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DISCIPLINE - William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man and Other Essays (corrected edition) 
The Forgotten Man and Other Essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918).
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It occurs very frequently to a person connected as a teacher with a great seat of learning to meet persons who, having completed a course of study and having spent a few years in active life, are led to make certain reflections upon their academical career. There is a great uniformity in the comments which are thus made, so far as I have heard them, and they enforce upon me certain convictions. I observe that an academical life is led in a community which is to a certain extent closed, isolated, and peculiar. It has a code of its own as well for work as for morals. It forms a peculiar standpoint, and life, as viewed from it, takes on peculiar forms and peculiar colors. It is scarcely necessary to add that the views of life thus obtained are distorted and incorrect.
I should not expect much success if I should undertake to correct those views by description in words. It is only in life itself, that is, by experience, that men correct their errors. They insist on making experience for themselves. They delude themselves with hopes that they are peculiar in their persons and characters, or that their circumstances are peculiar, and so that in some way or other they can perpetrate the old faults and yet escape the old penalties. It is only when life is spent that these delusions are dispelled and then the power and the opportunity to put the acquired wisdom to practice is gone by. Thus the old continually warn and preach and the young continually disregard and suffer.
Although I could not expect better fortune than others if I should thus preach, yet there are some things which, as I have often been led to think, young men in your situation might be brought to understand with great practical advantage, and which, if you did understand them, and act upon them, would save you from the deepest self-reproach and regret which I so often hear older men express; and the present occasion seems a better one than I can otherwise obtain, for presenting those things. I allude to some wider explanations of the meaning and purpose of academical pursuits. I do not mean theories of education about which people dispute, but I mean the purposes which any true education has in view, and the responsibilities it brings with it. It surely is not advisable that men of your age should pursue your education as a mere matter of routine, learning prescribed lessons, performing enforced tasks, resisting, unintelligent, and uninterested. Such an experience on your part would not constitute any true education. It would not involve any development of capability in you. It could only render you dull, fond of shirking, slovenly in your work, and superficial in your attainments. Unless I am greatly mistaken, some counteraction to such a low and unworthy conception of academical life may be secured by showing its relation to real life, and attaching things pursued here to practical and enduring benefits. I have known men to get those benefits without knowing it; and I believe that you would get them better if you got them intelligently, and that you would appreciate them better if you got them consciously.
In the first place, it will be profitable to look at one or two notions in regard to the purpose of education which do not seem to be sound. One is that it is the purpose of education to give special technical skill or dexterity and to fit a man to get a living. We may admit at once that the object of study is to get useful knowledge. It was, indeed, the error of some old systems of academical pursuits that they gave only a special dexterity and that too in such a direction as the making of Greek and Latin verses, which is a mere accomplishment and not a very good one at that. It must be ranged with dancing and fencing; it is not as high as drawing, painting, or music. There is, moreover, a domain in which special technical training is proper. It is the domain of the industrial school, for giving a certain theoretical knowledge of persons who will be engaged for life in the mechanic arts. With this limitation, however, we have at once given to us the bounds which preclude this notion from covering the true conception of an academic career. It does not simply provide technical training for a higher class of arts which require longer preparation. You know that this conception is widely held through our American community, and that it is laid down with great dogmatic severity by persons who sometimes, unfortunately, are in a position to turn their opinions into law. It is one of the great obstacles against which all efforts for higher education amongst us have to contend.
I pass on, however, to another opinion just now much more fashionable and held by people who are, at any rate, much more elegant than the supporters of the view just mentioned, that is, the opinion that what we expect from education is “culture.” Culture is a word which offers us an illustration of the degeneracy of language. If I may define culture, I have no objection to admitting that it is the purpose of education to produce it; but since the word came into fashion, it has been stolen by the dilettanti and made to stand for their own favorite forms and amounts of attainments. Mr. Arnold, the great apostle, if not the discoverer, of culture, tried to analyze it and he found it to consist of sweetness and light. To my mind, that is like saying that coffee is milk and sugar. The stuff of culture is all left out of it. So, in the practice of those who accept this notion, culture comes to represent only an external smoothness and roundness of outline without regard to intrinsic qualities.
