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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie

The Educational Attitude

Title:     The Educational Attitude
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

The man whose life is intelligently ordered is always preparing himself for the highest demands of his work; he is not only doing that work with adequate skill from day to day, but he is always fitting himself in advance for more exacting and difficult tasks.

If a man is to become an artist in his work, his specific preparation for particular occasions and tasks must be part of a general preparation for all possible occasions and tasks. It is not only impossible to foresee opportunities, but it is often impossible to recognise their importance until they are past. It is well to know by heart Emerson's significant lines,--

"Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my mourning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn."

The Days, which come so unobtrusively and go so silently, are opportunities in disguise, and to enable a man to penetrate that disguise and discern the royal figure in the meanest dress is one of the great ends of that education which must always, in some form, precede real success. For nothing which endures is ever done without some kind of preliminary training. Men do not happen, by chance, upon greatness; they achieve it. Noble work of any kind is the fruit of laborious apprenticeship, and from the higher forms of success the idler and the amateur are for ever shut out. A man often enters a new field or takes up a new tool with surprising facility and power; but in these cases the man is only carrying into a fresh field the skill already acquired elsewhere. It has sometimes happened that a sudden occasion has called an obscure man to his feet, and he has sat down famous. In such instances it is the custom to say that the orator has spoken without preparation; as a matter of fact, the man knows that he has been all his life preparing for that critical moment. If he had not risen full of his theme, with the rich material of noble speech within reach of his memory or imagination, he would have left the hour empty and unmarked. In such a moment a man rises as high as the reach of his nature and no higher, and the reach of his nature depends on the training he has given himself.

The hour for commanding speech comes to the politician, whose study of public affairs is chiefly a study of the management of his constituents, and he sits down as empty as he arose; the same hour, arriving unexpectedly to Burke or Webster, draws upon vast accumulations of knowledge, thought, and illustration. In the famous debate with Hayne, Webster had practically but one day in which to prepare his reply to his persuasive and accomplished adversary; but when he spoke it was to put into language for all time the deep conviction of the reality of the national idea. The great orator had scant time to make ready for the greatest opportunity of his life, but, in reality, he had been preparing from boyhood to make that immortal speech. Brilliant speeches are often made extemporaneously; but such speeches are never made without long and arduous preparation. "The gods sell anything and to everybody at a fair price," says Emerson; and he might have added that they give nothing away. Whatever a man secures in the way of power or fame he pays for in preliminary preparation; nothing is given him except his native capacity; everything else he must pay for. To recognise opportunity when it comes, or to make the highest use of it when it is not to be recognised at the moment, involves constant enrichment and education of the whole nature.

It is one of the secrets of the higher kind of success to make life interesting, and this secret is committed mainly to those who get the educational value of events, conditions, and relationships. The man who can rationalise his entire experience is in the way of learning the deepest lesson of life and of keeping the keenest interest in all its happenings. A mass of facts exhausts and wearies the student, but when they fall into order, disclose connections, and reveal truth they awaken enthusiasm. The body of fact without the soul of truth is a dead and repellent thing; but if the soul of truth shine through straightway it becomes vital, companionable, stimulating. Now, the most fruitful preparation for opportunities and tasks of all degrees of importance is that attitude towards life which habitually secures from it the truth behind the experience and the principle behind the fact. Some men are enriched by everything they touch because they seem instinctively to get at the spiritual meaning of events; other men get nothing but material results from their dealing with the world. One man takes nothing off his broad acres but crops; another harvests his crops with as large results, but harvests also knowledge of the chemistry of nature, appreciation of the landscape beyond his own fields, and those qualities of character which have their root in honest work in the open fields.

A striking difference is discernible between two classes of men of business; one class is shrewd, keen, successful, but entirely uninteresting, because it fastens its attention exclusively upon the bare, hard facts of the situation; the other class is not only equally successful, but possesses a rare interest, because it penetrates behind the facts of trade to the laws of trade, studies general conditions, and continually deals with the situation from the point of view of large intelligence. No human being is so entirely devoid of interest to his fellows as the trader who barters one commodity for another without any comprehension of higher values or wider connections; on the other hand, few men are more interesting than the great merchants whose vision penetrates to the principles behind business, and who acquire a kind of wisdom which is the more engaging because it is constantly verified by contact with affairs. The man who is a trader never gets beyond the profit of his shrewd bargain; the man who trains himself to study general conditions puts himself in the way, not only of great wealth, but of leadership and power.

Behind every trade and occupation there are the most intimate human connections; beneath every trade and occupation there are deep human relationships; and it is only as we discern these fundamental relations and connections that we get at a true conception of the magnitude of the practical activities of society and of their significance in civilisation. The man who treats his trade as mere opportunity of making money, without taking into account the service of that trade to men or its relation to the totality of social activities, is as truly anti-social in his spirit and methods as an anarchist. Such a man breaks society into selfish fragments, and turns commerce into vulgar bartering. The penalty of such a sordid and narrow view of life is never evaded; the trader makes gains and often swells them by hoarding; but he rarely secures great wealth,--for great fortunes are built by brains and force,--and he never secures leadership. He who is to win the noblest successes in the world of affairs must continually educate himself for larger grasp of principles and broader grasp of conditions.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: The Educational Attitude