ‘Do you mind telling me what wages you pay your chauffeur?’

‘Which one do you mean?’ he asked. ‘I have three.’

‘Well,’ said I, ‘your head chauffeur.’

‘He gets $2100 a year, besides his uniform and his living-quarters rentfree.’

‘Isn’t that pretty good pay for a mere chauffeur?’ I asked, really surprised at the sum.

‘Yes,’ the banker admitted, ‘but he’s a wonderfully expert mechanic and a fine driver; and you know, my young friend, that in this world if you want a good article you’ve got to pay a good price for it. The thousand-dollar job attracts the thousand-dollar man, and I’m not going to trust my safety to any but a good chauffeur.'

‘Oh, I’m not arguing that he is overpaid,’I put in hurriedly. ‘ I don’t doubt he’s worth every cent of his salary. But now for another question. How much do you pay that amazing butler of yours, who always terrifies me?’

The banker chuckled. ‘He is rather a formidable personage, is n’t he? Well, I pay him $2500 a year, and of course he has his uniform and room and meals free. You see, he’s a real treasure, — lived in several noble English families, he has, — and as butler he’s absolutely the last word in perfection.’

‘ That means,’ I challenged him, ‘ that he is really being paid about $3000, or perhaps even $3500, a year, does n’t it ? Is n’t that a more than fairish income for a butler?’

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I suppose it is. But I tell you again that if you want a good thing you’ve simply got to pay a good price for it. That’s only good business.’

‘ Aha! ‘ I cried. ‘ That’s exactly what I hoped you would say. Now, just one more question. Do you know how much this university pays me ?

‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t.’

I was n’t going to spare him now, so I hurried on. ‘I’ve had an expensive training to fit me for my work. Four years in college, three years getting my Ph.D., a term each at Oxford and Cambridge, a year at a German university, nearly a year in Italy, — all at my own expense, — that’s what it has cost me to be eligible to a position on your Faculty. Of course, I had to borrow most of the money to do it, but by careful saving I’m gradually paying it back. After I had taught three years in another great university, I was invited to come here, and the lure was a salary of $1100. I’ve been here three years and am now earning $1400, so I’ve been pretty successful. I don’t get any clothes free, either, nor room and board. And, being a member of the Faculty, I can’t live as an ordinary laborer does. I must look neat and well-dressed, so as to be an edifying example to my young charges; I must have an afternoon coat, in order to be presentable at the President’s receptions; I must own evening clothes, if only for those pleasant occasions when you ask me to dinner. I need books, — usually expensive imported works, — I need the theatre and the Opera and the Symphony now and then, else I shall grow into an old fogy; and an occasional trip to European libraries is almost a necessity if I am to keep pace with the subject I teach.

‘By the time I have found a place for all these in my budget, and have paid the annual installment on my debts, — and my income tax, — there is n’t a great deal left out of my princely salary of $1400! (It’s absurd to call us college teachers “unpractical”; we know more about the purchasing power of a dollar than most “practical” businessmen!) Marriage is clearly out of the question, at least until I may expect my assistantprofessorship, some five years hence, when my wages will be raised to $2500. But even that will scarcely finance the proper maintenance of a wife, the rent of a decent house, and the wages of a maid, to say nothing of providing for possible children. And, of course, it will not be a very good house, nor will the maid be really competent, because, as you yourself have so emphatically asserted, if you want a good article you have to pay a good price for it.’

The banker was growing restive and had made several ineffectual attempts to check my torrent of language. But I had never had such a chance before, and I was n’t to be stopped until I had thoroughly unburdened my mind.

‘Let me put it to you as a plain business proposition,’ I continued. ‘One hears on every side the complaint that college ruins more men than it helps. Even you have bewailed in my hearing the totally inadequate equipment of the average new college graduate for business. I will readily grant you that the complaint, has considerable justification. But is n’t it you, and the other prosperous business and professional men who hold the purse strings of all our colleges, who are really to blame? “Millions for new buildings, but not one cent for teachers’ salaries!” You repeat with maddening iteration that you must expect to pay a good price for a good article, you assert with conviction that the thousanddollar job attracts only the thousanddollar man. You, and countless others like you, ungrudgingly pay your chauffeurs $2100 a year and your butlers $3000, because you must do so in order to get good service.

