Commencement Address At William Smith College
I CANNOT begin the formal paper that I have prepared let me say, to calm any alarms that may be arising, that the paper will be very brief without expressing my deep sense of the honor and privilege of being asked to be here on this first Commencement of William Smith College; and I would like just to, in the way of an introduction, make a few preliminary remarks.
I have no doubt there has been impressed upon you the importance of this occasion that you are now passing from conditions in which regularity of task, thoroughness of work, definiteness of aim have been, as it were, imposed upon you by others, by those who have had the conduct of your education. Now you are passing out into life where these rules must be self-imposed.
I have no doubt, again, that your most excellent staff of teachers here has impressed upon you that, after all, real mental culture, like every other good, must be self-won. Teachers the best of teachers they have for you and me their undoubted worthy place; but I should say that at the great banquet of culture, mental culture the most that the best teacher can do is to show you how to use your knife and fork and spoon; they cannot eat your dinner for you. You must bear that in mind. In other words, you must do your own thinking. Any teacher who would try to relieve you of that I think we might describe such a teacher as Disraeli did one of his bitter opponents in the House of Parliament. Some one said, "You must admit he is a good man." "Then," said Disraeli, "he is a good man in the very worst sense of the word." And the teacher who would try to relieve you, I say, of the duty and it is a difficult duty of doing your own thinking, he may be a good teacher, but it is in the very worst sense of the word.
Just one other caution and I have no doubt it has been impressed upon you that you and I will get out of books largely just the interest on the capital of direct attention and thinking that we put into the books. You know Emerson has said, "To be a good reader you must be an inventor." It is the same idea. Of course, there are good books and poor books just as there are good roads and poor roads; but did you ever find a road that would do your walking for you? No. If you go anywhere and get anywhere, no matter how good the road is, you must do your own walking; and no matter how good the books or the literature that you consult, unless you peruse them with honest energy of attention, with your own powers of mind, you will get very little out of them. Old Hobbs said, "Of course, if I had read as many books as my opponents I would have known as little." Not the number of books that we read, but the amount of direct attention and definite mental effort that we put into the reading is of prime importance. That is just what John Locke meant, I think, when he said: "The true end of education is not to store the mind with knowledge" simply making our mind a kind of granary of wise saws and instances and conclusions of other people's thinking —"the great end of education is not so much to store the mind with knowledge as to give activity and vigor to its powers."
I suppose I ought to feel a little like the old lecturer who found himself talking on the subject of war when he discovered at last that Hannibal and his generals were there at the same time; but I know I am speaking in the line of the conviction and of the efforts of the teachers that it has been your privilege to be under.
Today, I wish to present to you in a very familiar way some thoughts that I am sure if we grasp them and especially you, as the types and symbols of educated womanhood will undoubtedly be for your moral betterment and for your success in the nobler sense in life. Briefly, I might call these remarks some considerations on the import and the power of womanhood. Now, whether we take the early chapters of Genesis as literal history or whether we take them as inspired allegory, they emphasize the same truth woman made after man. The finer succeeds the ruder. The law of creative energy is advance, not retrogression. Robert Burns writes, himself, we may say, the Scriptural exegete as well as a poet, in the lines: "First nature tried her practice hand on man and then she made the lassies, O."
But not only a great poet like Burns, but I remember reading how this same thought had taken possession of a young girl out in Lander, Wyoming. She was in her teens. She was writing an essay on man, and she said: "It is said that men are more logical than women. I am not sure about that," she writes, " but of one thing I am sure: they are much more zoological than women." And she also said: "It is claimed that both men and women are sprung from monkeys. Of one thing I am sure: that the women have sprung much the farthest."
