Little Visits with Great Americans

by Orison Swett Marden

Jacob Gould Schurman

AT ten years of age he was a country lad on a backwoods farm on Prince Edward's Island.

At thirteen, he had become a clerk in a country store, at a salary of thirty dollars a year.

At eighteen, he was a college student, supporting himself by working in the evenings as a bookkeeper. At twenty, he had won a scholarship in the University of London, in competition with all other Canadian students.

At twenty-five, he was professor of philosophy, Acadia College, Nova Scotia.

At thirty-eight he was appointed President of Cornell University.

At forty-four, he was chairman of President McKinley's special commission to the Philippines.

In this summary is epitomized the career of Jacob Gould Schurman. It is a romance of real life such as is not unfamiliar in America. Mr. Schurman's career differs from that of some other self-made men, however. Instead of heaping up millions upon millions, he has applied his talents to winning the intellectual prizes of life, and has made his way, unaided, to the front rank of the leaders in thought and learning in this country. His career is a source of inspiration to all poor boys who have their own way to make in the world, for he has won his present honors by his own unaided efforts.

President Schurman says of his early life : —

"It is impossible for the boy of to-day, no matter in what part of the country he is brought up, to appreciate the life of Prince Edward's Island as it was forty years ago. At that time, it had neither railroads nor daily newspapers, nor any of the dozen other things that are the merest commonplaces nowadays, even to the boys of the country districts. I did not see a railway until late in my 'teens. I was never inside a theater until after I was twenty. The only newspaper that came to my father's house was a little provincial weekly. The only books the house contained were a few standard works, —such as the Bible, Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress,' Fox's 'Book of Martyrs,' and a few others of that class. Remember, too, that this was not back at the beginning of the century, but little more than a generation ago, for I was born in the year 1854.

"My father had cleared away the land on which our house stood. He was a poor man, but no poorer than his neighbors. No amount of land, and no amount of work could yield much more than the necessaries of life in that time and place. There were eight children in our family, and there was work for all of us.

"Our parents were anxious to have their children acquire at least an elementary education; and so, summer and winter, we tramped the mile and a half that lay between our house and the district school, and the snow often fell to the depth of five or six feet on the island, and sometimes, when it was at its worst, our father would drive us all to school in a big sleigh. But no weather was bad enough to keep us away.

"That would be looked upon as a poor kind of school, nowadays, I suppose. The scholars were of all ages, and everything from A,-B,-C, to the Rule of Three, was taught by the one teacher. But whatever may have been its deficiencies, the work of the school was thorough. The teacher was an old-fashioned drillmaster, and whatever he drove into our heads he put there to stay. I went to this school summer and winter until I was thirteen, and by that time I had learned to read and write and spell and figure with considerable accuracy.

"At the age of thirteen, I left home. I hadn't formed any definite plans as to my future. I merely wanted to get into a village and to earn some money.

"My father got me a place in the nearest town, — Summerside,—a village of about one thousand inhabitants. For my first year's work I was to receive thirty dollars and my board. Think of that, young men of today! Thirty dollars a year for working from seven in the morning until ten at night! But I was glad to get the place. It was a start in the world, and the little village was like a city to my country eyes."


"From the time I began working in the store until today, I have always supported myself, and during all the years of my boyhood I never received a penny that I did not earn myself. At the end of my first year, I went to a larger store in the same town, where I was to receive sixty dollars a year and my board. My salary was doubled; I was getting on swimmingly.

"I kept this place for two years, and then I gave it up, against the wishes of my employer, because I had made up my mind that I wanted to get a better education. I determined to go to college.

"I did not know how I was going to do this, except that it must be of my own efforts. I had saved about eighty dollars from my storekeeping, and that was all the money I had in the world.

"When I told my employer of my plan, he tried to dissuade me from it. He pointed out the difficulties in the way of my going to college, and offered to double my pay if I would stay in the store."


"That was the turning-point in my life. On one side was the certainty of one hundred and twenty dollars a year, and the prospect of promotion as fast as I deserved it. Remember what one hundred and twenty dollars meant in Prince Edward's Island, and to me, a poor boy who had never possessed such a sum in his life. On the other side was my hope of obtaining an education. I knew that it involved hard work and self denial, and there was the possibility of failure in the end. But my mind was made up. I would not turn back. I need not say that I do not regret that early decision, although I think that I would have made a successful storekeeper.

