How to Get a Real Education | Russell H. Conwell

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Today’s reading was edited and adapted from Every Man His Own University by Russell H. Conwell, published in 1917.

A distinct university walks about under each person’s hat. The only men and women who achieve success in the other universities of the world, and in the larger university of life, are those who have first taken graduate courses and post-graduate courses in the university under their hat. It is in this traveling university that observation furnishes a daily change in the curriculum. Books are not the original sources of power. It is observation (which may bring to us wide experiences, deep thinking, fine feeling, and the ability to act for oneself) that is the true dynamo of power.

Without observation, literature and meditation are shower and sunshine upon unbroken soil. The only true schools and colleges are those which persuade the students under their charge to see more perfectly what they are looking at, to find what they should have been unable to observe had it not been for their school instruction.

You can’t make a good arrow from a pig’s tail, and you can seldom get a worthwhile man or woman out of one who has gone through the early part of their life without having learned to be alert when listening and seeing. How to observe should be the motto, not only in the beginning of our life, but throughout our career.

Why do the majority of us go through life seeing nothing of the millions of marvelous truths and facts, while only a few keep their eyes and ears wide open, and every day are busy in piling up what they have observed! The loss of our instincts seems to be the price we pay today for the few minor acquisitions we get from school and college. We set aside our brains to make room for our learning.

The individual who assiduously cultivates their powers of observation (and thus gains daily from their experiences the ability to see farther and clearer everything in life that is worth seeing) has given themselves a skill that is much more important than the skills of all the schools and colleges without it. The greatest textbooks of the greatest universities are only the records of the observations of some close observer whose better powers of seeing things were acquired mainly while they were taking courses in that university under their hat.

The intellect is both telescope and microscope. If it is rightly used, it shall observe thousands of things which are too minute and too distant for those who with eyes and ears neither see nor hear. The intellect can be made to look far beyond the range of what people ordinarily see; but colleges cannot alone confer this power — it is the reward of self-culture; each must acquire it for themselves; and perhaps this is why the power of observing deeply and widely is so much oftener found in those men and women who have never crossed the threshold of any college but the University of Hard Knocks.

When we look back over our life and reflect on how many things we might have seen and heard had we trained our powers of observation, we seem to have climbed little and spent most of our time on plateaus, while our achievements seem little better than scratches upon black marble.

Humankind has a greater esteem for the degrees conferred by the University of Observation and Experience than for all the other degrees of all other Universities in the world. The lives of the men and women who have been worthwhile keep reminding us how vastly more important is this education from ceaseless observation than all the mere learning from academic courses.

It takes ten pounds of the stuff gotten from observation and experience to carry one pound of school learning wisely. The thinking person will never ask you what college you have gone through, but what college has gone through you; and the ability and habit of observing deeply and broadly is the preparation we all need that the college may go through us.

Confucius of China, Kitaro of Japan, Goethe of Germany, Arnold of England, Lincoln and Edison of America, stand where they stand today in thought and action solely because they had, in a masterly way, educated their power of minute attention. In building up a huge business and amassing enormous fortunes, such titans as Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford showed us how vitally important to all material success is steadfast attendance at the school of attention.

Nor has greatness from careful observation and large experience distinguished those of action alone. Many of the great men and women of philosophy, science, and literature are where they are today in the esteem of the public, and in their service to humanity, because they were the keenest in their powers of observation.

There is no pursuit today that demands from us more presence of mind and more self-direction, than the business of getting a real education. Those who are today conducting what we are foolish enough to call education are often both blind and deaf to all that efficient education implies. To seek direction from them is like asking the road from a blind man. Often their highest conception of education is to make sharp blades of the intellects for what they call (quote) “getting along in the world.”

Many of the instructors in schools and colleges are merely specialists, mainly interested in their specialties, and using the class-room as a stepping-stone to further their own purposes. Extreme specializing is narrowing — it does to the specialist what blinkers do to the horse’s eyes. Excessive pursuit of single objects of thought atrophies many faculties and is contrary to a true education, which is the complete development and discipline of all the faculties.

