Article — From the March 1933 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
GLANCING out of the window, I can see the subject — and eventual victim — of this inquiry, dangerously perched in the crotch of an old chestnut tree, about fifteen feet above the ground. Should I rush out and tell him to get down? Or should I let him be, hoping that he won’t climb any higher, or, if he does climb any higher, hoping that he will not fall?
It is probably all right, so I shall not bother him. Tree climbing is one of the things he has learned all by himself. There aren’t many things he will have the fun of learning all by himself. Most of the things he is going to learn will be hammered into him — Latin and history and grammar and mathematics up to the binomial theorem. I’m not worried about his progress up the ladder from high school or boarding school to college and from college to law school or medical school. It seems incredible that the young biped now perched in the chestnut tree will some day, without stupendous effort on my part or on his, eventually graduate from college or even become a Ph.D. — but he will almost certainly. The strictly educational side of his life, once he gets his hands firmly on the lowest rung of that ancient ladder, will take care of itself.
What concerns me is something entirely different, a good deal more like tree climbing. I have never heard of a school or college that gave a course in tree climbing. And human life is full of useful accomplishments and rewarding experiences, like tree climbing — like making a speech, for example, or being able to take care of oneself on a camping trip: abilities that seem to me at least as valuable as a knowledge of conjugations and the dates of battles — perhaps (if one is to become a self-sufficient well-rounded human being) much more valuable. What are those abilities, skills, or accomplishments, those extra-curricular proficiencies that every man should have in order to be rounded and self-sufficient, and when can he acquire them, and how? Let me return — without looking at him, for he is probably by now thirty feet above the ground — to the seven-year-old imp in the chestnut tree. Impartially adding up to myself his skills other than tree climbing, I find that he cannot count money or give change, that he is unable to tie his own shoelaces, that he would most certainly starve if left alone in a well-stocked kitchen, but, on the other hand, that he can perform a rather startling back somersault off a diving board, that he speaks and understands elementary German, and can sit down at the piano and play, with only a few mistakes, a Mozart minuet. Clearly, to this handful of skills and accomplishments he must add others, many others, before he is even on the road to becoming a self-sufficient and well-rounded young man. Leaving all formal subjects out of consideration, he should learn how to:
The list does not end there. There are several dozen mental and physical skills that I should like him to acquire. He will acquire some of them in the mere course of growing up; he will acquire some of them more painfully, as the result of adult pressure; there are others that he will avoid; and he will eventually be punished for their omission with not a little discomfort and social misery. Ordinary education, even high-priced education, will not guarantee him the essential skills, and some of them are better learned after “education” is over. It is up to me to set about making a list of those skills, it is up to me to see to it that he gets them, because they are skills of hand, eye, ear, or brain which will enlarge, deepen, and ripen him as a human being.
But how, you may ask, can a young man be enlarged by learning to handle firearms? In what conceivable way will he be ripened by knowing how to cook or drink?
Patience. . . . In asking what these things are that every civilized, intelligent, educated young man should know, remember that I am thinking of skills, not contents, of outside interests and non-scholastic activities rather than of the stream of Latin, Greek, physics, social science, Jacobean poetry, and elementary bee-keeping which, from kindergarten to senior year, will moisten, but not clog, the sieve that is his mind. And so let me hasten to turn away from the mountain range of modern education which threatens to cast its shadow over this discussion; let me mention once, and then not mention again, the project method, John Dewey, intelligence quotients, and the Dalton plan. The average high school or boarding school is not modern and will give your son and mine little beside formal education and even more formal sport: one will get him into college and the other may leave him with a peculiarly atrocious form of hick-athletic patriotism. If we parents do not supplement what is given by the usual schools, our sons will come out of them mere Christian stockbrokers with an abnormal craving for bodily exercise. If we want our sons to be able to drive a car, speak French fluently, play the piano, set a broken leg, and make horses do their bidding we shall have to look outside of the schools and colleges. And I submit that he who cannot do these things is not completely educated.
The list of skills, as distinct from book learning, does not include mere parlor tricks, such as playing the ukulele, fortune-telling, a startling acquaintance with the insides of the Encyclopedia Britannica or other accomplishments whereby the fear-psychology advertisements promise to make their victims the life of the party or a successful salesman in ten lessons. And the list does not include the special aptitudes necessary to a man in this profession or the accomplishments which aim at the development of his character. The skills I have in mind may fortify character, but chiefly as a by-product. They will make life richer and, therefore, happier (though happiness itself is usually a by-product). They are tools which will help a man to mine his own vein of gold and some of the gold in the world about him. Some of them will save him discomfort, some of them will bring satisfaction and pleasure, some of them will help him avoid danger, and give him the joy of mastery over animal fears. Some are elementary and taken for granted; others are rarer accomplishments not always striven for.
More from Robert Littell: