George Lorimer, an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, published a series of fictional letters in that magazine in which a father, John Graham, imparts advice to his son, Pierrepont, throughout the different stages of the young man’s life. The letters were then compiled in the hugely successful 1901 book Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. Many of the letters contain some great gems, and I’ll surely be publishing some others from time to time, but I thought the first one was very apropos since many young men are now entering or returning to college.
Chicago, October 1, 189—
Dear Pierrepont: Your Ma got back safe this morning and she wants me to be sure to tell you not to over-study, and I want to tell you to be sure not to under-study. What we’re really sending you to Harvard for is to get a little of the education that’s so good and plenty there. When it’s passed around you don’t want to be bashful, but reach right out and take a big helping every time, for I want you to get your share. You’ll find that education’s about the only thing lying around loose in this world, and that it’s about the only thing a fellow can have as much of as he’s willing to haul away. Everything else is screwed down tight and the screw-driver lost.
I didn’t have your advantages when I was a boy, and you can’t have mine. Some men learn the value of money by not having any and starting out to pry a few dollars loose from the odd millions that are lying around; and some learn it by having fifty thousand or so left to them and starting out to spend it as if it were fifty thousand a year. Some men learn the value of truth by having to do business with liars; and some by going to Sunday School. Some men learn the cussedness of whiskey by having a drunken father; and some by having a good mother. Some men get an education from other men and newspapers and public libraries; and some get it from professors and parchments—it doesn’t make any special difference how you get a half-nelson on the right thing, just so you get it and freeze on to it. The package doesn’t count after the eye’s been attracted by it, and in the end it finds its way to the ash heap. It’s the quality of the goods inside which tells, when they once get into the kitchen and up to the cook.
You can cure a ham in dry salt and you can cure it in sweet pickle, and when you’re through you’ve got pretty good eating either way, provided you started in with a sound ham. If you didn’t, it doesn’t make any special difference how you cured it—the ham-tryer’s going to strike the sour spot around the bone. And it doesn’t make any difference how much sugar and fancy pickle you soak into a fellow, he’s no good unless he’s sound and sweet at the core.
The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education. That is where I’m a little skittish about this college business. I’m not starting in to preach to you, because I know a young fellow with the right sort of stuff in him preaches to himself harder than any one else can, and that he’s mighty often switched off the right path by having it pointed out to him in the wrong way.
I remember when I was a boy, and I wasn’t a very bad boy, as boys go, old Doc Hoover got a notion in his head that I ought to join the church, and he scared me out of it for five years by asking me right out loud in Sunday School if I didn’t want to be saved, and then laying for me after the service and praying with me. Of course I wanted to be saved, but I didn’t want to be saved quite so publicly.
When a boy’s had a good mother he’s got a good conscience, and when he’s got a good conscience he don’t need to have right and wrong labeled for him. Now that your Ma’s left and the apron strings are cut, you’re naturally running up against a new sensation every minute, but if you’ll simply use a little conscience as a tryer, and probe into a thing which looks sweet and sound on the skin, to see if you can’t fetch up a sour smell from around the bone, you’ll be all right.
if I didn’t want to be saved.”
I’m anxious that you should be a good scholar, but I’m more anxious that you should be a good clean man. And if you graduate with a sound conscience, I shan’t care so much if there are a few holes in your Latin. There are two parts of a college education—the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.
Education’s a good deal like eating—a fellow can’t always tell which particular thing did him good, but he can usually tell which one did him harm. After a square meal of roast beef and vegetables, and mince pie and watermelon, you can’t say just which ingredient is going into muscle, but you don’t have to be very bright to figure out which one started the demand for painkiller in your insides, or to guess, next morning, which one made you believe in a personal devil the night before. And so, while a fellow can’t figure out to an ounce whether it’s Latin or algebra or history or what among the solids that is building him up in this place or that, he can go right along feeding them in and betting that they’re not the things that turn his tongue fuzzy. It’s down among the sweets, among his amusements and recreations, that he’s going to find his stomach-ache, and it’s there that he wants to go slow and to pick and choose.
It’s not the first half, but the second half of a college education which merchants mean when they ask if a college education pays. It’s the Willie and the Bertie boys; the chocolate eclair and tutti-frutti boys; the la-de-dah and the baa-baa-billy-goat boys; the high cock-a-lo-rum and the cock-a-doodle-do boys; the Bah Jove!, hair-parted-in-the-middle, cigaroot-smoking, Champagne-Charlie, up-all-night-and-in-all-day boys that make ’em doubt the cash value of the college output, and overlook the roast-beef and blood-gravy boys, the shirt-sleeves and high-water-pants boys, who take their college education and make some fellow’s business hum with it.
Does a College education pay? Does it pay to feed in pork trimmings at five cents a pound at the hopper and draw out nice, cunning, little “country” sausages at twenty cents a pound at the other end? Does it pay to take a steer that’s been running loose on the range and living on cactus and petrified wood till he’s just a bunch of barb-wire and sole-leather, and feed him corn till he’s just a solid hunk of porterhouse steak and oleo oil?
You bet it pays. Anything that trains a boy to think and to think quick pays; anything that teaches a boy to get the answer before the other fellow gets through biting the pencil, pays.
College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool. And a good, strong boy will turn out a bright, strong man whether he’s worn smooth in the grab-what-you-want-and-eat-standing-with-one-eye-skinned-for-the-dog school of the streets and stores, or polished up and slicked down in the give-your-order-to-the-waiter-and-get-a-sixteen-course-dinner school of the professors. But while the lack of a college education can’t keep No. 1 down, having it boosts No. 2 up. Of course, some men are like pigs, the more you educate them, the more amusing little cusses they become, and the funnier capers they cut when they show off their tricks. Naturally, the place to send a boy of that breed is to the circus, not to college…
Speaking of educated pigs, naturally calls to mind the case of old man Whitaker and his son, Stanley. I used to know the old man mighty well ten years ago. He was one of those men whom business narrows, instead of broadens. Didn’t get any special fun out of his work, but kept right along at it because he didn’t know anything else. Told me he’d had to root for a living all his life and that he proposed to have Stan’s brought to him in a pail. Sent him to private schools and dancing schools and colleges and universities, and then shipped him to Oxford to soak in a little “atmosphere,” as he put it. I never could quite lay hold of that atmosphere dodge by the tail, but so far as I could make out, the idea was that there was something in the air of the Oxford ham-house that gave a fellow an extra fancy smoke.
Well, about the time Stan was through, the undertaker called by for the old man, and when his assets were boiled down and the water drawn off, there wasn’t enough left to furnish Stan with a really nourishing meal. I had a talk with Stan about what he was going to do, but some ways he didn’t strike me as having the making of a good private of industry, let alone a captain, so I started in to get him a job that would suit his talents. Got him in a bank, but while he knew more about the history of banking than the president, and more about political economy than the board of directors, he couldn’t learn the difference between a fiver that the Government turned out and one that was run off on a hand press in a Halsted Street basement. Got him a job on a paper, but while he knew six different languages and all the facts about the Arctic regions, and the history of dancing from the days of Old Adam down to those of Old Nick, he couldn’t write up a satisfactory account of the Ice-Men’s Ball. Could prove that two and two made four by trigonometry and geometry, but couldn’t learn to keep books; was thick as thieves with all the high-toned poets, but couldn’t write a good, snappy, merchantable street-car ad; knew a thousand diseases that would take a man off before he could blink, but couldn’t sell a thousand-dollar tontine policy; knew the lives of our Presidents as well as if he’d been raised with them, but couldn’t place a set of the Library of the Fathers of the Republic, though they were offered on little easy payments that made them come as easy as borrowing them from a friend. Finally I hit on what seemed to be just the right thing. I figured out that any fellow who had such a heavy stock of information on hand, ought to be able to job it out to good advantage, and so I got him a place teaching. But it seemed that he’d learned so much about the best way of teaching boys, that he told his principal right on the jump that he was doing it all wrong, and that made him sore; and he knew so much about the dead languages, which was what he was hired to teach, that he forgot he was handling live boys, and as he couldn’t tell it all to them in the regular time, he kept them after hours, and that made them sore and put Stan out of a job again. The last I heard of him he was writing articles on Why Young Men Fail, and making a success of it, because failing was the one subject on which he was practical.
I simply mention Stan in passing as an example of the fact that it isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts.
Your affectionate father,
Hat tip to Rad H. for introducing me to this book.
Last updated: December 14, 2015