WHAT IS YOUR CULTURE TO ME
WHAT IS YOUR CULTURE TO ME
CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER
Delivered before the Alumni of Hamilton College Clinton N. Y.
Wednesday June 26 1872
Twenty-one years ago in this house I heard a voice calling me to ascend
the platform and there to stand and deliver. The voice was the voice of
President North; the language was an excellent imitation of that used by
Cicero and Julius Caesar. I remember the flattering invitation--it is
the classic tag that clings to the graduate long after he has forgotten
the gender of the nouns that end in 'um--orator proximus' the grateful
voice said 'ascendat videlicet' and so forth. To be proclaimed an
orator and an ascending orator in such a sonorous tongue in the face
of a world waiting for orators stirred one's blood like the herald's
trumpet when the lists are thrown open. Alas! for most of us who
crowded so eagerly into the arena it was the last appearance as orators
on any stage.
The facility of the world for swallowing up orators and company after
company of educated young men has been remarked. But it is almost
incredible to me now that the class of 1851 with its classic sympathies
and its many revolutionary ideas disappeared in the flood of the world
so soon and so silently causing scarcely a ripple in the smoothly
flowing stream. I suppose the phenomenon has been repeated for twenty
years. Do the young gentlemen at Hamilton I wonder still carry on
their ordinary conversation in the Latin tongue and their familiar
vacation correspondence in the language of Aristophanes? I hope so.
I hope they are more proficient in such exercises than the young
gentlemen of twenty years ago were for I have still great faith in a
culture that is so far from any sordid aspirations as to approach the
ideal; although the young graduate is not long in learning that there is
an indifference in the public mind with regard to the first aorist that
amounts nearly to apathy and that millions of his fellow-creatures will
probably live and die without the consolations of the second aorist.
It is a melancholy fact that after a thousand years of missionary
effort the vast majority of civilized men do not know that gerunds are
found only in the singular number.
I confess that this failure of the annual graduating class to make its
expected impression on the world has its pathetic side. Youth is
credulous--as it always ought to be--and full of hope--else the world
were dead already--and the graduate steps out into life with an ingenuous
self-confidence in his resources. It is to him an event this turning-
point in the career of what he feels to be an important and immortal
being. His entrance is public and with some dignity of display. For a
day the world stops to see it; the newspapers spread abroad a report of
it and the modest scholar feels that the eyes of mankind are fixed on
him in expectation and desire. Though modest he is not insensible to
the responsibility of his position. He has only packed away in his mind
the wisdom of the ages and he does not intend to be stingy about
communicating it to the world which is awaiting his graduation. Fresh
from the communion with great thoughts in great literatures he is in
haste to give mankind the benefit of them and lead it on into new
enthusiasm and new conquests.
The world however is not very much excited. The birth of a child is in
itself marvelous but it is so common. Over and over again for hundreds
of years these young gentlemen have been coming forward with their
specimens of learning tied up in neat little parcels all ready to
administer and warranted to be of the purest materials. The world is
not unkind it is not even indifferent but it must be confessed that it
does not act any longer as if it expected to be enlightened. It is
generally so busy that it does not even ask the young gentlemen what they
can do but leaves them standing with their little parcels wondering
when the person will pass by who requires one of them and when there
will happen a little opening in the procession into which they can fall.
They expected that way would be made for them with shouts of welcome but
they find themselves before long struggling to get even a standing-place
in the crowd--it is only kings and the nobility and those fortunates
who dwell in the tropics where bread grows on trees and clothing is
unnecessary who have reserved seats in this world.
To the majority of men I fancy that literature is very much the same that
history is; and history is presented as a museum of antiquities and
curiosities classified arranged and labeled. One may walk through it
as he does through the Hotel de Cluny; he feels that he ought to be
interested in it but it is very tiresome. Learning is regarded in like
manner as an accumulation of literature gathered into great storehouses
called libraries--the thought of which excites great respect in most
minds but is ineffably tedious. Year after year and age after age it
accumulates--this evidence and monument of intellectual activity--piling
itself up in vast collections which it needs a lifetime even to
catalogue and through which the uncultured walk as the idle do through
the British Museum with no very strong indignation against Omar who
burned the library at Alexandria.
To the popular mind this vast accumulation of learning in libraries
or in brains that do not visibly apply it is much the same thing.
The business of the scholar appears to be this sort of accumulation;
and the young student who comes to the world with a little portion of
this treasure dug out of some classic tomb or mediaeval museum is
received with little more enthusiasm than is the miraculous handkerchief
of St. Veronica by the crowd of Protestants to whom it is exhibited on
Holy Week in St. Peter's. The historian must make his museum live again;
the scholar must vivify his learning with a present purpose.
It is unnecessary for me to say that all this is only from the
unsympathetic and worldly side. I should think myself a criminal if I
said anything to chill the enthusiasm of the young scholar or to dash
with any skepticism his longing and his hope. He has chosen the highest.
His beautiful faith and his aspiration are the light of life. Without
his fresh enthusiasm and his gallant devotion to learning to art to
culture the world would be dreary enough. Through him comes the ever-
springing inspiration in affairs. Baffled at every turn and driven
defeated from a hundred fields he carries victory in himself. He
belongs to a great and immortal army. Let him not be discouraged at his
apparent little influence even though every sally of every young life
may seem like a forlorn hope. No man can see the whole of the battle.
It must needs be that regiment after regiment trained accomplished
gay and high with hope shall be sent into the field marching on into
the smoke into the fire and be swept away. The battle swallows them
one after the other and the foe is yet unyielding and the ever-
remorseless trumpet calls for more and more. But not in vain for some
day and every day along the line there is a cry "They fly! they fly!"
and the whole army advances and the flag is planted on an ancient
fortress where it never waved before. And even if you never see this