What the White Race May Learn from the Indian - George Wharton James - ebook

I WOULD not have it thought that I commend indiscriminately everything that the Indian does and is. There are scores of things about the Indian that are reprehensible and to be avoided. Most Indians smoke, and to me the habit is a vile and nauseating one. Indians often wear filthy clothes. They are often coarse in their acts, words, and their humor. Some of their habits are repulsive. I have seen Indian boys and men maltreat helpless animals until my blood has boiled with an indignation I could not suppress, and I have taken the animals away from them. They are generally vindictive and relentless in pursuit of their enemies. They often content themselves with impure and filthy water when a little careful labor would give them a supply of fairly good water.

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What the White Race May Learn from theIndian


George Wharton James




I WOULD not have it thought that I commend indiscriminately everything that the Indian does and is. There are scores of things about the Indian that are reprehensible and to be avoided. Most Indians smoke, and to me the habit is a vile and nauseating one. Indians often wear filthy clothes. They are often coarse in their acts, words, and their humor. Some of their habits are repulsive. I have seen Indian boys and men maltreat helpless animals until my blood has boiled with an indignation I could not suppress, and I have taken the animals away from them. They are generally vindictive and relentless in pursuit of their enemies. They often content themselves with impure and filthy water when a little careful labor would give them a supply of fairly good water.

Indeed, in numerous things and ways I have personally seen the Indian is not to be commended, but condemned, and his methods of life avoided. But because of this, I do not close my eyes to the many good things of his life. My reason is useless to me unless it teaches me what to accept and what to reject, and he is kin to fool who refuses to accept good from a man or a race unless in everything that man or race is perfect. There is no perfection, in man at least, on earth, and all the good I have ever received from human beings has been from imperfect men and women. So I fully recognize the imperfections of the Indian while taking lessons from him in those things that go to make life fuller, richer, better.

Neither must it be thought that everything here said of the Indians with whom I have come in contact can be said of all Indians. Indians are not all alike any more than white men and women are all alike. One can find filthy, disgusting slovens among white women, yet we do not condemn all white women on the strength of this indisputable fact. So with Indians. Some are good, some indifferent, some bad. In dealing with them as a race, a people, therefore, I do as I would with my own race, I take what to me seem to be racial characteristics, or in other words, the things that are manifested in the lives of the best men and women, and which seem to represent their habitual aims, ambitions, and desires.

This book lays no claim to completeness or thoroughness. It is merely suggestive. The field is much larger than I have gleaned over. The chapters of which the book is composed were written when away from works of reference, and merely as transcripts of the remembrances that flashed through my mind at the time of writing. Yet I believe in everything I have said I have kept strictly within the bounds of truth, and have written only that which I personally know to be fact.

The original articles from which these pages have been made were written in various desultory places,—on the cars, while traveling between the Pacific and the Atlantic, on the elevated railways of the metropolis, standing at the desk of my New York friend in his office on Broadway, even in the woods of Michigan and in the depths of the Grand Canyon. Two of the new chapters were written at the home of my friend Bass, at Bass Camp, Grand Canyon, but the main enlargement and revision has occurred at Santa Clara College, the site of the Eighth Mission in the Alta California chain of Franciscan Missions. The bells of the Mission Church have hourly rung in my ears, and the Angelus and other calls to prayer have given me sweet memories of the good old padres who founded this and the other missions, as well as shown me pictures of the devoted priests of to-day engaged in their solemn services. I have heard the merry shouts of the boys of this college at their play, for the Jesuits are the educators of the boys of the Catholic Church. Here from the precincts of this old mission, I call upon the white race to incorporate into its civilization the good things of the Indian civilization; to forsake the injurious things of its pseudo-civilized, artificial, and over-refined life, and to return to the simple, healthful, and natural life which the Indians largely lived before and after they came under the dominion of the Spanish padres.

If all or anything of that which is here presented leads any of my readers to a kinder and more honest attitude of mind towards the Indians, then I shall be thankful, and the book will have amply accomplished its mission.

George Wharton James.

Santa Clara, California, November 27, 1907.