We have got so far now as to begin to distinguish different kinds of culture. There is chromo culture, of which we heard much a little while ago, and there is bouffe culture, which is only just invented. If I were in the way of it, I should like to add another class, which might be called sapolio culture, because it consists in putting a high polish on plated ware. There seems great danger lest this kind may come to be the sort aimed at by those who regard culture as the end of education.
A truer idea of culture is that which regards it as equivalent to training, or the result of training, which brings into intelligent activity all the best powers of mind and body. Such a culture is not to be attained by writing essays about it, or by forming ever so clear a literary statement or mental conception of what it is. It is not to be won by wishing for it, or aping the external manifestations of it. We men can get it only by industrious and close application of the powers we want to develop. We are not sure of getting it by reading any number of books. It requires continual application of literary acquisitions to practice and it requires a continual correction of mental conceptions by observation of things as they are. For the sake of distinguishing sharply between the true idea of culture and the false, I have thought it better to call the true culture discipline, a word which perhaps brings out its essential character somewhat better.
Here let me call your attention to one very broad generalization on human life which men continually lose sight of, and of which culture is an illustration. The great and heroic things which strike our imagination are never attainable by direct efforts. This is true of wisdom, glory, fame, virtue, culture, public good, or any other of the great ends which men seek to attain. We cannot reach any of these things by direct effort. They come as the refined result, in a secondary and remote way, of thousands of acts which have another and closer end in view. If a man aims at wisdom directly, he will be very sure to make an affectation of it. He will attain only to a ridiculous profundity in commonplaces. Wisdom is the result of great knowledge, experience, and observation, after they have all been sifted and refined down into sober caution, trained judgment, skill in adjusting means to ends.
In like manner, one who aims at glory or fame directly will win only that wretched caricature which we call notoriety. Glory and fame, so far as they are desirable things, are remote results which come of themselves at the end of long and repeated and able exertions.
The same holds true of the public good or the “cause,” or whatever else we ought to call that end which fires the zeal of philanthropists and martyrs. When this is pursued directly as an immediate good, there arise extravagances, fanaticisms, and aberrations of all kinds. Strong actions and reactions take place in social life, but not orderly growth and gain. The first impression no doubt is that of noble zeal and self-sacrifice, but this is not the sort of work by which society gains. The progress of society is nothing but the slow and far remote result of steady, laborious, painstaking growth of individuals. The man who makes the most of himself and does his best in his sphere is doing far more for the public good than the philanthropist who runs about with a scheme which would set the world straight if only everybody would adopt it.
This view cuts down a great deal of the heroism which fills such a large part of our poetry, but it brings us, I think, several very encouraging reflections. The first is that one does not need to be a hero to be of some importance in the world. Heroes are gone by. We want now a good supply of efficient workaday men, to stand each in his place and do good work. The second reflection to which we are led is that we do not need to be straining our eyes continually to the horizon to see where we are coming out, or, in other words, we do not need to trouble ourselves with grand theories and purposes. The determination to do just what lies next before us is enough. The great results will all come of themselves and take care of themselves. We may spare ourselves all grand emotions and heroics, because the more simply and directly we take the business of life, the better will be the result. The third inference which seems to be worth mentioning is that we come to understand the value of trifles.
All that I have said here about wisdom, fame, glory, “public good,” as ends to be aimed at, holds good also of culture. It becomes a sham and affectation when we make it an immediate end, and comes in its true form only as a remote and refined result of long labor and discipline.
Before I speak of it, however, in its direct relation to education, let me introduce one other observation on the doctrine I have stated that we cannot aim at the great results directly. That is this: the motive to all immediate efforts is either self-interest or the desire to gratify one's tastes and natural tendencies. I say that all the grand results which make up what we call social progress are the results of millions of efforts on the part of millions of people, and that the motive to each effort in the heart of the man who made it was the gratification of a need or a tendency of his nature. I know that some may consider this a selfish doctrine, eliminating all self-sacrifice and martyr or missionary spirit, but to me it is a pleasure to observe that we are not at war with ourselves, and that the intelligent pursuit of our best good as individuals is the surest means to the good of society. Moreover, do you imagine that if you set out to make the most of yourself in any position in which you are placed, that you will have no chance for self-sacrifice, and no opportunity of martyrdom offered you? Do you think that a man who employs thoroughly all the means he possesses to make his one unit of humanity as perfect as possible, can do so without at every moment giving and receiving with the other units about him? Do you think that he can go on far without finding himself stopped by the question whether his comrades are going in the same direction or not? Will he not certainly find himself forced to stand against a tide which is flowing in the other direction? It will certainly be so. The real martyrs have always been the men who were forced to go one way while the rest of the community in which they lived were going another, and they were swept down by the tide. I promise you that if you pursue what is good for yourself, you need not take care for the good of society; I warn you that if you pursue what is good, you will find yourself limited by the stupidity, ignorance, and folly of the society in which you live; and I promise you also that if you hold on your way through the crowd or try to make them go with you, you will have ample experience of self-sacrifice and as much martyrdom as you care for.