"With my eighty dollars capital, I began to attend the village high school, to get my preparation for college. I had only one year to do it in. My money would not last longer than that. I recited in Latin, Greek and algebra, all on the same day, and for the next forty weeks studied harder than I ever had before or have since. At the end of the year I entered the competitive examination for a scholarship in Prince of Wales College, at Charlotte Town, on the Island. I had small hope of winning it, my preparation had been so hasty and incomplete. But when the result was announced, I found that I had not only won the scholarship from my county, but stood first of all the competitors on the Island.

"The scholarship I had won amounted to only sixty dollars a year. It seems little enough, but I can say now, after nearly thirty years, that the winning of it was the greatest success I have ever had. I have had other rewards, which, to most persons, would seem immeasurably greater, but with this difference; that first success was essential; without it I could not have gone on. The others I could have done without, if it had been necessary."

For two years young Schurman attended Prince of Wales College. He lived on his scholarship and what he could earn by keeping books for one of the town storekeepers, spending less than one hundred dollars during the entire college year. Afterward, he taught a country school for a year, and then went to Acadia College in Nova Scotia to complete his college course.


One of Mr. Schurman's fellow-students in Acadia says that he was remarkable chiefly for taking every prize to which he was eligible. In his senior year, he learned of a scholarship in the University of London offered for competition by the students of Canadian colleges. The scholarship paid five hundred dollars a year for three years. The young student in Acadia was ambitious to continue his studies in England, and saw in this offer his opportunity. He tried the examination and won the prize in competition with the brightest students in the larger Canadian colleges.

During the three years in the University of London, Mr. Schurman became deeply interested in the study of philosophy, and decided that he had found in it his life work. He was eager to go to Germany and study under the great leaders of philosophic thought. A way was opened for him, through the offer of the Hibbard Society in London, of a traveling fellowship with two thousand dollars a year. The honor men of the great English universities like Oxford and Cambridge were among the competitors, but the poor country boy from Prince Edward's Island was again successful, greatly to the surprise of the others.

At the end of his course in Germany, Mr. Schurman, then a doctor of philosophy, returned to Acadia College to become a teacher there. Soon afterward, he was called to Dalhousie University, at Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1886, when a chair of philosophy was established at Cornell, President White, who had once met the brilliant young Canadian, called him to that position. Two years later. Dr. Schurman became Dean of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell; and, in 1892, when the president's chair became vacant, he was placed at the head of the great university. At that time, he was only thirty-eight years of age.

President Schurman is a man of great intellectual power, and an inspiring presence. Though one of the youngest college presidents in the country, he is one of the most successful, and under his leadership Cornell has been very prosperous. He is deeply interested in all the affairs of young men, and especially those who, as he did, must make their own way in the world. He said, the other day: —

"Though I am no longer engaged directly in teaching, I should think my work a failure if I did not feel that my influence on the young men with whom I come in contact is as direct and helpful as that of a teacher could be."


"It is true that there is an increasing, and just now, an unusual demand for college-bred men in all walks of life. The prescribed preliminaries to legal and medical education are, step by step, approaching graduation from college, and have reached it, in some instances, while these professional courses themselves have been extended and deepened, till they are now nearly or quite on a par with the old liberal training with which they are co-ordinated in the modern university. As to engineers, —fifteen years ago, the manufacturers of machinery had to be coaxed to take those pioneers, the Cornell men, into their shops and give them a chance. But where one went, many followed. Last spring, when the class of 1900 came to graduation, every student in this branch was eagerly bid for two or three times over. One great electrical firm alone asked to be given the entire class. There is observable, too, a gradual increase in the call for collegebred teachers in the public schools, and this demand will grow by what it feeds upon.

"All this is but the sign and symbol of an increasing complexity and organization in our civilization. Rough-and-ready methods are going out, and the untrained handy-man with them. In all directions, as expanding American manufactures and commerce come into competition with those of Europe, it is daily more obvious that the higher skill and intelligence, making the closest use of its resources, will win. Nowadays, to do the work of the world as the world will have it done, and will pay for having it done, requires that a man be trained to the exactitude of scientific methods, and that he be given the wide mental outlook and the special training which he can acquire in the university, and nowhere else."

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