EVER since the white race has been in power on the American continent it has regarded the Indian race—and by this I mean all the aboriginal people found here—as its inferiors in every regard. And little by little upon this hypothesis have grown up various sentiments and aphorisms which have so controlled the actions of men who never see below the surface of things, and who have no thought power of their own, that our national literature has become impregnated with the fiendish conception that “the only good Indian is the dead Indian.” The exploits of a certain class of scouts and Indian-hunters have been lauded in books without number, so that even schoolboys are found each year running away west, each with a belt of cartridges around his waist and a revolver in his hip pocket, for the purpose of hunting Indians. Good men and women, people of the highest character, are found to be possessed of an antipathy towards the Indian that is neither moral nor Christian. Men of the highest integrity in ordinary affairs will argue forcefully and with an apparent confidence in the justice of their plea that the Indian has no rights in this country that we are bound to respect. They are here merely on sufferance, and whatever the United States government does for them is pure and disinterested philanthropy, for which the Indian should be only grateful and humble.

To me this is a damnable state of affairs. If prior possession entitles one to any right in land, then the Indian owns the land of the United States by prior right. The so-called argument that because the Indian is not wisely using the land, and that therefore he stands in the way of progress and must be removed, and further, that we, the people of the United States, are the providentially appointed instruments for that removal, is to me so sophistical, so manifestly insincere, so horribly cruel, that I have little patience either to listen or reply to it.

If this be true, what about the vast holders of land whom our laws cherish and protect? Are they holding the land for useful and good purposes? Are they “helping on the cause of civilization” by their merciless and grasping control of the millions of acres they have generally so unlawfully and immorally secured? Thousands, nay millions, of acres are held by comparatively few men, without one thought for the common good. The only idea in the minds of these men is the selfish one: “What can I make out of it?”

Let us be honest with ourselves and call things by their proper names in our treatment of the weaker race. If the Indian is in the way and we are determined to take his land from him, let us at least be manly enough to recognize ourselves as thieves and robbers, and do the act as the old barons of Europe used to do it, by force of arms, fairly and cheerfully: “You have these broad acres: I want them. I challenge you to hold them: to the victor belongs the spoils.” Then the joust began. And he who was the stronger gained the acres and the castle.

Let us go to the Indian and say: “I want your lands, your hunting-grounds, your forests, your water-holes, your springs, your rivers, your corn-fields, your mountains, your canyons. I need them for my own use. I am stronger than you; there are more of us than there are of you. I’ve got to have them. You will have to do with less. I’m going to take them;” and then proceed to the robbery. But let us be above the contemptible meanness of calling our theft “benevolent assimilation,” or “manifest destiny,” or “seeking the higher good of the Indian.” A nation as well as a race may do scoundrel acts, but let it not add to its other evil the contemptible crime of conscious hypocrisy. The unconscious hypocrite is to be pitied as well as shaken out of his hypocrisy, but the conscious hypocrite is a stench in the nostrils of all honest men and women. The major part of the common people of the United States have been unconscious of the hypocritical treatment that has been accorded the Indians by their leaders, whether these leaders were elected or appointed officials or self-elected philanthropists and reformers. Hence, while I would “shake them up” and make them conscious of their share in the nation’s hypocrisy, I have no feeling of condemnation for them. On the other hand, I feel towards the conscious humbugs and hypocrites, who use the Indian as a cloak for their own selfish aggrandizement and advancement, as the Lord is said to have felt toward the lukewarm churches when He exclaimed: “I will spew thee out of my mouth.”