A gentle, pure-minded, rich-hearted womanhood is the very flower and the consummation of humanity. The plan of Providence in the progress of the race we plainly see gives to man the ruder tasks to do, the sterner labors of enterprise and of achievement, while to woman falls, as her chief charge, the noble ministry of refinement, the enhancement of the gentleness and the grace of life. If the ideal of womanhood is responsible for these things by assignment of very nature, how greatly is that responsibility increased in your case by the advantages of training and culture that have been yours! Through all your years the " tender grace of your guarded lives" has been the chief care and joy and pride of parents and teachers. To you much has been given; from you much is to be required. You stand for the higher good; to be exemplars of what is finest and what is best in conduct and in character at all times. The very fact, however, that you are, and that you have been, for the most part, shielded from the ruder demands and tasks of life and livelihood makes you, unless you are perpetually on your guard, more readily accessible than your brothers to the temptation to waste life; to let it sink to a careless, aimless level. Have a purpose in life. Life is real, life is earnest for you just as for the warrior or the statesman or the man of professional or commercial affairs. Remember that for all these you in your glory of womanhood remain, and must remain, the standard of what they hold fairest, highest and best. Good women must embody the finer, the choicer things of moral good and moral beauty if their very tradition is not to perish from the earth. What a sacred charge! What a sense of noble stewardship should it inspire you with. The Reverend Williams, who for so long a time was missionary among the Indians at Green Bay, Wisconsin I remember reading the account where on one occasion he was asked to do something that seemed off color to a high-minded man like that, and he replied: "No, I cannot so act; I cannot so live; I stand for a royal house." To his dying day he believed he was the Dauphin, that he was the royal heir to the throne of France; and he never forgot it. No matter what he was engaged in stooping to tie a moccasin, doing any of the common labors he carried with him that great thought that he stood for a royal house. So should you with like loyalty of spirit and with unquestioned claim of lineage say: "I cannot so live; it is not for me. I cannot be careless or spiteful or selfish; I cannot be idle, ungrateful, unforgiving, unkind. I stand for the royal house of womanhood." Not only the charm and the grace of life, but, in reality, its finer power the power that makes for righteousness in moulding men and common life to finer issues, is largely, very largely, in your keeping. Next to Omnipotence itself, there is no influence on earth so effective for the higher goodness as that of a noble and approved womanhood. The meanest man, if there be any recoverable and inflammable spark in the ashes of his moral nature, cannot but feel within him a sense of awe and of obligation to better things when confronted by the presence of a noble-hearted, high-minded woman. All the old remonstrances of conscience renew themselves and challenge him with a new imperativeness that he henceforth be a better man. With you, in a sense, more than with men, lies the power of so living and so acting as to make all scepticism and debate regarding the possibility of realizing the Kingdom of God on earth a manifest absurdity.
Now, do not think, let me counsel you, because your sphere is relatively secluded and inconspicuous, that because the outer forms and circumstances of your activities are not obtrusive and spectacular, that, therefore, they are the less significant and effective. Not so. In the moral sphere the greatness, the dignity, the worth of lives and of duties are not measured by the scale of the transactions or by the volume of their report, but by the quality of spirit and of motive inspiring them. It is the motive which determines the real moral magnitude of what you plan and pursue and achieve. Now, no matter how circumscribed your sphere, no matter how lowly the duties, if you, in a great spirit enter into them with noble motives of gentle truth and unselfish kindness, you can thereby banish all sense of littleness and drudgery and commonplace; you can transfigure any set of circumstances and make them spacious and dignified and noble. As a great writer has finely said: " Woman may by simply desiring and standing for the nobler good and the true, though she see it but in a glass darkly and cannot for the time, it may be, achieve all that she deems highest and the best, still, she is making a part of the divine power against evil, widening the skirts of life, and making the struggle with the darkness narrower." Assuredly, to be good and to do good is alike the duty of man as well as woman; but to make all goodness beautiful, to enhance its attractiveness and power by the charm of grace and gentleness, this is the ideal and the prerogative of womanhood.
Youth with its enchantments is yours now, but age must come. To the eye of sense, indeed, age brings change and failing powers and decay of comeliness; but to one who has cherished steadily a noble ideal of womanhood and striven to realize its import and its power, age means not decline; age means not senility; age means not "life blinking" to use Coleridge's expression "life blinking through the watery eyes of superannuation"; but it means the ripening of richer beauties in the soul and rarer attractiveness of personality.
Let me quote, as I close, in witness of this last thought, the words of a wise and genial old traveller. He says: "I have lived a long life; I have travelled the wide world over; and but one thing have I found more charming than a lovely young woman, and that is a lovely old one."
( Originally Published 1914 )
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