Now, if I have not led you too deep into social philosophy, let us turn again to culture. We find that culture comes from thought, study, observation, literary and scientific activity, and we find that men practice these for gain, for professional success, for immediate pleasure, or to gratify their tastes. The great motive of interest provides the energy and this culture is but a secondary result. It is a significant fact to observe that when the motive of interest is removed, culture becomes flaccid and falls into dilletantism.
I think that we have gained a standpoint now from which we can study undergraduate life and make observations on it which have even scientific value. During an undergraduate career, the motive of interest in each successive step is wanting. There is no immediate object of pleasure or gain in the lesson to be learned next. Only exceptionally is it true that the learning of the lesson will gratify a taste or fill a desire. The university honors are only artificial means of arousing the same great motive, which is in the social body what gravitation is in physics. The penalties which are here to be dreaded are but imitations of life's penalties. I think that many who have undertaken to give advice and rebuke and warning to young men in a state of pupilage have failed because they have not fully analyzed or correctly grasped this fact, that the academical world is a little community by itself in which the great natural forces which bind older men to sobriety and wisdom act only imperfectly. Life is far less interesting when the successive steps are taken under compulsion or for a good which is remote and only known by hearsay, than it is when every step is taken for an immediate profit. I doubt very much whether the hope of culture or self-sacrificing zeal for the public good would make older men toil in lawyer's offices and counting-houses, unless there were such immediate rewards as wealth and professional success. In real life it is true that men must do very many things which are disagreeable and which they do not want to do, but there too the disagreeable things are made easier to bear. The troubles of academical life seem to be arbitrary troubles, inflicted by device of foolish or malicious men. Troubles of that kind always rouse men to anger and rankle in their hearts. But there is no railing against those ills of life which are inherent in the constitution of things. A man who rails at those is laughed at. So the man just emancipated from academical life finds himself freed from conventional rules but subjected to penalties for idleness and extravagance and folly infinitely heavier than any he has been accustomed to, and inflicted without warning or mercy or respite. On the other hand, he finds that life presents opportunities and attractions for him to work, where work has a zest about it which comes from contact with living things. His academical weapons and armor are stiff and awkward at first and he may very probably come to despise them, but longer experience will show that his education, if it was good, gave him rather the power to use any weapons than special skill in the use of particular ones. Special technical skill always tends to routine. Although it is an advantage in itself, it may under circumstances become a limitation. The only true conception of a “liberal” education is that it gives a broad discipline to the whole man, which uses routine without being conquered by it and can change its direction and application when occasion requires.
