A Celebration of Women Writers

"Culture–Its Fruit and its Price." by Mrs. May Wright Sewall (1844-1920).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 771-775.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 771] 

CULTURE–ITS FRUIT AND ITS PRICE.

By MRS. MAY WRIGHT SEWALL.

MRS. MAY WRIGHT SEWALL.
Every time has its catch words, its popular phrases indicative of the caprice, the motive, the opinion or the aspiration which rules the passing hour.

In the verbal currency of our day perhaps no other word experiences more frequent or more astonishing fluctuations than the word culture. As young people are certain to infer the definition of terms from their use, it is not to be wondered at that, through its numerous and contradictory applications, the meaning of culture is in many youthful minds vague and nebulous.

Culture, when applied to men, is often used as a synonym for learning; when ascribed to women it is frequently employed as an equivalent for accomplishment. Thus one may, within the same hour, have culture predicated of a distinguished linguist and of a noted æsthete, of one woman who paints china and velvet and of another who does Kensington embroidery; of one who reads French, of another who speaks German, and of a third who sings Italian; and it is daily asserted with lavish impartiality of companies of women who in clubs and classes are continuing an education which in their youth and in its proper season suffered an untimely abridgement.

This undiscriminating use of the word has debased its originally noble significance, and it has come to suggest to the inquiring and critical mind a tendency to dabble, a dilettant habit, and superficial acquirements in superfluous departments of study.

This misuse of the word has been followed by a misunderstanding of the substance which it rightly names, and it is the fashion of the day in certain circles to scoff at culture, to belittle it by making it take on a provincial air through limiting it to a single locality, and playing that Boston is its habitat; to degrade it by a ridiculous orthography and an affected pronunciation; sneeringly to attribute it to fops and pedants, and finally, to put it on the defensive by assuming that it belongs to the dead past, that it is inimical to modern progress, and must, in the interests of progress, be shelved and labeled with other interesting but outgrown antiquities, or ticketed with the extinct arts.

In recent years another word has gained a strange ascendency over the popular [Page 772]  mind, the influence of which has increased as the authority once associated with the word culture has declined. The word practical acts on large numbers in every modern community as a charm in superstitious eras acted upon its victims.

Let any new interpretation of religion, any new system of education, any scheme of finance, any civil policy be heralded as practical, and its advocates may rely upon an immediate following to be enumerated by thousands. It is by the victims of this epithet, by the worshipers of utility, by the self-styled practical people, that culture is held in disdain. One sometimes questions whether the disdain springs from conscious superiority or from envy, which is the forced confession of conscious inferiority. Whatever its source, disdain is a poisoned weapon, and it is the weapon of suicide.

The man of action is the hero of the practical world, and hardly less does the woman of action control the imagination of contemporary maidenhood. But far from being, what numbers of their admirers proclaim them to be, the foes of culture, living proofs of the uselessness of culture, men of action and in a very particular sense women of action, are the heralds of culture, its prerequisites, and almost always its agents.

The achievements of practical men are, to the great and permanent detriment of numberless young people in this generation, frequently cited to show how unessential to success culture is. When men of action, like Fulton or Whitney, like A. T. Stewart, Vanderbilt or Jay Gould, or in very different lines of action, like Edison, or Pullman, or Powderly are under discussion, the feature of their careers which is dwelt upon with particular insistence is, that "they were or are men of no culture;" that "they were or are men of no education," or "men of the most elementary," or in favorite phrase "of the most practical education." It is readily admitted that the inadequate education of these men is an element which, in their careers, was calculated to attract attention; an element properly emphasized by biographers and economists, since the fact emphasizes their extraordinary ability in the direction of their successes.

Such careers may be regarded with complacency, with certain pride by every human being, since they indicate the dignity, the potency of the human spirit, which can set all obstacles at defiance and transcend circumstances. But such careers do not, as too many young people are led to believe, prove that success is the logical outcome of ignorance, the calculable goal of mind minus culture. What the man without culture, the practical man, has achieved in the world of matter may but grossly figure what the same man with culture might have achieved in the world of thought; and one element never to be forgotten in calculating one's achievements is the plane upon which they are won. It is mainly the result of such careers and of the partial interpretation given to them that, in popular language, the antithesis of culture is practical education. It is by the advocates of practical education, who assume the role of the natural and necessary sponsors of progress, that culture has been put on the defensive. By them she, who, like beauty, has been wont to consider herself her own divine excuse for being, is compelled to state other and lower grounds which justify her continued existence. Thus any analysis of culture seems to involve an analysis of practical education; and in attempting such an analysis a numble disciple of culture hopes to show that the practical education, far from being the antithesis of culture, is the straight, broad path to it.