In our treatment of the Indian we have been liars, thieves, corrupters of the morals of their women, debauchers of their maidens, degraders of their young manhood, perjurers, and murderers. We have lied to them about our good, pacific, and honorable intentions; we have made promises to them that we never intended to keep—made them simply to gain our own selfish and mercenary ends in the easiest possible way, and then have repudiated our promises without conscience and without remorse. We have stolen from them nearly all they had of lands and worldly possessions. Only two or three years ago I was present when a Havasupai Indian was arrested for having shot a deer out of season, taken before the courts and heavily fined, when his own father had roamed over the region hunting, as his ancestors had done for centuries before, ere there were any white men’s laws or courts forbidding them to do what was as natural for them to do as it was to drink of the water they found, eat of the fruits and berries they passed, or breathe the air as they rode along. The law of the white man in reference to deer and antelope hunting is based upon the selfishness of the white man, who in a few generations has slain every buffalo, most of the mountain sheep, elk, moose, and left but a comparative remnant of deer and antelope. The Indian has never needed such laws. He has always been unselfish enough to leave a sufficient number of this wild game for breeding purposes, or, if it was not unselfishness that commanded his restraint, his own self-interest in piling up meat was sacrificed to the general good of his people who required meat also, and must be able to secure it each year. Hence, to-day we shut off by law the normal and natural source of meat supply of the Indian, without any consultation with him, and absolutely without recourse or redress, because we ourselves—the white race—are so unmitigatedly selfish, so mercenary, so indifferent to the future needs of the race, that without such law we would kill off all the wild game in a few short years.


Then who is there who has studied the Indian and the white man’s relation to him, who does not know of the vile treatment the married women and maidens alike have received at the hands of the “superior” people. Let the story of the devilish debaucheries of young Indian girls by Indian agents and teachers be fully written, and even the most violent defamers of Indians would be compelled to hang their heads with shame. To those who know, the name of Perris—a southern California Indian school—brings up memories of this class of crime that make one’s blood hot against the white fiend who perpetrated them, and I am now as I write near to the Havasupai reservation in northern Arizona, where one of the teachers had to leave surreptitiously because of his discovered immoralities with Indian women and girls. Only a decade ago the name of the Wallapai woman was almost synonymous with immorality because of the degrading influences of white men, and one of the most pathetic things I ever heard was the hopeless “What can we do about it?” of an Indian chief on the Colorado desert, when I spoke to him of the demoralization of the women of his people. In effect his reply was: “The whites have so driven us to the wall that we are often hungry, and it is far easier to be immoral than to go hungry.”

Then, read the reports of the various Indian agents throughout the country who have sought to enforce the laws against whites selling liquor to Indians. Officials and courts alike have often been supine and indifferent to the Indian’s welfare, and have generally shown far more desire to protect the white man in his “vested interests” than to protect the young men of the Indian tribes against the evil influences of liquor. Again and again I have been in Indian councils and heard the old men declaim against the white man’s fire-water. The Havasupais declare it to be han-a-to-op-o-gi, “very bad,” the Navahos da-shon-de, “of the Evil One,” while one and all insist that their young men shall be kept from its demoralizing influence. Yet there is seldom a fiesta at which some vile white wretch is not willing to sell his own soul, and violate the laws of whites and Indians alike, in order to gain a little dirty pelf by providing some abominable decoction which he sells as whisky to those whose moral stamina is not strong enough to withstand the temptation.


And as for perjury in our dealings with Indians: read the records of broken treaties, violated pledges, and disregarded vows noted by Helen Hunt Jackson in her “Century of Dishonor,” and then say whether the charge is not sustained.

Yet, when the Indian has dared to resent the cruel and abominable treatment accorded to him in so many instances and in such fearful variety, he has been called “treacherous, vindictive, fiendish, murderous,” because, in his just and righteous indignation and wrath, he has risen and determined to slay all he could find of the hated white race. No doubt his warfare has not always been civilized. Why should it be? How could it be? He is not civilized. He knows nothing of “christian” principles in a war which “christian” people have forced upon him as an act of self-defense. He is a savage, battling with savage ferocity, savage determination, to keep his home, that of his ancestors, for himself, his children, and their children. Oom Paul Kruger told the British that if they forced a war upon the Boers for the possession of the Transvaal, they would win it at a price that would “stagger humanity.” Yet thousands of good Americans honored Oom Paul for his “bravery,” his “patriotism,” his “god-like determination to stand for the rights of his people.” But if our Indian does the same thing in the defense of his home and slaughters a lot of soldiers sent to drive him away, he is guilty of murderous treachery; his killings are “massacres,” and he must be exterminated as speedily as possible.

