The following is a letter from James W. Alexander (1804-1859) to his younger brother. James was a Presbyterian minister and the eldest son of Archibald Alexander (1772-1851). In his letter, James gives his brother excellent advice that is just as needed today, more than 150 years later.
My dear brother,
You must not suppose, from what I said in my last letter, that the school is the only place where you can acquire knowledge. I would by no means have you to play all the time, which you are not employed at your tasks. There are a great many hours, especially in these long winter evenings, in which you may be filling your mind with something useful. For this purpose you should always have some instructive book at hand. Your parents have many such books, and are always glad to give you the use of them.
It makes me sorry to see that you read so much in mere story-books. Some of these, indeed, are useful, and they are liked by all young people. But most of them are foolish, if not injurious. Boys often become so fond of this sort of reading that they never look into anything but tales, stories and novels. And in this way they weaken their minds, and lose all the advantage they might gain from books of instruction.
Now, if you did but think about it—you would find out that there are works which are highly entertaining, at the same time that they are profitable. I mean books of history, voyages and travels, biography, natural history, and philosophy. If you were once to taste the pleasantness of these, you would soon throw away your story-books, which are mostly fit for the nursery.
But you cannot be always reading—and it is by no means necessary. There are many other ways of getting useful knowledge. The greater part of what you already know, you have learned from hearing your father and mother talking. If all they have told you should be written down, it would fill a multitude of volumes. And you remember this much better than if you had read it in a book. You ought, therefore, to learn something every day from your parents. They are always willing to teach you; and whenever you have any difficulty you should get them to explain it. There are a thousand things which they would be delighted to tell you, and which you would be profited to learn. Whenever you are sitting with them, try to get them to instruct you.
You may do the same thing with all your friends. If you are only modest and respectful, they will not consider you too inquisitive. All sensible people are gratified when they see that boys are desirous to learn. Make it a rule to learn something from everybody; for there is no one, high or low—who has not some knowledge which might do you good. For instance, you have friends in the school who come from different parts of the country. You may gain much information from them, by inquiring concerning the places where they live, and getting them to describe to you everything that is remarkable in their own neighborhoods. Even the tradesmen and mechanics can instruct you in many little matters relating to their own employments. It is a great advantage for a man to know something about every different trade and mechanical art—and you cannot learn this from books so well as from going into the workshops, and asking questions of the people who are at work. When they see that you really wish to be informed, they will he glad to answer all your inquiries. I would like you to know all the particulars about every kind of trade and industry.
And then, when you go into the country, it will make your excursions much more pleasant if you will take pains to learn from farmers everything about the cultivation of the earth. You must be sure to find out as much as you can about the different operations of agriculture; sowing, reaping, and the like; and about the productions of the land, the raising of cattle and sheep, and the ways of improving the soil. You will find that many farmers, who have not read as much as yourself, have a great treasure of knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes you will fall into the company of those who have traveled in foreign countries. This will give you a fine opportunity to learn from them all you wish to know about the parts of the world which they have visited.
And if you travel about in your vacations, you must keep your eyes open to everything that is remarkable, and learn all about the places through which you pass. In old times this was the principal way of acquiring knowledge. Instead of going to colleges and universities, the ancient Greeks used to travel for years together in Asia and Egypt, and other lands. This is the method which was pursued by Lycurgus, and Pythagoras, and Plato, and others of whom your histories tell you. When you go to a strange place, you must endeavor to find out about whatever is remarkable, and to make inquiries of all your friends.
Also, there are a great many common things which we see every day, that are very interesting. Many boys carry watches for months and years without knowing at all what it is that makes them go. Charles Harvey had a watch given to him the day he was fifteen years old. He was much pleased with the present—but could not feel satisfied until he went to the watchmaker, and got him to explain the inside of it. The watchmaker took the watch to pieces, and showed him all the works. He showed him the steel spring wound up in a coil, and let him see how it was constantly trying to unwind itself and get loose. Then he showed him the barrel to which the end of the spring is fastened, and how the working of the spring makes the barrel move round and round. He pointed out the chain which goes from the barrel to the great coil, and told him how one wheel moved another, until the hands were made to go around. But you cannot understand this by writing. If you ask a watchmaker, he will explain all these works to you in a few minutes.
Some boys are so careless that they make no inquiries, and never learn anything of value. I knew a boy who used to go to a mill every few days—but who never had the curiosity to ask how it was that the water falling on the great wheel could make the mill-stone turn round and round. Some lads will often own guns without ever finding out how the lock is formed, or how the trigger moves the other works, or how the gunpowder is made. I hope it will not be so with you—but that whenever you see any machine, you will not rest until you know all about it.
When you are next on board a steamboat, get someone to explain to you how the steam works. Inquire about the boiler, and the condenser, and the piston, and the valves.
Find out the way in which the pump in the yard raises the water, and what it is that makes the mercury rise and fall in the thermometer.
The great thing is to be always inquiring. Ask and you will learn. Learn something every hour. Remember the little story of 'Eyes and no Eyes', and read 'Travels about Home'. Whenever you take a walk, you may be learning something. You ought to be able to tell the name of every kind of tree in the woods, either by the bark and leaves, or by the shape, and the way they look at a distance. You may easily find out the names of the principal plants and flowers which grow in the fields. It will be a shame if you grow up without knowing how to tell one bird from another, by their shape, their plumage, their song, or their manner of flying. When you come to look more sharply, you will discover a great many curious differences in the mosses and the ragged lichens which grow on the fences and stones, and look like mold.
This is the way to become a philosopher. A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. The reason why some men become philosophers is that they are always inquiring and learning something every hour. It was thus that Dr. Franklin became so celebrated, and discovered the nature of thunder and lightning, which no one knew before.
I have read also of poor shepherd's boys who have become great philosophers in the same way.
If you are only determined to be learning something all the time, there is no doubt that you will be constantly improving. When your friends see this they will help you, and be glad to instruct you. They will put you in the way of making experiments for yourself, and will furnish you with books and instruments. Thus your very amusements will be full of profit. I am sure that you would find far more entertainment in trying experiments with a little electrical machine than in playing at ball or marbles. And at the same time you would be learning an important science. You might spend an hour or two in a printing office, learning the way in which books are made, and be much more amused than by running about the playground.
So you see that even when you are not in school, you may be constantly improving your mind. You cannot open your eyes anywhere without beholding something to inquire about; and the more inquiries you make, the more you will know. This makes one great difference between people—some are anxious to learn, while others do not care whether they learn or not. Be awake, my dear brother, and remember that time is short, and that you must give an account of the way in which you spend every moment. The greater your knowledge is, the more useful you may be to your fellow creatures.
Your affectionate brother,
Recommended further reading:
J.C. Ryle: Thoughts for Young Men
Beloved Bride: The Letters of Stonewall Jackson to His Wife
The Bible Lessons of John Quincy Adams
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