With the publication of yesterday’s article, To be or not to be critical? we were sent the letter below. It was written by L. Ron Hubbard to a one of his former professors who had since retired.
It seemed appropriate to publish it here in light of the discussion of critical thinking and not simply being agreeable.
March 16, 1936
Dean William Allen Wilbur
c/o George Washington University
Washington, D. C.
Dear Dean Wilbur;
I was again at GWU for a few hours to talk to Douglas Bement’s short story class. I had looked forward at that time to seeing you again, but I was informed that you had left the university – much to my disappointment and, I assure you, to the detriment of the school. However, I suppose you are enjoying your boats and a well deserved rest.
You could not possibly pick out my name from the tens of thousands of names which have passed over your class rolls. Perhaps you can best remember me for something I did which was rather worrying to you – a sad fact to be so remembered. I once handed you a theme at the term (probably 1931) which was one sentence, five hundred words long. On receipt of this you called out my name in class and asked me to see you afterwards. You were, I recall, rather shocked that anyone would quite dare hand you a critique of mass education under the guise of an English theme. It was, of course, rather bitter and, in a way, I have been rather sorry that I caused you concern. But although I apologized at the time I am afraid that the apology was more respect for you than disowning my ideas. And to complete the picture, I am tall and red-headed.
I hope that recalls me to you. It is noted only for that purpose. The real reason I am writing you is somewhat abstract. I have since done a little coaching on my own and I know that no contact is satisfactorily final unless you know that the man has either wrecked himself or made good, and it might be some small satisfaction for a master to know that his teachings have helped.
The engineering school was supposed to be my catapult to fame and fortune. My father had wanted me to be an engineer. My mother thought it was a sound profession, although both of them have, at one time and another, written and sold newspaper stories. I stuck to engineering for two years and college doors have closed no more upon me.
My profession, as I knew it would be from the first, is that of a writer. At present I am writing for the pulps—which is not a shameful or degrading thing as many people hint. I am giving the best that is in me for the purpose of entertainment and I find that many, many great writers first served their apprenticeship to blood and thunder. It is something to be a big frog in even a pulp paper puddle, to make excellent money, to be able to keep your own hours, and to shift whenever the scene grows monotonous, to be able to use a packing case in Nicaragua or a mahogany desk in New York at will. I am smugly satisfied that I have just started, and I am conceited enough to say that I write for the best of the pulps (Adventure, Detective Fiction Weekly) as well as the worst.
When I wrote that theme for you (I wish I had it now) I was not referring to rhetoric, but to the rest of the university. Besides yourself, no other man there had anything to say other than dry, textbook things. That was not education to me. I wanted the contact of culture, perhaps, or maybe I wanted a chance to think. You were the only man there who would let a chap think. Walking into your classes or walking with you back to your office after a class was quite like stepping out of a hydraulic press into a spring day. You wanted a man to figure things out for himself and you respected your students. You were one bright spot in an otherwise zero-zero world.
This is not flattery, but something I have honestly wanted to tell you for some time. When I asked after you a year or so ago I was presented with a sight I shall not forget within my lifetime. I felt as though they had shown me something grisly when they pointed to the stack of books on Professor so-and-so’s desk. They were nice, thick books, capable of breaking any student’s arm. They were blue books and brown books, and they contained, the lot of them, thousands of stiff pages like starched collars—immensely respectable and utterly useless. These were the books, they told me, they were using now. These were the books which had taken the place of that stately little rhetoric manual—which somehow reminded me of a very scholarly little man with a taste for oddities, solemnity and vast kindness. I noticed they used books, not a book.
Somehow—and I’m getting rather hard—I wanted to take off my hat as though I stood beside a coffin in which some close friend lay. Books, that’s all they were. Just books. They were orderly and uniform and quite overbearing like pompous generals who bellow and rant and never say anything.
This all, of course, stamps me as a rebel, but I care nothing for rubber stamps. There was one remaining link between cultural and regimented education which had survived American mass production and that link was yourself. And now the chain is broken and the campus might as well hum with looms and lathes for all the individual personality it has, with you gone.