This brings me then to speak of the real scope and advantage of a disciplinary education. A man who has enjoyed such an education has simply had his natural powers developed and reduced to rule, and he has gained for himself an intelligent control of them. Before an academical audience it is not necessary for me to stop to clear away the popular notions about untutored powers and self-made men. It is enough to say that the “self-made” man is, by the definition, the first bungling essay of a bad workman. An undeveloped human mind is simply a bundle of possibilities. It may come to much or little. If it is highly trained by years of patient exercise, judiciously imposed, it becomes capable of strict and methodical action. It may be turned to any one of a hundred tasks which offer themselves to us men here on earth. It may have gained this discipline in one particular science or another, and it may have special technical acquaintance with one more than another. Such will almost surely be the case, but there is not a more mistaken, one-sided, and mischievous controversy than that about the science which should be made the basis of education. Every science has, for disciplinary purposes, its advantages and its limitations. The man who is trained on chemistry will become a strict analyst and will break up heterogeneous compounds of all kinds, but he will be likely also to rest content with this destructive work and to leave the positive work of construction or synthesis to others. The man who is trained on history will be quick to discern continuity of force or law under different phases, but he will be content with broad phases and heterogeneous combinations such as history offers, and will not be a strict analyst. The man who is trained on mathematics will have great power of grasping purely conceptional relations, or abstract ideas, which are, however, most sharply defined; but he will be likely to fasten upon a subordinate factor in some other kind of problem, especially if that factor admits of more complete abstraction than any of the others. The man who is trained on the science of language approaches the continuity and development of history with a guiding thread in his hand, and his comparisons, furnishing stepping-stones now on the right and now on the left, lead him on in a course where induction and deduction go so close together that they can hardly be separated; but the study of language again always threatens to degenerate into a cram of grammatical niceties and a fastidiousness about expression, under which the contents are forgotten. Now, in individual affairs, family, social, and political affairs, all these powers of mind find occasion for exercise. They are needed in business, in professions, in technical pursuits; and the man best fitted for the demands of life would be the man whose powers of mind of all these diverse orders and kinds had all been harmoniously developed. How shallow then is the idea that education is meant to give or can give a mass of monopolized information, and how important it is that the student should understand what he may expect and what he may not expect from his education. As your education goes on, you ought to gain in your power of observation. Natural incidents, political occurrences, social events, ought to present to you new illustrations of general principles with which your studies have made you familiar. You ought to gain in power to analyze and compare, so that all the fallacies which consist in presenting things as like, which are not like, should not be able to befog your reason. You ought to become able to recognize and test a generalization, and to distinguish between true generalizations and dogmas on the one hand, or commonplaces on another, or whimsical speculations on another. You ought to know when you are dealing with a true law which you may follow to the uttermost; when you have only a general truth; when you have an hypothetical theory; when you have a possible conjecture; and when you have only an ingenious assumption. These are most important distinctions on either side. Some people are affected by a notion, fashionable just now, that it belongs to culture never to go too far. Mr. Brook, in “Middlemarch,” you remember, is a type of that culture. He believed in things up to a certain point and was always afraid of going too far. We have a good many aspirants after culture nowadays whose capital consists in a superficial literary tradition and the same kind of terror of going too far. They would put a saving clause in the multiplication table, and make reservations in the rule of three. On the other hand, we have those who can never express anything to which they are inclined to assent without gushing. A simple opinion must be set forth in a torrent fit to enforce a great scientific truth. One is just as much the sign of an imperfect training as the other, and you meet with both, as my description shows, in persons who pride themselves on their culture. I will not deny that they are cultivated; I only say that they are not well disciplined, that is, not well educated.
Your education, if it is disciplinary, ought also to teach you the value of clear thinking, that is, of exact definitions, clear propositions, well-considered opinions. What a flood of loose rhetoric, distorted fact, and unclear thinking is poured out upon us whenever a difficult question falls into popular discussion! You cannot find that people who assume to take part in the discussion have a clear definition in their minds of even what they conceive the main terms in the discussion to mean. They do not seem able to make a proposition which will bear handling so as to see what it is, and whether it is true or not. They cannot analyze even such facts as they have collected, and hence cannot draw inferences which are sound. It needs but little discussion of any great political or social question to show instances of this, and to show the immense importance of having in the community men of trained and disciplined intellects, who can think with some clearness and resist plain confusion of terms and thought. For instance, I saw the other day a long argument on an important public topic which turned upon the assertion and belief on the part of the writer that a mathematical ratio and a subjective opinion were things of the same nature and value. Perhaps, when he was at school, his father thought there was no use in studying algebra and geometry. It would not make so much difference if he would not now meddle with things for which he did not prepare himself, but it is this kind of person who is the pest of every science, traversing it with his whims and speculations; and perhaps I feel the more strongly the importance of this point because the political, economic, and social sciences suffer from the want of high discipline more than any others.
I ought not to pass without mention here the mischief which is done in every science by its undisciplined advocates who, while admitted to its inner circle, distract its progress and throw it into confusion by neglect of strict principles, by incorrect analyses or classifications, or by flinching in the face of fallacies. They render the ranks unsteady and delay the march, and the reason is because they have never had rigorous discipline either before or since they enlisted.
