(1884), Alexander Crummell, “Excellence, an End of the Trained Intellect”

Alexander Crummell, The Greatness of Christ: and Other Sermons (New York: 1882)

In an address to women of  the graduating class of the Colored High School in Washington, D.C. on  June 6th 1884, Rev. Alexander Crummell urges them to put their intellect and their education in the service of racial advancement.  The address appears below.

Young Ladies: Two nations of antiquity have often in your school life been brought before you, distin¬guished respectively, the one for excellence and the other for practicality. The Greeks stand for in human history pre eminently as the type of culture and refine¬ment. The Romans, down to our day, are the standard of the practical, the people who surpassed all others in the expression of the principle of utility.

These two ideas may be taken as representing the two prime ends of human training and education.

You are now on your passage from the High School to the broader field and the more responsible duties of the Normal School. So well have you acquitted your¬selves in this lower plane of study that the officers of these schools are glad to tender you the cordial invita¬tion  “Come up higher!” And so the doors of a higher Academy stand open before you, its accom¬plished Principal both anxious and ready to welcome you. And here you will find the many facilities for gaining a wider acquaintance and a more advanced civilization.

At just this stage of life it seems to me both fit and advisable, to call your attention to the fact, that excellence and utility are the special objects of your school life; and also to point out to you their relative place and importance.

I shall dwell but briefly upon the principle of utility, for the reason that it is not just now the immediate end of your training. There is a time for everything, and the wisdom of man in all ages has made youth the time of preparation as a means to a distant end.

If we wish to make our existence a full, complete, and rounded thing it becomes us to have everything in its own order. School life is first in order, a preparatory stage, which is both designed and fitted to reach over to active duty, by and by, in the relations of life. And although it is inevitable that we shall, please God we live, be busy workers in the trades, crafts, callings, service of human life, the very first thing for young people, is the proper moulding and fashioning of their nature and the training of their faculties, that they may gain such suppleness, force and endurance as may fit them for any and all the demands of duty and responsibility.

You will remember just here that utility, though somewhat crude and homely, compared with excellence, is the end and object of life. For doing duty, accomplishing work, applying knowledge to useful ends, carrying on enterprises in the world; all this is the work of life: And it is something wider, broader and higher than culture, grand, necessary and beautiful as culture is. For utility in life is that which must be, even if we have to dispense with culture. And hence we see that although excellence is more beautiful, and has indeed the primary place, yet utility is the grander, for it is the necessary, nay the absolute, object of our being. Excellence is a means, an instrument. Excellence is that which gives finish, majesty, glory and strength to life in all its relations. But men can live without it. Men have lived without it; nay men have lived mightily, masterly, yes, even prodigiously without it. The colossal empires of the ancient world wrought without it, and made grand contributions to the sum of human good. Human history would be incomplete without the annals of such barbaric States as Assyria, Babylon and Egypt in the old world and the Aztecs in this. So, too, great men, devoid of excellence, men uncivilized and rude, have done nobly the work of life and left behind them abiding influences and lasting results. Great would have been the loss to humanity if such men as Constantine and Charlemagne and Peter the Great, and Touissant L’Ouverture had never lived.

And so you see that culture and refinement, although they be most valuable things, are not entirely indispensable to human advancement.

Nevertheless who will compare crude Babylon with the accomplished Greece? Who will put austere and unadorned Sparta beside polished Athens? Who will name El Mahdi of the Soudan with Gladstone or our George William Curtis ?

We cannot then reject utility. We cannot disregard the practical, for it contains the substance and reality of our life. Nevertheless we must extol, cherish and reach forth for excellence, not so much for itself, as for the facile use of powers it gives us in the duties of life; for the completeness which it bestows upon our being; for the skill it imparts to, our faculties; for the finish, grace, and polish with which it will invest our life.

I have spoken in such general terms of excellence that perchance some may desire something more of definiteness concerning it. What, you demand, what do you mean by excellence?

Let me set before you the idea that fills my own mind in speaking of it. I mean by excellence that training by which the intellectual forces are harmoniously developed, and reason and imagination are given their rightful authority. I mean that discipline which enables one to command his own powers, and then to use them with ease and facility. I mean that style of education which puts us in the centre, and affords the soul the widest circumference of nature and humanity, of knowledge and letters. I mean that instruction which gives the faculties strength and skill, sharpness and dexterity, force and penetration. I mean that schooling which puts disdain within us for the gross and ignoble, and saturates our whole being with burning desires for things that are noble, lofty, and majestic.

The elements of this quality of excellence are self-possession, exactness, facility, taste.

I use the word self possession more in its literal meaning than in the sense of usage. I mean by it that power which a true education gives one of holding, using, and managing his own faculties with a like facility with which a horseman uses his bridle, or a sailor the helm. Multitudes of well learned people have neither the knowledge of their capacity nor command of their powers. Well freighted indeed with learning, they have never gained a clear acquaintance with their own forces nor of their fitness to definite ends. It is one of the highest of accomplishments for men to know their own inward resources; to know what they can do with those resources; to know just the way to do the work set before them; and to know how to do that work with skill and effect.

