Education, as commonly understood, is the process of developing the mind by means of books and teachers. When education has been neglected, either by reason of lack of opportunity or because advantage was not taken of the opportunities afforded, the one remaining hope is self-improvement. Opportunities for self-improvement surround us, the bits of help to self-improvement are abundant, and in this day of cheap books, free libraries, and evening schools, there can be no good excuse for neglect to use the faculties for mental growth and development which are so abundantly supplied.
When we look at the difficulties which hindered the acquisition of knowledge fifty years to a century ago; the scarcity and the costliness of books, the value of the dimmest candlelight, the unremitting toil which left so little time for study, the physical weariness which had to be overcome to enable mental exertion in study, we may well marvel at the giants of scholarship those days of hardship produced. And when we add to these limitations physical disabilities, blindness, deformity, ill-health, which many contended with, we may feel shame as we contemplate the fullness of modern opportunity and the helps and incentives to study and self-development which are so lavishly provided for our use and inspiration, and of which we avail ourselves so little.
Self-improvement implies one essential feeling: the desire for improvement. If the desire exists, then improvement is usually accomplished only by the conquest of self the material self, which seeks pleasure and amusement. The novel, the game of cards, the billiard cue, idle whittling and story-telling, will have to be avoided, and every available moment of leisure turned to account. For all who seek self-improvement “there is a lion in the way,” the lion of self-indulgence, and it is only by the conquest of this enemy that progress is assured. Show me how a youth spends his evenings, his odd bits of time, and I will tell his future.
Does he look upon this leisure as precious, rich in possibilities, as containing golden material for his future life structure? Or does he look upon it as an opportunity for self-indulgence, for a light, flippant “good time”? The way he spends his leisure will give the directions of his life, will tell whether he is dead in earnest, or whether he looks upon life as a joke. He may not be conscious of the terrible effect, the gradual deterioration of character which comes from a frivolous wasting of his evenings and holidays, but the character is being undermined just the same.
Young men are often surprised to find themselves dropping behind their competitors, but if they will examine themselves, they will find that they have stopped growing because they have ceased their effort to keep abreast of the times, to be widely read, to enrich their life with self-culture. The right use of spare moments in reading and study is an indication of superior qualities. And in many historic cases the “spare” moments utilized for study were not spare in the sense of being the spare time of leisure. They were rather spared moments, moments spared from sleep, from meal times, from recreation.
It is not lack of ability that holds men down but lack of desire. In many cases the employee has a better brain, a better mental capacity than his employer. But he does not improve his faculties. He dulls his mind by vicious habits. He spends his time and money at the sports bar and in the game room and as he grows old, and the harness of perpetual service galls him, he grumbles at his lack of luck, his limited opportunity. The number of perpetual supervisors are constantly being recruited by those who did not think it worthwhile as boys to learn to write a good hand or to master the fundamental branches of knowledge required in a business career.
The ignorance common among young men and young women in factories, stores, and offices, everywhere, in fact, in this land of opportunity where youth should be well educated, is a pitiable thing. On every hand we see men and women of natural ability occupying inferior positions because they did not think of it enough as importance in their youth to concentrate their attention on the acquisition of knowledge that would make them proficient workers. Thousands of men and women find themselves held back, handicapped for life, because of the seeming trifles which they did not think it worthwhile to pay attention to in their youth.
Many a girl of good natural ability spends their most productive years as a cheap salesperson or in a mediocre position because she never thought it worthwhile to develop her mental faculties or to take advantage of opportunities within reach to fit herself for a superior position. Thousands of girls unexpectedly thrown on their own resources have been held down all their lives because of neglected tasks in youth, which at the time were dismissed with a careless” I don’t think it worthwhile.” They did not think it would pay to go to the bottom of any study at school, to learn to keep accounts accurately, or fit themselves to do anything in such a way as to be able to make a living by it.
They expected to marry, and never prepared for being dependent on themselves, a contingency against which marriage, in many instances, is no safeguard. The trouble with most youths is that they are not willing to fling the whole weight of their being into their vocation. They want short hours, little work and a lot of play. They think more of leisure and pleasure than of discipline and training in their great life specialty.