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TO THE GIRL WHO WOULD CULTIVATE
LE BARON RUSSELL BRIGGS
Le Baron Russell Briggs, familiarly known to countless numbers of Harvard men by the title Dean Briggs, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1855, of old New England ancestry. He received the A.B. degree from Harvard in 1875, and the A.M. degree in 1882. Since 1884 he has been a member of the Harvard faculty. In addition to being a member of the Harvard faculty he served from 1903 to 1923 as president of Radcliffe College. His essays, Routine and Ideals, College Honor, School and College, and similar reflections were varied and sympathetic, sho ng how much in touch Dean Briggs has been with student life through his official duties. These essays have been valuable aids to thousands of students making their first adjustments to college life. His style is lucid and fuent. In the essay given below, the writer is not addressing himself to college men, but there is here the same clearness of expression, the same earnestness and sincerity, and the same standard of values found in all his work.
For a clever boy, no matter how poor, to rise as a man to his own level is so common, especially in America, as to excite no comment. His level may be that of the uncultivated rich, the self-made man of business, or that of the literary scholar; whatever it is, if he has energy, courage, and a fair chance, he reaches it. All this may be true of a girl; but a girl seldom gets what a boy would call, in his own case, a fair chance. In most of the learned professions she is still eyed with disfavor; in the effort to go to college she has many more sympathizers than of old, but few who feel that a college training is for her a necessity; in business, beyond stenography, typewriting, and such other subjects as are taught at commercial schools and paid for by small or moderate
1 From Girls and Education. Reprinted by permission of, and by special arrangement with, the Houghton Mifflin Company.
salaries, she can rarely compete with men. There is no getting around the fact that a girl is a girl, and that as such-whatever her courage and her cleverness—she is hampered in the rough struggle for advancement, distinction, and wealth. A few women of exceptional attainments and privileges earn large salaries; but compared with those who marry people that earn large salaries their number is insignificant. Through marriage or inheritance most women win such material wealth as they possess, and with it such opportunities for culture and intellectual pleasure as well-spent wealth affords. Yet in our country an unmarried girl, with only her own efforts to support her, may lift her life above its drudgery and may become in greater or less degree a cultivated woman. I assume that she has fair health, though many girls not physically strong do what I have in mind. The principal requisites are common sense and courage.
Common sense, like humor, is a saving quality, showing its possessor what not to do, as well as what to do; and by it all ambition may fitly be tested. No girl can learn too early that there is a vast difference between feeling too big for a place and being too big for it, and that feeling too big for one's work and surroundings seldom if ever results in culture. Rather it breeds discontent, vanity, idleness, and, not infrequently, vice. Sometimes it is accompanied by a dull persistency which achieves the means without the end. No just person will deny the merit, or even the success, of the intelligent dull, or will fail to see in their success hope for himself and the race; but every just person of experience will beware of artificially lifting the unintelligent dull to a level above their own, a level at which they cannot be maintained without constant "boosting." "It is better to be a good dyer than a poor preacher,” said a shrewd gentleman to an ambitious millhand whose quality he suspected. The ministry offers a startling illustration of the danger in tempting men by large scholarships and the hope of social respectability to a life for which their sole fitness is a kind of negative virtue. "He ought never to go into the ministry," said a distinguished clergyman of a youth helped through college by a scholarship of three hundred dollars a year because of his ministerial purpose. “Why not?” I asked. “Isn't he a good fellow ?" "My dear sir," was the answer, "the church is cursed with good people.” The minister's work, as every efficient minister knows, needs men that are filled with manly life, men of wisdom, of instinctive—not professional-sympathy, men of fearless leadership, men of power; and no other profession has suffered so much from the artificial infusion of weaklings. The teacher's profession suffers similarly, though less. “I do not believe," said an able graduate of a college for women, "in taking a girl out of her mother's kitchen, where she is of some use, and giving her scholarships to make her a second-rate school-teacher."
Gifted Hopkins, in Dr. Holmes's Guardian Angel, was born to sell tape and to write verses for the local newspaper. These were decent, honorable occupations from which the effort to rescue him for higher things would have come to a humiliating end. Thus the girl who has a right to rise and who rises to some purpose is she who, not mistaking vanity for refinement, uses her woman's sensitiveness in doing, not in avoiding, her daily work; who sees in that work, however mean, something great and divine, and, by the light that never was on sea or land, is led from the common things which it glorifies into intimate communion with those who have shed the glory upon the painted canvas or the printed page. Her state of mind is as far as pos
sible from mere unleavened restlessness. “Restlessness without a purpose," says Phillips Brooks, "is discontent; with a purpose, progress.” Of the thousand men and women that we see on every holiday hanging to the electric cars or 'dragging themselves and their children through the crowded street, few gain rest and refreshment; most are squandering time and strength and money in the excitement of discontented motion. They, too, have achieved a means without an end, activity without progress. One of the first lessons for a girl (as for any one else) is the lesson of doing faithfully and heartily the work that is before her, of growing by doing it, not by neglecting it, of fitting herself for big tasks, so far as she is capable of them, by doing her own little tasks in a big way, not by shirking them as unworthy of her gifted and aspiring soul. "They tell me," said one of the stupidest and laziest and weakest men I have ever met, “that I should be a good deal of a man if I lived in a different kind of a place”; and with this in mind he became less than half a man where he did live. If you have dishes to wash and want to read poetry, wash the dishes first. I have known servant girls with considerable education and culture; but I do not count among these the girl whose mistress, seeing, in the middle of the morning, that the beds were not made, discovered her lying on a bed with a novel in her hand.
Granted that a girl does her work in the right spirit, she has still a good deal of time to herself. It may come in long stretches or in odd minutes; but even in odd minutes it is precious. The girl who makes the most of herself is she who first does her work generously, and next uses her odd minutes well. To use them at all requires flexibility and concentration, qualities that seldom come without urging, but qualities that insure efficiency. To hold your attention fixed on one thing and, when that is done, to fix it instantly on another and hold it there as if the first had never been—this is what every active life demands and what few human creatures can adequately supply; yet something like this is in the power of us all, and we should work for it as we value helpfulness and happiness. The best training for it is the simple habit of industry.
For the girl who would cultivate herself, the natural resource in odd minutes is reading. By reading fifteen minutes a day, it is said, a person may become cultivated. Most girls read more than that; but most girls are not cultivated. What do most girls read?
Here I come to one of the melancholy aspects of human nature in general, if not of feminine nature in particular. Ruskin's question, “Do you know that if you read this, you cannot read that?” is so simple that it seems to slight the hearer's intelligence; yet it is justified by the persistent unintelligence of the reading world. With one life to live, with each day, and each minute, when it is gone, gone forever, we read the illustrated scandals of eloping chorus girls or of their kinswomen in high life at Newport or New York. Beyond this, we read the fiction of the day whether in magazines or novels; and we get it no longer at our own cost from such circulating libraries as filled the empty head of Lydia Languish, but from free public libraries given, it may be, to the people by generous men and women who have thought to educate thereby the neighbors and friends of their youth—temptation offered in the name of culture to those who eagerly accept the offering. Fiction is a fine art and as truly an instrument of culture as music or painting; but debased fiction is scarcely more cultivating than the song of the vaudeville spe