Perhaps I should have been born an Englishman, in wanting something besides a Latin conjugation and a calculus formula from my school. Perhaps I expected more than I should have. Perhaps I had just grown up too soon. But I still wanted a university to be what it says in the name.
They told me, those other fellows (but you never did) that I was not doing my best, that I shirked and was lazy, that I had to get higher marks to match a machine-made intelligence test which made me out as brilliant merely because I had been over the world and back acquiring general knowledge since boyhood. They told me I would never amount to anything, that I was not a scholar. But you never did. You were quite willing to talk over all sorts of things and I appreciated it even though you have, most likely, forgotten.
Now, four years after leaving the place, I find that I was a scholar after all, that I am a student, that I have a keen and devouring interest for mathematics of all things, for history and economics and politics. I am studying because, for the first time in my life, I have been left alone. I have written several quality group (literary and artistic magazine) articles—which satisfy the mind but sadly not the stomach—on subjects for which credit hours are granted.
But I doubt in the extreme that I ever would have carried on had it not been for your very sane treatise on the world at large which you labeled “rhetoric” and which was nothing at all but culture, as alone and isolated upon a regimented horizon as a steamer’s plume of smoke against the horizon.
I hope none of this makes you feel badly. It is not intended to be so. I felt all this long ago, but I was a student then. I am a professional writer now. I have earned a difficult thing, the permission to think and act for myself.
A year or more ago, I stood behind Douglas Bement’s desk—so lately watching that same desk from the other side—and talked to his class about this profession of writing. The students were, many of them, attending when I was attending myself. I knew a lot of them by their first names. I talked to them about the profession of writing, not the art and I left them somewhat cold. No amount of impassioned argument could sway them aside from a foregone conclusion concerning the outside world. They were being taught—and Bement is a fair teacher—how to write, they thought. That was enough. I was there, I told them, because Bement had delivered several erroneous remarks over the radio two days before on this profession of writing. I tried to assure them that out in the world they could sell their wares and save themselves from the ugliness of desks and time clocks, that they could make a decent living with a pen if they had it in them. Nobody ever told me that. I had to find it out through hard experience. But they did not want that worldliness. They wanted crammed facts. I did not talk to them with topic sentences and outlines, I talked to them because I knew what they would soon face. It was all for nothing. I could not shake them from a mental apathy which was quite as sticky as glue. They did not really want to think, and they would not even argue even when I spurred them to it.
I suppose this is what we call mass education. Frozen, fact-laden minds. Perhaps some of us should feel grateful for it because it is our own salvation. But I could not help but feel the sorrow of it. They were not being taught to think or study, they were being taught to gorge facts, however disrelated, obtuse or useless.
And out of all that vast shroud of darkness there had always been one sunburst, but it was gone. I went away from the university that night feeling melancholy. They had a pile of books sitting on a desk and they looked at them with pride and said, “Rhetoric? We’ve changed that. We have so many students (units such as 100 ccs. of water) to a class and so many classes to a professor and . . .” Squads right, column left and to hell with it, we’ve got too many to educate.
Your own definition of teachers will forever stand out in my mind as something beautiful and almost as rare as radium. It takes a genius to teach. You are that genius. From your rhetoric class, large as it was, there have come men I have since met, men who are thinking. No matter that those things fell upon so much barren ground. That could not be helped and never can be. There are many of us, casting about in this world, who remember and revere you. I have heard them speak.
Do not allow this to upset you in any way. Put it down that I am a rebel, a nonconformist, anything. Some of these days I am going to set down these things in a book, and your rhetoric, very battered now, will be open on the desk beside me when I write it.
At twenty-five it might be dangerous to think such things, it might be better to leave these matters to more regimented minds than mine.
However and whatever . . . This letter was to be written to you this morning, hoping that you were well and telling you that you helped me in more ways than one . . . and here it is, some kind of a rabid essay on education and I’m certain you’ve had quite enough of that.
Anyway, here’s the best in the world to the best man I ever met.
L. Ron Hubbard