That is why so many original and thinking men and women are so hostile to present-day schools, and accuse them of mainly being “places that polish pebbles and dim diamonds,” as well as so many other harsh and cutting criticisms. Learning seems to be the chief occupation of those who profess to educate. Learning for its own sake plays a very insignificant part, and seems at best only what the carpenter’s kit is to the carpenter — a means to an end. Like all other lumber, its importance depends entirely upon what is built out of it.

Today’s universities are not educating institutions, but merely seats-of-learning; and often they are very narrow seats, difficult for self-respecting people to stiffen their backs enough to sit upon.

It’s the study (not the studies) that educates. Studies make learned folk, but often not wise ones, such as a real education always makes. Not all learned heads are sense-boxes; the very learned professional may be a very learned fool. Solomon made a book of proverbs, but a book of proverbs never made Solomon. Sense without learning is a thousand times superior to learning without sense; and in the stately edifice of life, school and college are only the basement walls. Wisdom and learning are not necessary companions.

The great things that have contributed to the betterment of the world have been done by men and women who have been loyal to their individuality and true to their instincts — never by the merely learned. Too often do we find these little learned people “displaying themselves offensively and ridiculously in the haunts of politicians and power brokers,” and making the angels weep by their strutting and their swelling.

Knowing is only a small part of life; doing is nearly all of life; and the best done is done through education — the education which is the product of what is inborn, as well as of what is acquired; the education which enables men and women to perceive and to cherish the beautiful in art, in literature, in morals, and in nature.

While true education busies itself with acquirements, it is even more concerned that the instincts and individuality (which are of supreme importance) shall attain all that it is possible for them to have. Those original and thinking men and women, who have said so many things in condemnation of make-believe education and mere learning, boldly and lovingly acclaim the benefits of a true education: that is: the cultivation of the soul, the nobility of character, and the promotion of a healthy civilization.

They claim that education of this sort simplifies life; facilitates self-conquest; intensifies individuality; unfolds and uplifts manhood and womanhood; breeds habits of thinking, feeling, and doing; that it emancipates, humbles, and civilizes; searches for truth, loves the beautiful, desires the good, and does the best.

I have always believed that just this kind of education is the heritage of every American, and that the loss of such an education is the greatest calamity that can befall any one.

The test of any system of education is the kind of person it turns out. And it is wisdom to measure the system by those it fails to educate rather than by those it does educate — by its tortoises rather than by its hares. Real educators are always vastly more concerned with the divinity than with the depravity of those entrusted to them. They believe firmly that the instincts and the individuality within each of us are the priceless part of all our spiritual equipment — that anything we may acquire toward this end which fortifies these spiritual treasures is cheap — even if bought by an entire life’s service; that any acquirement that modifies these or destroys them is a triple curse and a dire menace to humanity, for individuality is the genius of the soul, and of America.

Any system of education which makes light of the cultivation of the instincts, any system of education which is blinded to all that is implied in an educated individuality — these are the only systems with which I have any quarrel. Well-made, rather than well-filled, heads are what is needed and should be demanded, without which it is impossible for any one of us to have the right conception of life, or to attain all that we were intended to be or to do. To guard and develop the instincts of the child, to preserve and fortify their individuality, is to give them sword and shield for the battle of life.

Our Creator intends each individual to be an individual, or this should not have been so deep-rooted in us all. To be just like everyone else is to be predestined for inferiority and failure. To do our duty consistently and steadfastly demands that all our inherent qualities shall first of all be educated. That which best becomes you is that which your individuality intended you to be — those who play the game of life with the cards their individuality gives them are always successful in making a life and a living.

Nature has made a world for each separate individual, and within that world we must live, if we wish to live effectually. We must first of all be ourselves, must see to it that (whatever else is neglected) the plants that God has put into the individual shall be cultivated — the crop may not be large, but we are accountable for the cultivation, not for the crop. We must be ourselves, and do our own work.

There can be no greater wisdom and no greater service than that of helping another so that they may duly live in that special world which Nature has created for them. The most insignificant person can be complete if they are entirely true to their instincts and to their individual character.

If we are incomplete, it is because we are living by some other method. We have all been stamped with individuality, but many seem to do their utmost to soak off the stamp. How different should the life of all the world be if each one of us only kept within our frame, and would not permit anyone to make us part of a picture for which our personality never intended us.

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