You will see then that the first question that arises in an attempt to define culture is: What is meant by a practical education? Is it not fair to reply that a practical education is such an education in kind and degree as can be practical, as can be used with effectiveness in subsequent life? Is not a practical education one that looks to a definite, a distinct and probably attainable end, instead of to the vague and intangible end of personal development, which is culture's avowed aim? One of the striking advantages of the practical education is that its end is thus definable; that it has an infallible test. One laying claim to a practical education must be ready at any hour to make answer to the pass-word of the work-a-day world: "What can you do?" [Page 773]  This necessity, although deplored by shallow pretenders to culture who deem it antagonistic, is really one of culture's strongest allies. The man who can make no response to the challenge of the business world, "What can you do?" is, by the modern code, a tramp, a vagrant. The demand that she too shall meet this test, that she too shall answer to the password of the practical world, "What can you do?" is, remembering all other boons–I say it deliberately and with no reserve–the greatest boon that modern civilization has conferred upon woman. Today the ability to give a sufficing reply to this challenge is essential to self-respect in man or woman, and that it is so is a triumph of practical education; but the ability to answer this question is also a proof of culture.

In this assembly one could confidently inquire, "What do you expect your education here to do for you?" Probably every young man and every young woman would be ready with a definite answer. They have formed definite expectations of the education they are engaged in obtaining, and their parents have formed definite expectations of them and of what their education will do for them. It is definitely expected that this education will make of those who pursue it competent civil or mechanical engineers; or good draughtsmen or designers, or efficient farmers, poulterers, horticulturists or stock raisers, or reliable pharmacists or chemists, or skillful wood carvers or decorators; and looking toward these occupations most, if not all of them, see in the education they are getting here a direct means of self-support. This is admirable. If life itself is noble and dignified, that which alone can support it can not be ignoble and mean; and any institution which stands for the dignity of labor and which brings up successive generations of young people with sound healthy notions of labor is a source of benefactions.

There is a tacit division of society into the professional and practical classes, and a tacit assumption that these classes are reciprocally inimical: the division is misleading, and the assumption arising from it absurd. The professional class includes clergymen, lawyers, physicians (broadly embracing surgeons and dentists) and teachers; and latterly authors and artists; the practical class includes the followers of business trades, of mechanical arts, and indeed of all pursuits not specifically included under professional, but following either the etymology of the two words or the simple facts regarding the two classes of workers, do not the practical profess as much as the professional? and do not the professional practice as much as the practical?

As for the tacit assumption, often boldly proclaimed, that the professional class prey upon the practical, that the professional class consumes what the practical class produces, is not its refutation read in the statement? The two classes serve one another, and to a corresponding extent live on one another. This is inevitable and it is to the common advantage of both.

A second division of society follows the lines of the first, and assumes that the cultured class is identical with the professional and that the uncultured is synonymous with the practical. If absurdity could pass beyond the first division, it may be said to culminate in the second. That a man is a member of one of the so-called professions (in distinction from one of the so-called business avocations) is no ground for the inference that he is a man of culture. The professions, once called the liberal professions, where thus called because no man could hope to enter them who had not enjoyed a liberal education. A particular education was called liberal from the general belief that certain studies tended to liberalize the mind, and by putting it into possession of the best thoughts of all times and all enlightened countries, freed it from the bondage of the prejudices of its own time and its own land At a time when such a liberal, i.e., such a liberalizing education was the indispensable condition for beginning the preparation of a professional career, it was reasonable to infer culture of a man in any one of the professions; but now when the call to preach may come to the most illiterate, and when the license may be granted to whomsoever claims the call; when the degree of M. D. will be granted to the youth or maiden who will give an indifferent attention to two or three courses of lectures; when anyone may be made [Page 774]  a notary, and any notary may be admitted to the bar, it is folly to profess to maintain the old and honorable identification of culture with these professions.

* * * * * * * * * *

Since success is that which everyone most desires, the relative probabilities of success that wait on different courses usually determine the young man's or young woman's choice among them. The lowest measure of success to which one's life can be subjected is the character of the shelter and the quality and the quantity of the food and raiment which he has been able to provide himself. Measured by this lowest unit, I believe the cultured as a class are more successful than the practical as a class. Let success be first gauged by bread and butter if you will; you will find the whitest loaves cut in the thinnest slices, most thickly spread with butter are on the table and in the larder of the cultured man. The second measure of success is in the number, the variety and magnitude of material luxuries in excess of the three primal necessities, shelter, clothing and food, enjoyed by the man himself, and in the number and magnitude of material benefits bestowed by him upon the community. In the personal application of this second measure, the average man of culture has the undoubted advantage of the average man destitute of culture. Measured by the material benefactions which they bestow upon the public, it is granted that the non-cultured man enjoys a relatively superior degree of success. Great inventors, great discoverers, great business magnates, who generally belong to the practical as distinguished from the cultured class, have been conspicuously successful in promoting the material interests of the world. To them society owes the railroads, the steamships, the telegraphs, the telephones, the artificial lights,the banks, the insurance companies, and an innumerable et cætera of devices for developing material resources and for increasing, distributing and preserving material benefits. But all of these intruments of material advancement are immediately made the instruments of culture, and are noble in just the degree to which they can be used to promote the ends of culture.

