The Collected Letters, Volume 27


TC TO JAMES CARLYLE ; 19 April 1852; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18520419-TC-JC-01; CL 27: 90-92


CHELSEA, LONDON, 19th April, 1852.


I am glad to hear, by your letter, that you are intent upon self-improvement; to increase one's knowledge of profitable things, and in all ways cultivate one's immortal soul, is surely the duty of every creature according to his opportunities. …

Since you are at the trade of Teaching, your first care ought to be to perfect yourself more and more in all the branches you are required to teach. Nothing is more frightful than a Schoolmaster who is himself ignorant, or ill-informed, upon the things he is trying to impart to his scholars. Beyond and before all other pursuits, you must make yourself master of whatever you are teaching, or likely to be called at any time to teach. To begin with the beginning: Your handwriting, for example, though promising and tolerable, is by no means good enough; the way to improve it, and there is no other way, is to practise daily; write every day, trying to do better … and in short get a good hand,—swift, distinct, simple, and without waste of room. Then there are Arithmetic, Geography, English Grammar … . Many schoolmasters I have seen who were not intelligent of Arithmetic and its principles; they taught it, as they worked it, by rote, and had no knowledge of principles. Do you not imitate these; if you are still in that situation, get yourself a good book of Arithmetic. … labouring incessantly with your whole strength (which is the real secret of success in all attempts in whatever direction) … .

In the rear of Arithmetic, and essential for a Schoolmaster who will rise above the lowest sphere of his business, are Mensuration, Geometry, Algebra, and the whole field of Mathematics; a very noble subject, useful in all manner of ways;—and a subject withal in which a man of real sense can make his own way, to any length, without help of a teacher. Indeed there are few or no subjects on which a man of real sense,—real industry, honesty, and steadfast perseverance,—cannot make his own way; and if you do make it, it is better in many respects, and far more productive for you, than if a teacher had helped.

For English Grammar … [there is] Cobbett's little book … one of the clearest and best1. … Cobbett is otherwise a great example to you: he began life here in London as a wandering lad, barely able to read, who was obliged to enlist; as a private soldier he took to study, while others were idling and drinking; and he ended as a man of solid cultivation, and of high mark in the world. … [As for geography] Almost any Book you can pick up on that subject, will open a wide field of enquiry and improvement for you: I recommend that, and all the astronomy you can acquire, as very useful.— Beyond and in advance of all these subjects, lie Foreign Languages, especially French and Latin. … Cobbett learned French with hardly any master (except perhaps a chance hint about the pronunciation). …

With regard to reading for general improvement … read whatever good Books you can find. … Read no fool's Book if you can help it; fly from a fool as you would from poison, in your reading and in all other pursuits of yours! … It is less important to a man that he read many Books, than that he read a few well and with his whole mind awake to them. This is indisputably certain. A very small lot of Books will serve to nourish a man's mind, if he handle them well—and I have known innumerable people whose minds had gone all to ruin, by reading carelessly too many Books. It is like omnivorous feeding. … The wisest men I have known in this world were by no means great readers; good readers I should rather say, of a few Books that were wise,—and having an abhorrence of all Books they found to be foolish. A man gathers wisdom only from his own sincere exertions and reflexions; and in this it is not really very much that other men can do for him; but whatever help there is, he will find with the wise alone. … Read well whatever books you can get that you understand to be good ones; try them well with your own judgment, earnestly, but yet humbly and loyally; you will get more light at every step, and see better what country, what path is ahead of you if you do this as you ought.

As to subjects for reading, [he praised history and named books, adding that] Chronology and Geography are the lamps of History. …

Give my kind wishes, remembrances and regards to your Father and Mother: we have drifted far asunder since that night I stayed in their hospitable house at Cockermouth; may all good be with them always, and with you.

Yours truly,