If your education is disciplinary, it ought also to teach you how to organize. I add this point especially because I esteem it important and it is rarely noticed. It is really a high grade of discipline which enables men to organize voluntarily. If men begin to study and think, they move away from tradition and authority. The first effect is to break up and dissolve their inherited and traditional opinions as to religion, politics, and society. This is a necessary process of transition from formal and traditional dogma to intelligent conviction. It applies to all the notions of religion, as has often been noticed, but it applies none the less to politics and to one's notions of life. The commonplaces of patriotism, the watchwords of parties and tradition, the glib and well-worn phrases and terms have to be analyzed again, and under the process much of their dignity and sanctity evaporates. So too one's views of life, of the meaning of social phenomena, and of the general rules for men to pursue with each other, undergo a recasting. Now during this process, men diverge and break up. They do not agree. They differ by less and more, and also by the various recombinations of the factors which they make. Pride, vanity, and self-seeking come in to increase this divergence, it being regarded as a sign of independence of thought.
It is not too much to say that so long as this divergence exists, it is a sign of a low and imperfect development of science. If pride and vanity intermingle, they show that discipline has not yet done its perfect work. It is only on a higher stage of culture or discipline that self is so overborne in zeal for the scientific good that opinions converge and organization becomes possible. But you are well aware that without organization we men can accomplish very little. It is not the freedom of the barbarian who would rather live alone than undergo the inevitable coercion of the neighborhood of others that we want. We want only free and voluntary coordination, but it belongs to discipline itself to teach us that we must have coördination in order to attain to any high form of good.
I have now tried to show you the scope, advantages, and needs of a disciplinary education. I have one remark more to make in this connection. A man with a well-disciplined mind possesses a tool which he can use for any purpose which he needs to serve. I do not consider it an important question by the study of what sciences he shall get this discipline, for, if he gets it, the acquisition of information in any new department of learning will be easy for him, and he will be strong, alert, and well equipped for any exigency of life.
Before quitting the subject, I desire to point out its relation to one other matter, that is, to morals, or manners. It is a common opinion that the higher man attains, the freer he becomes. A moment's reflection will show that this is not true — but rather quite the contrary. The rowdy has far less restraints to consider than the gentleman. “Noblesse oblige” was perverted in its application, perhaps, before the Revolution, but it contains a sound principle and a great truth. The higher you go in social attainments, the greater will be the restraints upon you. The gait, the voice, the manner, the rough independence, of one order of men is unbecoming in another. Education above all brings this responsibility. Discipline in manners and morals does not belong to the specific matter of education, but it follows of itself on true education. The educated man must work by himself without any overseer over him. He finds his compulsion in himself and it holds him to his task longer and closer than any external compulsion.
This responsibility to self we call honor, and it is one of the highest fruits of discipline when discipline, having wrought through intellect, has reached character. Honor falls under the rule which I mentioned early in this lecture. You cannot reach it because you want it. You cannot reach it by direct effort. It cannot be taught to you as a literary theory. True honor can only grow in men by the long practice of conduct which is good and noble under motives which are pure. We laugh at the artificial honor of the Middle Ages and despise that of the dueling code, but let us not throw away the kernel with the shell. Honor is a tribunal within one's self whose code is simply the best truth one knows. There are no advocates, no witnesses, and no technicalities. To feel one's self condemned by that tribunal is to feel at discord with one's self and to sustain a wound which rankles longer and stings more deeply than any wound in the body. It is the highest achievement of educational discipline to produce this sense of honor in minds of young men, which gives them a guide in the midst of temptation and at a time when all codes and standards seem to be matter of opinion. I have said some things about lack of discipline in thought and discussion, but that is nothing compared with the lack of discipline in conduct which you see in a man who has never known what honor is, whose whole moral constitution is so formless and flabby that it can perform none of its functions, and who is continually seeking some special plea, or sophistry, or deceptive device for paying homage to the right while he does the wrong. Education ought to act against all this and in favor of a high code of honor, not simply the education of schools and academies, but that together with the education of home and family. Our great educational institutions ought to have an atmosphere of their own and impose traditions of their own, for the power which controls in the academic community is not the voice of authority but the voice of academic public opinion. That might root out falsehood and violence and meanness of every kind, which no penalties of those in authority could ever reach; and I submit that such a public opinion would be becoming in a body of young men of good home advantages and the best educational opportunities the country affords. Call it high training, or culture, or discipline, or high breeding, or what you will, it is only the sense of what we owe to ourselves, and it is greater and greater according to our opportunities.