The Use of Learning by Unknown
"I am tired of going to school," said Herbert Allen to William Wheeler,
the boy who sat next to him. "I don't see any great use, for my part, in
studying geometry, and navigation, and surveying, and mensuration, and
the dozen other things that I am expected to learn. They will never do
me any good. I am not going to get my living as a surveyor, or measurer,
or sea captain."
"How are you going to get your living, Herbert?" his young friend asked,
in a quiet tone, as he looked up into his face.
"Why, I am going to learn a trade; or, at least, my father says that I
"And so am I," replied William; "and yet my father wishes me to learn
everything that I can; for he says that it will all be useful some time
or other in my life."
"I'm sure I can't see what use I am ever going to make, as a saddler, of
algebra or surveying."
"Still, if we can't see it, Herbert, perhaps our fathers can, for they
are older and wiser than we are. And we ought to try to learn, simply
because they wish us to, even if we do not see clearly the use in
everything that we are expected to study."
"I can't feel so," Herbert replied, tossing his head, "and I don't
believe that my father sees any more clearly than I do the use of all
"You are wrong to talk so," protested his friend, in a serious tone. "I
would not think as you do for the world. My father knows what is best
for me, and your father knows what is best for you; and if we do not
study and improve our time, we will surely go wrong."
"I am not afraid," responded Herbert, closing the book which he had been
reluctantly studying for half an hour, in the vain effort to fix a
lesson on his unwilling memory. Then taking some marbles from his
pocket, he began to amuse himself with them, at the same time concealing
them from the teacher.
William said no more, but turned to his lesson with an earnest
attention. The difference in the character of the two boys is plainly
indicated in this brief conversation. To their teacher it was evident in
numerous particulars—in their conduct, their habits, and their manners.
William always recited his lessons correctly, while Herbert never
learned a lesson well. One was always punctual at school, the other a
loiterer by the way. William's books were well taken care of, Herbert's
were soiled, torn, disfigured, and broken.
Thus they began life. The one obedient, industrious, attentive to the
precepts of those who were older and wiser, and willing to be guided by
them; the other indolent, and inclined to follow the leadings of his own
will. Now, at the age of thirty-five, Mr. Wheeler is an intelligent
merchant, in an active business; while Mr. Allen is a journeyman
mechanic, poor, in embarrassed circumstances, and possessing but a small
share of general information.
"How do you do, my old friend?" said the merchant to the mechanic, about
this time, as the latter entered the counting room of the former. The
contrast in their appearance was very great. The merchant was well
dressed, and had a cheerful look; while the other was poorly clad, and
seemed troubled and dejected.
"I cannot say that I do very well, Mr. Wheeler," the mechanic replied,
in a tone of despondency. "Work is very dull, and wages low; and, with
so large a family as I have, it is tough enough getting along under the
"I am really sorry to hear you say so," replied the merchant, in a kind
tone. "How much can you earn now?"
"If I had steady work, I could make twelve or fifteen dollars a week.
But our business is very bad. The consequence is, that I do not average
nine dollars a week, the year round."
"How large is your family?"
"I have five children, sir."
"Five children! And only nine dollars a week!"
"That is all, sir; but nine dollars a week will not support them, and I
am, in consequence, going behindhand."
"You ought to try to get into some other business."
"But I don't know any other."
The merchant mused awhile, and then said: "Perhaps I can aid you into
getting into something better. I am president of a newly-projected
railroad, and we are about putting on the line a company of engineers,
for the purpose of surveying and locating the route. You studied
surveying and engineering at the same time I did, and I suppose have
still a correct knowledge of both; if so, I will use my influence to
have you appointed surveyor. The engineer is already chosen, and you
shall have time to revive your early knowledge of these matters. The
salary is one hundred dollars a month."
A shadow, still darker than that which had before rested there, fell
upon the face of the mechanic.
"But," he said, "I have not the slightest knowledge of surveying. It is
true I studied it, or rather pretended to study it, at school; but it
made no permanent impression on my mind. I saw no use in it then, and am
now as ignorant of surveying as if I had never taken a lesson on the
"I am sorry, my old friend," replied the merchant. "But you are a good
accountant, I suppose, and I might, perhaps, get you into a store. What
is your capacity in this respect?"
"I ought to have been a good accountant, for I studied mathematics long
enough; but I took little interest in figures, and now, although I was
for many months, while at school, pretending to study bookkeeping, I am
utterly incapable of taking charge of a set of books."
"Such being the case, Mr. Allen, I really do not know what I can do for
you. But stay; I am about sending an assorted cargo to Buenos Ayres, and
thence to Callao, and want a man to go as supercargo, who can speak the
Spanish language. The captain will direct the sales. I remember that we
studied Spanish together. Would you be willing to leave your family and
go? The wages will be one hundred dollars a month."
"I have forgotten all my Spanish, sir. I did not see the use of it while
at school, and therefore it made no impression upon my mind."
After thinking a moment, the merchant replied:—
"I can think of but one thing that you can do, Mr. Allen, and that will
not be much better than your present employment. It is a service for
which ordinary laborers are employed, that of chain carrying for the
surveyor to the proposed railroad expedition."
"What are the wages, sir?"
"Forty dollars a month."
"I will accept it, sir, thankfully," the man said. "It will be much
better than my present employment."
"Then make yourself ready at once, for the company will start in a
"I will be ready, sir," the poor man replied, and then withdrew.
In a week the company of engineers started, and Mr. Allen with them as a
chain carrier, when, had he, as a boy, taken the advice of his parents
and friends, and stored his mind with useful knowledge, he might have
filled the surveyor's office at more than double the wages paid to him
as chain carrier. Indeed, we cannot tell how high a position of
usefulness and profit he might have held, had he improved all the
opportunities afforded him in youth. But he perceived the use and value
of learning when it was too late.
I hope that none of my young readers will make the same discovery that
Mr. Allen did, when it is too late to reap any real benefit. Children
and youth cannot possibly know as well as their parents, guardians, and
teachers, what is best for them. They should, therefore, be obedient and
willing to learn, even if they cannot see of what use learning will be