When I speak of exactness I refer to veraciousness. There is, it is true, no such thing as perfectness or infallibility of intellect. “Homerus dormit,” says Horace. Shakespeare committed the greatest of anachronisms. Milton was slipshod in both his Scripture and theology. Even the accurate Macaulay made mistakes. Nevertheless all true scholarship ends in truth, from the simple recital of the numeration table by a five year old youngster to the calculations of an Adams or a Leverier. Accuracy and precision in your intellectual ventures are not only scholarly traits; they are virtues. They give assurance of character. Wherever they discover themselves people feel they can rely upon their possessors. It is not a matter of importance that you should remember everything, for that is an impossibility for both angel and man. But if you will determine to know a few things, and to know them thoroughly, down to the point of nicety and precision, you will do a most masterly thing for your intellect, and you will be made effective in influence upon the minds of men. You will do well, therefore, to learn at an early day the value of accuracy. If you work out a problem see that it is done strictly in accordance with rule. If you memorize a poem, give it precisely as it was written, taking no liberties with the text. If you make an historical reference quote from the most truthful history. Be sure of your numbers in giving statistics. Strive to be accurate in dates. If you are studying science see that you are grasping facts, and not rely upon speculation and fancy. Don’t come forth at any time slatternly, with a torn gown and slippers down at the heel. Be neat, tidy and thorough in all your intellectual duties.

Next in importance to accuracy comes facility. For, in this busy, stirring world where nobody waits for his neighbor, it is desirable that you should aim at a certain measure of quickness and celerity. Error moves with swift feet; and hence truth should never be lagging behind. She should always be first in the field. Cultivate, as much as possible, together with the habit of exactness, the other habit of promptness and speed. You can do it; any one can do it; for it depends not so much upon breadth and weight of intellect, as it does upon application and practice. Besides it is the nature of the mind to be alert in all its movements. The mind of man is instinctively, and by the laws of its being, a Pegasus. It is then a work not against, but most strictly in accordance with nature, to carry on our mental operations with zeal and alacrity. The lines of Cowper are simple ones, but true and significant:

“How swift is a glance of the mind!
Compared with the speed of its flight,
The tempest itself lags behind
And the swift winged arrows of light.”

And what Shakespeare says of the poet is true of every craft of the intellect:

” The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.”

This is equally the case with the philosopher, the painter, the scholar, the sailor, the soldier, with man in all the estates of human life. Mind naturally is quick, rapid, lightning like in its movements.

With self possession and facility I join taste as another element in the quality of excellence. And by taste I mean that ” exquisite sense,” to use the words of Greville, “which instantly discovery and extracts the quintessence of every flower, and disregards all the rest of it.”

Taste is nothing more or less than a sensitive disdain of the rude and gross, and the deliberate and constant choice of grace and beauty, wherever they discover themselves. And this discovery is open to every one of us; but on the one condition, namely, that the mind itself is pure; for then its vision instinctively will fall upon the fair, the bright, and pleasing. Taste is the aptitude of the soul for fitness; its craving for the perfect; its desire for the beautiful. It is both a natural and a cultivated gift; and hence it is an acquisition within the reach of every sensitive and aspiring soul.

I beg, young ladies, to press upon you all, the opportunities to secure excellence now in this fit time, which is given you in the days of your school life. This time comes once, and never comes again. Amid the busy whirl of life you cannot turn aside to get it. You know we would all laugh at the soldier who should run from the thick of the battle, to sharpen his sword. You can, indeed, do without the grace and finish of your powers; you can be rude, rough, unskilled women, yet be brave and good women too. But you can do better, everywhere in life, by the attainment of excellence. It is Blakie who says: “Beauty, which is the natural food of a healthy imagination, should be sought after by every one who wishes to achieve the great end of existence that is to make the most of himself.”

Strive to make something of yourselves; and then strive to make the most of yourselves: not in selfishness; not for vain display in society or in the world; but for a grand reason which I will at once declare to you. It is this: Because you have great powers. I don’t know the capacity of any one of you girls. I have never heard, from any quarter, your standing as scholars. But you are human beings; and therefore I can say, if even you were the humblest of our kind, that you have great powers. You are responsible both for your powers of mind, and responsible for the training of them.

Therefore I say cultivate your powers. Bring them under discipline. Give them strength. Try and get for them elasticity and promptitude. Set Truth whether in fundamental ideas, great generic principles, or grand axioms set truth, most distinctly before you, as the proper food of the mind. Use books, literature, science, as the instruments and agents of the intellect; mindful, however, that our inborn faculties are greater than all the facilities of culture. For “studies,” as Lord Bacon says, serve mainly “to perfect nature.”

Join to this the remembrance that there is no essential divorce of the reason from the imagination; and while it is our duty to grasp everything solid and substantial for the intellect, yet

“Beauty a living presence of the Earth” pervades the universe;
” Waits upon our steps;
Pitches her tents before us as we move
An hourly neighbor ;”

is one of the most glorious gifts of God to our nature: beauty as we see it at this glorious season, in clear skies, in trees, in flowers, in the emerald verdure of green fields, in laughing, running streams; beauty in art and culture and poetry; beauty deep in the human soul and in all its faculties; and that it is our privilege and rightful prerogative as immortal creatures to take it up wherever we find it, as our heritage and rightful prerogative, and to incorporate it with every element of our being; giving the glory and the adornment of it to every relation of life.

I congratulate you, young ladies, on your advancement to this stage of your studies.  I beg to cheer and encourage you in the onward step you are about taking from this evening; and you have my warmest good wishes that superiority may attend you in this later period of your school life, and that in all after days grace, excellence and efficiency may be the fruits of your entire life.