Who ever hears any other than the term “massacre” applied to the death of Custer and his soldiers? The “Custer massacre” is as “familiar as household words.” Yet what is a massacre? Webster says: “1. The killing of a considerable number of human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty, or contrary to the usages of civilized people. 2. Murder.” With such definitions in view, look at the facts of the case. I would not have it understood in what I say that I am condemning Custer. He was a general under orders, and as a dutiful servant he was endeavoring to carry them out. (The debatable question as to whether he was obeying or disregarding orders I leave for military men themselves to settle.) It is not Custer, or any other one individual, that I am condemning, but the public, national policy. Custer’s army was ordered to proceed against these men, and forcibly remove them from the place they had chosen as their home—and which had been theirs for centuries before a white man ever trod this continent—and take them to a reservation which they disliked, and in the choice of which their wishes, desires, or comfort had in no way been consulted. The white soldiers were armed, and it is well known that they intended to use these arms. Could they have come upon the Indians by stealth, or by some stratagem, they would have done so without any compunctions of conscience, and no one would ever have thought of administering a rebuke to them, even though in the fight that would undoubtedly have ensued every Indian had been slain. It would have been heralded as a glorious victory, and we should have thanked God for His goodness in directing our soldiers in their “honorable” warfare. But unfortunately, the incident turned in another direction. The would-be captors were the caught; the would-be surprisers were the surprised; the would-be slayers were the slain. Custer and his band of men, brave and gallant as United States soldiers generally are,—and I would resent with heat any slanderous remark to the contrary,—were surrounded, surprised, and slain to a man.


Weep at the grave of Custer; weep at the graves of his men; weep with the widows and orphans of those suddenly surprised and slain soldiers. My own tears have fallen many a time as I have read and reread the details of that awful tragedy; but still, in the weeping do not be dishonest and ungenerous to the victors,—Indians though they were. Upon the testimony of no less an authority than General Charles King, who has known the Sioux personally and intimately for years, they were ever the hospitable friends of the white race, until a post commander,—whose name should be pilloried for the execration of the nation,—imbued with the idea that the only good Indian was the dead Indian, betrayed and slew in cold blood a number of them who had trusted to his promises and placed themselves in his hands. The result was, that the whole tribe took this slaughter to their own hearts, as any true patriots would have done, and from that day to this the major part of the Sioux have hated the white race with the undying, bitter hatred of the vindictive savage.

Again and again when I have visited Indian schools the thoughtful youths and maidens have come to me with complaints about the American history they were compelled to study. In their simple, almost colorless way of expressing themselves, a bystander would never dream of the fierce anger that was raging within, but which I was too experienced in Indian character not to perceive. Listen to what some of them have said: “When we read in the United States history of white men fighting to defend their families, their homes, their corn-fields, their towns, and their hunting-grounds, they are always called ‘patriots,’ and the children are urged to follow the example of these brave, noble, and gallant men. But when Indians—our ancestors, even our own parents—have fought to defend us and our homes, corn-fields, and hunting-grounds they are called vindictive and merciless savages, bloody murderers, and everything else that is vile. You are the Indians’ friend: will you not some time please write for us a United States history that will not teach us such wicked and cruel falsehoods about our forefathers because they loved their homes enough to fight for them—even against such powerful foes as you have been.” And I have vowed that if ever I have time and strength and feel competent to do it, I will write such a history.


Yet this is by no means all the charge I have to make against my own race in its treatment of the Indian. Not content with depriving him of his worldly possessions, we have added insult to injury, and administered a far deeper and more cutting wound to him by denying to him and his wives and daughters the moral, poetical, and spiritual qualities they possess. To many of the superior (!) race this is utter nonsense. The idea that an Indian has any feelings to be hurt! How ridiculous! Yet I make the assertion, fearless of successful contradiction, that many Indians feel more keenly this ignoring of the good, the poetic, the æsthetic, the religious or spiritual qualities they possess than they do the physical wrongs that have been inflicted upon them. As a race, we are prejudiced, bigoted, and “big-headed” when looking upon any other race. We come by our prejudices naturally. The Englishman looks down upon the “frog-eating Frenchman,” and used to say he could lick ten or a dozen such. The Frenchman and Englishman both scoff at the beer-drinking German and the stolid Dutchman, yet France has to remember Sedan, and England still smarts at the name of Van Tromp. The fact is that no nation can afford to look down upon another, any more than any civilization can afford to crow over another. Each has its own virtues, its own “goods,” its own advantages. France, England, Germany, America, have never equaled, much less surpassed, the architecture of Greece, Egypt, and Rome. The United States, with all its brag and boast, has never had a poet equal to old blind Homer or the Italian Dante. Germany’s Goethe is worthy to stand side by side with England’s Shakspere, and the architecture of the rude and vulgar “Goths” is the supremest crown of all building in the proud and conceited English-speaking “Mother Country.”