The third measure of relative success may be taken in the public honors enjoyed by the two classes. The impartial application of this measure nearly establishes an equilibrium between the two classes; and as the young man fevered by ambition applies it, he may feel the balance tip in favor of the practical class, especially as he sees representatives of this class in increasing numbers pushed into high public offices and into the social prominence incident to exalted official station. But even in the world of politics, of all worlds that most easily conquered by the practical man, that world which offers an exceptional field for the exercise of practical qualities, that world whose atmosphere lends a peculiar glamor both to practical talent and to its rewards, even in this world, the highest department of service is almost exclusively reserved for men of culture. In the diplomatic department the diplomatic man stands aside for the man of culture; in the records of diplomacy one reads few names of merchants, mechanics or inventors, but here with Franklin, the one conspicuous representative of the practical, and who is equally a representative of culture, in diplomacy are registered the names of Ticknor, Taylor, Prescott, Bancroft, Adams, Motley and Lowell, of men equally at home in the world of letters and in the world of affairs; of men whose culture was the instrument of their success in the practical world, and was the occasion of their official elevation and whose elevation in turn advanced their culture.

A fourth measure of success may be found in the degree to which a man has contributed to the amelioration of human hardships, to the eradication of human wrongs, to the promotion of intelligence and virtue, and maintenance of institutions and societies for the spread of learning, for the practice of benevolence, and for the promotion of religion. By this measure the success of the cultured as a class is relatively transcendent. The churches, the colleges, the universities, even the public schools, which are the sharpeners of the practical wits of the practical class-all of these institutions which hold, perpetuate, increase and measure the civilization of our period are, with some notable exceptions, the products and the movements of men of culture. [Page 775] 

Shall fame be counted one of the units of measure by which relative success can be computed? Whose names does the gilded trumpet proclaim in tunes that promise echoes from unborn generations? Crœsus is seldom remembered save when and because associated with Solon. In this respect an exquisite irony seems to wait on practical men; having served the practical all their lives to insure fame, they dedicate the practical results of their lives to the ideal. Having worshiped all their lives at the altar of utility, at their deaths to purge the gold they have won from their goddess, and to secure from it an immortal gilding for their names, they must needs desert her and lay her gifts upon the shrine of culture. Through what agencies are the names of Astor, Girard, Cooper, Cornell and Hopkins kept green in the grateful memories of generations that knew them not? Not through trading stations, commercial agencies, financial systems and mammoth business enterprises, but through the colleges, the universities, the art institute, the library which they respectively founded. Through giving local habitations to culture do these kings of the practical alone secure a name.

This generation, reared in the doctrines of Utility, promises to be conspicuous above all generations by virtue of the voluntary tributes which her most distinguished apostles of the practical pay to culture. Never has the practical been more exalted or more faithfully served than by the adventurous explorers and speculators who have pursued its ends on the Pacific Coast; but Leland G. Stanford entrusts the perpetuation of his name not to ranch or mine or mint, or vineyard or gold mine, but to that noble university where his practical successes shall all be transmuted into the Olympic nectar, the Hymethian honey and the fair Minervan loaves, upon which Culture feeds her children; and his compeer, James Lick, builds his millions and his hopes of fame into the stately columned and towered observatory which shall hold his name always above the clouds, and link it with celestial contemplations.

To one who will consult their inner significance, these tributes of the practical to the ideal make touching appeal. In that the name of Aristotle will outlast that of Astor, of Claude Lorraine that of Cooper, of Bacon that of Girard; in that the names of Homer and Dante and Milton will outlive that of Stanford and those of Galileo, Bruno and Herschel will outreach that of Lick, there are two lessons which he who runs may read.

The first is that the humblest lover and devotee of culture has a claim upon immortality which can not be won by those who build even the proudest altars in her honor, if they have spent their own lives in worshiping at other shrines. The second is that there is no quarrel between the practical spirit and culture, but that as God makes the wrath of man to serve him, so culture turns the fruit of practical careers into soil and seed, which shall insure the enlargement of her harvests. Culture has repeated these object lessons so often that practical minds are beginning to see the corollary of them, and are wisely using culture as an instrument in forwarding their plans for the conquest of the material world. They are unmistakable evidences that culture is, more and more, commanding from the devotees of the practical that recognition which is her due; that she will never be satisfied with the tribute of temples and altars from the practical world until that world shall carry into its offices and market places the spirit and methods to be learned only at her feet.


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Mrs. May Wright Sewall of Indianapolis, vice-president International Council of Women, president of the National Council of Women of the United States, chairman of the committee on a World's Congress of Representative Women, is a native of Wisconsin. Her parents, however, were both from old New England families. She was graduated from the Northwestern University of Evanston, Ill., with the degree A. B., in 1867. The degree of A. M. was conferred upon her three years later. Mrs. Sewall is known as a most thorough and successful educator. She united in marriage with Mr. Theodore L. Sewall in 1880. In 1882 Mr. and Mrs. Sewall opened a private school for girls, known as the Girls' Classical School. She is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Women, an honorary member of the American Historical Association of Sorosis, etc. She has spent several summers in England, France, Germany and Italy. Mr. Sewall has many lectures on social, educational and reform topics. She is perhaps at her best as an extemporaneous speaker, her style being clear, cogent and eloquent. To various activities Mrs. Sewall adds those of a housekeeper and entertainer, her Wednesday afternoon receptions being a feature of the intellectual and social life of her city. Her postoffice address is Indianapolis, Ind.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom