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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

General Training

Title:     General Training
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

It was the habit of an American statesman who rose to the highest official position, to prepare himself in advance upon every question which was likely to come before Congress by thorough and prolonged study. His vacations and his leisure hours during the session were spent in familiarising himself with pending questions in all their aspects. He was not content with a mastery of the details of a measure; he could not rest until he had mastered the principle behind it, had studied it in the light of history, and in its relation to our political institutions and character. His voluminous note-books show the most thorough study, not only of particular measures and questions as they came before the country from time to time, but of a wide range of related subjects. He once said that for every speech he had delivered he had prepared five; and the statement throws clear light on a career of extraordinary growth and success.

For the characteristic of this career was its steady expansion along intellectual lines. It was exceptional in its disclosure of that inward energy which carries the man who possesses it over all obstacles, enables him to master adverse conditions, to secure education without means and culture without social opportunity; but it was not unexampled in a country which has seen many men of ultimate distinction emerge from entire obscurity. Its material success has been paralleled many times; but its intellectual success has rarely been paralleled. It disclosed inward distinction; a passion for the best in life and thought; an eager desire to see things in their largest relations. And so out of conditions which generally breed the politician the statesman was slowly matured. History, religion, literature, art were objects of his constant and familiar study; and he made himself rich in general knowledge as well as in specific information. This ample background of knowledge of the best which the world has known and done in all the great fields of its activity gave his discussions of specific questions breadth, variety, charm, and literary interest. He brought to the particular measure largeness of view, dispassionateness of temper, and the philosophic mind; and his work came to have cultural significance and quality.

Such a career, the record of which may be clearly traced not only in public history but in a vast mass of preparatory notes and memoranda of every description, illustrates in a very noble way the importance of that constant and general preparation which ought to include special preparation as a landscape includes the individual field. That field may have great value and ought to have the most careful tillage; but it cannot be separated, in any just and true vision, from the other fields which it touches and which run, in unbroken continuity, to the horizon; and this preparation not only involves the fruitful attitude towards life upon which comment has been made, but it involves also constant study in many directions with the definite purpose of enrichment and enlargement. No kind of knowledge comes amiss in this larger training. History, literature, art, and science have their different kinds of nurture to impart, and their different kinds of material to supply; and the wise man will open his mind to their teaching and his nature to their ripening touch. The widely accepted idea that a man not only needs nothing more for a specific task than the specific skill which it demands, but that any larger skill tends to superficiality, is the product of that tendency to excessive specialisation which has impaired the harmony of modern education and dwarfed many men of large native capacity.

In some departments of knowledge and activity the demands are so great on time and strength that the man who works in them can hardly venture outside of them without impairing the totality of his achievement; but even in these cases it is often a question whether too great a price has not been paid for a narrow and highly specialised skill. There is not only no conflict between a high degree of technical skill and wide interests and knowledge; there is a clear and definite connection between the two. For in all those higher forms of work which involve not only expert workmanship but a spiritual content of some kind, the worker must bring to his task not only skill but ideas, force, personality, temperament; and, sound workmanship being secured, his rank will depend not on specific expertness, but on the depth, energy, and splendour of the personality which the work reveals.

Creative men feel the necessity of many interests and of wide activities. Their natures require rich pasturage; they must be fed from many sources. They secure the skill of the specialist, but they never accept his limitations of interest and work. The clearer their vision of the unity of all forms of human action and expression, the deeper their need of studying at first hand these different forms of action and expression. Goethe did not choose that comprehensiveness of temper which led him into so many fields; it was the necessity of a mind vast in its range and deep in its insight. Herbert Spencer has done work which discloses at every point the tireless industry and rigorous method of the specialist; but the field in which he has concentrated his energy has included practically the development of the universe and of human life and society. Mr. Gladstone was a master of all the details, skill, and knowledge of his profession; but how greatly he gained in power by the breadth of his interests, and what charm there was in the disclosure of the man of religious enthusiasm, of ardent devotion, and of ripe culture behind the politician and statesman!

Byron knew the secrets of the art which he practiced with such splendid success as few men have known them. His command of the lyric form was complete. And yet who that loves his work has not felt that lack in it which Matthew Arnold had in mind when he said that with all his genius Byron had the ideas of a country squire? The poet was a master of the technique of his art; he had rare gifts of passion and imagination; but he lacked breadth, variety, and depth of thought. There is a monotony of theme and of motive in his compositions. Tennyson, on the other hand, exalted his technical skill by the reality and richness of his culture. Nothing which contains and reveals the human spirit was alien to him. He did not casually touch a great range of themes; he studied them patiently, thoroughly, persistently. Religion, philosophy, science, literature, history were his familiar friends; he lived with them, and they so completely confided to him their richest truths that he became their interpreter. So wide were his interests and so varied his studies that he came to be one of those men in whom the deeper currents of an age flow together and from whom the tumult of angry and contending currents issues in a great harmonious tide. No modern man has prepared himself more intelligently for specific excellence by special training, and no man has more splendidly illustrated the necessity of combining the expertness of the skilled workman with the insight, power, and culture of a great personality. A life which issues in an art so beautiful in form and so significant in content reveals both the necessity of constant and general preparation, and the identity of great working power with great spiritual energy.

[The end]
Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: General Training