A Book of Words – XXXIV

“School Expeiences”

by Rudyard Kipling

How shall we learn to judge men—the subtlest of all things created?
Even in childhood at play before they have hidden their hearts.

GENTLEMEN—I am not going to tell you much that you do not know. Indeed, the only advantage I have over you is that you have not yet the words in which to express your knowledge, and—you are not allowed” to contradict me. You have been told hundreds of times that your school presents you in advance and in miniature with almost every problem and situation that you may be called upon to meet later. Strangely enough, this is true, because (and perhaps you have not been told this) very few men are more than sixteen years old when it comes to the pinch. So, if you can remember the style of a man’s work, and more particularly of his play, you can make a close guess later on as to what he will do, and why and how; and you will realise, presently, that men seldom do anything for the first time in their lives, except at school. It isn’t as if man was an original creature. He is a boy-product. There is another thing that you know. You may have noticed already that there is not much justice in your present world. There is less outside. This ought to save you all the time and trouble of looking for it. Most injustice is not inflicted deliberately, but because people won’t take the trouble to think things out. Thinking makes their heads ache, and if persisted in may make them change their opinions. Consequently it simply `isn’t done, you know.’

But may I work out for you a simple equation? The next time that a personal injustice is inflicted on you for your manners, habits, or appearance, try to recall the last time that you were—1 won’t say unjust—but unfair to someone else. If you have forgotten, ask a friend. He’ll remember. Bracketing these factors, you will see that they cancel out. In the case of impersonal injustice—that is to say, when you have not had credit for some really decent thing you have done— remember that you have got, or may hope to get, credit for all sorts of things you didn’t do, or stumbled into by accident. Once more bracketing these two factors, they cancel each other. You see, too much fussing over abstract justice leads to standing up for your rights and dwelling on what you owe to yourself. That is a temptation of the Devil. Any debt that a man thinks he owes himself can wait over till all the others are paid; and, besides that, standing up for one’s rights, and not being put upon, and all the rest of it, often ends in one becoming a man with a grievance; which is the same as being a leper. So, when you are told off’ to shoot any sort of tiger (as you certainly will be) try not to choose a man with a grievance for your partner. If his disease attacks him, he will sulk and hang behind the scrum, and will delay or wreck the work that you are trying to do with him. Some of you in the School may have discovered this already in making up Elevens and Fifteens. Some of you may already have been told that you had a down on a man because you made him play where he could not do much harm to his own side.

So, you see, all your experiences at school are rehearsals for what you may expect on a larger scale and on a stage where it is important that you should know your part. And here is where the great value comes in of what is wrongly called `secondary education.’ All education is primary not to say primitive. It is one’s school that teaches one how to keep one’s temper and when to lose it. If one is too clever and shows it, it is one’s school that helps one to suffer fools. If one is a fool oneself, it is one’s school that tells one precisely what sort of a fool one is. Lots of men go through life without grasping that great fact. If one knows how everything ought to be done (and some people seem to), it is one’s school that recommends one to go and do it, instead of standing about talking. That means that one can pick up the rudiments of self-control, knowledge of what really matters, and a habit of burning one’s own smoke—keeping one’s mouth shut.

Now, as far as one man can judge another, I think that Lord Milner’s character was built up on these three points—self-control, a sense of what really matters, and the power of possessing his soul in patience. They gave the enduring background to his natural great qualities. They strengthened his wide influence over men. His career was full of difficulties and some bitter disappointments, but in all the years that I had the honour to know him he never revealed that he was thrown out of his stride by difficulties, delays, and intrigues that theoretically ought to have defeated him altogether. Whether he suffered fools gladly I don’t know, but he suffered them in silence. After eight years of splendid and far-seeing work in settling and reconstructing a half-ruined Dominion, and after he had put aside honour and great preferment in order that he might finish that work, it happened to him to be treated unjustly by what the history books call `his ungrateful country.’ As a matter of fact, it was only the House of Commons— a paltry exhibition which took the form of a pious rebuke. Broadcasting was not invented in those days, but that rebuke went all round the world, and caused a great deal of talk. But Lord Milner did not contribute to the discussion, nor did he encourage his friends to. He went on with his work, and let other people do the talking.

Years later came the War, which does not interest you as much as it interested us at the time; and Lord Milner, who was then on the Imperial War Council, used every gift and power that he had to bring it to a certain end. We do not yet realise, and you will not for a long time, how vitally important his work was, and what it saved us. He saw that one thing needed to be done, and done quickly, and he gave all that was in him to get the matter accomplished. But all that while he was working sympathetically and serenely with some of the very men who had done him the public injustice years before. I think that that was a glorious climax to a devoted and unspotted career.

But whatever a man’s natural gifts may be, he cannot slip on the virtues that built up a character such as Lord Milner’s a few minutes before they are required. One has got to practise somewhere before one plays anywhere. And here, gentlemen, is your practice-ground. Lord Milner had to learn in a harder and a lonelier school. Looking back on his life, and his intense influence over the men he worked with, one feels that no memorial to Lord Milner is needed except one. And just that fitting memorial has been made possible by Lady Milner’s discerning gift of the lands on which the junior branch of the oldest school in England enters now. But it is you, and you only, gentlemen, who can keep that memorial. It is you, and only you, who can keep it in permanence and due honour by the temper of your lives while you are here, for on that temper surely depends all the work you will do hereafter in and for the world. You have no small or self-seeking example to follow. May you be fortunate: lucky in little things; and secure in the possession of the few real things that life has to offer. And on these lines—shall we say?—the School will be open.