‘But consider your own case. You have a son, now in this college. You send him to college to acquire the proper training for life, you want him to be adequately prepared to carry on your huge estate after you die. He has been in my own classes. You unhesitatingly entrust him, at the most important formative period of his life, to t he tender mercies of a group of teachers whose average salaries are far below what you gladly pay to mechanics and glorified waiters. Now if, as you have so contemptuously said, the thousanddollar job is held by the thousand-dollar man, is it good business to trust your son to us? We must be, by your own showing, a pretty shoddy, contemptible lot. You will not trust your precious safety to a cheap chauffeur, not you! But you will trust your own son’s spiritual and mental welfare to me, whom you pay $700 less than you think necessary for that same chauffeur! I ask you again, Is it good business ? You can’t get good service without paying a good price, you say. Very well, I quite agree. But, my dear sir, considering the situation as I have outlined it, how, in heaven’s name, can you reasonably expect your son to get the proper training at college? And how do you muster the colossal effrontery to complain that you are not getting good service? Of course you’re not! If you want a general manager for your office, you don’t advertise that the salary will be $1400; you know too well how incapable a man who would accept that sum would prove. Well, then, don’t expect the general managers of your son’s education to be marvels of efficiency on such salaries. Or, if you insist on keeping the wages so low, don’t you dare to complain if the service is n’t good! ‘

I stopped, fairly from lack of breath, and wondering how soon the great man would rise in majestic wrath and slay me.

But he only gazed at me thoughtfully for a moment and then said musingly: ‘Well, to be perfectly frank, I never did think of it in that way before, and perhaps you ‘re right. But look here, you don’t mean, do you, that if every man on our Faculty were given $10,000 a year, beginning to-morrow, they would all automatically become good teachers?’

‘Of course not,’said I; ‘but I do mean that until the teaching profession is made financially attractive you need n’t expect, save in rare instances, that really good men will deliberately choose it. Of course a few will; and we have a considerable number of men on our Faculty here who are extraordinarily able and inspiring teachers, and who carry on with the job simply because they love the work sufficiently to put up with its disadvantages. But that does n’t make it a fair arrangement, nor is it good business. I know a man, for example, who is a born teacher. I am willing to bet that he could lecture for an hour on Nabatæan inscriptions or on a railway time-table and sweep a group of undergraduates off their feet with enthusiasm. And he considered teaching, for a long time, too. But he wanted to marry and have children and taste a little sugar on the breadand-butter of life, so he turned all those compelling qualities of his, all his boundless enthusiasm, to the selling of bonds. I’m told he’s making around $60,000 a year. But some college has lost in him a wonderfully inspiring teacher, although he would gladly have chosen the profession if he had been assured of as little as $8000 a year. And he is typical of hundreds.

‘Would n’t you think it good business to ensure that all the college teachers who share in the training of your son should be like this man? If all the faculties of all our colleges were born teachers, who all loved their work, and who could all really inspire and educate our youth, don’t you believe that a large proportion of the “problems” in college education would simply vanish at once? And don’t you think that there would be an end of the complaint that college spoils more men than it helps? If we college professors are really almost all old fogies, if we don’t seem able to get the results you hardheaded, practical, efficient businessmen and fathers demand, whose is the fault, if not yours? A chauffeur, who can learn his trade in six months, can earn $2100 a year and have his livingquarters free; a college professor, after six years of graduate study (at his own cost), can, when he has been teaching some ten years, earn as much as $2500 or even $3000 — and have nothing given him free. And if he is a born teacher he knows right well that those same gifts which enable him to thrill his students, to “sell” his subject, will equally well enable him to thrill prospective clients and sell bonds, to the tune of $60,000 every year. Is n’t he just a plumb fool if he chooses teaching? It would n’t be good business!

‘ And who are left, to man the ranks of our faculties? Aside from the small number who cannot be stopped from teaching, chiefly the thousand-dollarjob men. It is to them that you must commit the education of your sons. I ask you for the last time, Is it good business ?

‘N-n-no,’ said the banker meditatively, after a long pause, ‘it’s not good business. And I ‘m going to do a lot of hard thinking about it, and then some pretty vehement talking. — Now, I’ve a new Baskerville Horace here —’

A month later he was dead, and nothing has ever come of our conversation. I have often wondered if it was the shock of my onslaught that killed him!