And so have I learned to look at the Indian. He has many things that we can take to our advantage and profit, and some of these have been presented in the following pages. In the next chapter I have a few necessary reservations and observations to make which I trust the patience of the reader will permit him carefully to consider.


I AM by no means a blind worshiper of our so-called “higher” and “advanced” civilization. I do not think we have advanced yet as far as the Greeks in some things. Our civilization, in many respects, is sham, shoddy, gingerbread, tinsel, false, showy, meretricious, deceptive. If I were making this book an arraignment of our civilization there would be no lack of counts in the indictment, and a plethora of evidence could be found to justify each charge.


As a nation, we do not know how to eat rationally; few people sleep as they should; our drinking habits could not be much worse; our clothing is stiff, formal, conventional, hideous, and unhealthful; our headgear the delirium tremens of silliness. Much of our architecture is weakly imitative, flimsy, without dignity, character, or stability; much of our religion a profession rather than a life; our scholastic system turns out anæmic and half-trained pupils who are forceful demonstrators of the truth that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” And as for our legal system, if a body of lunatics from the nearest asylum could not concoct for us a better hash of jurisprudence than now curses our citizenship I should be surprised. No honest person, whether of the law or out of it, denies that “law”—which Browning so forcefully satirizes as “the patent truth-extracting process,”—has become a system of formalism, of precedent, of convention, of technicality. A case may be tried, and cost the city, county, or state thousands of dollars; a decision rendered, and yet, upon a mere technicality that does not affect the real merits of the case one iota, the decision will be reversed, and either the culprit—whose guilt no one denies—is discharged, or a new trial, with its attendant expense, is ordered. The folly of such a system! The sheer idiocy of men wasting time and strength and energy upon such puerile foolishness. I verily believe the world would be bettered if the whole legal system, from supreme court of the United States down to pettiest justice court, could be abolished at one blow, and a reversion made to the decisions of the old men of each community known for their good common sense, fearlessness, and integrity.


It may be possible that some who read these words will deem me an incontinent and general railer against our civilization. Such a conclusion would be an egregious error. I rail against nothing in it but that which I deem bad,—bad in its effect upon the bodies, minds, or souls of its citizens. I do not rail against the wireless telegraph, the ocean cables, the railway, the telephone, the phonograph, the pianoforte, the automobile, the ice machine, refrigerating machine, gas light, gas for heating and cooking, the electric light and heater, electric railways, newspapers, magazines, books, and the thousand and one things for which this age and civilization of ours is noted. But I do rail against the abuse and perversion of these things. I do rail against the system that permits gamblers to swindle the common people by watering the stock of wireless telegraphy, cable, railway, or other companies. I enjoy some phonographs amazingly, but I rail against my neighbor’s running his phonograph all night. I think coal-oil a good thing, but I rail against the civilization that allows a few men to so control this God-given natural product that they can amass in a few short years fortunes that so far transcend the fortunes of the kings of ancient times that they make the wealth of Crœsus look like “thirty cents.” I believe thoroughly in education; but I rail earnestly, sincerely, and constantly against that so-called education (with which nearly all our present systems are more or less allied) of valuing the embalmed knowledge of books more than the personal, practical, experimental knowledge of the things themselves. I enjoy books, and would have a library as large as that of the British Museum if I could afford it; but I rail persistently against the civilization that leads its members to accept things they find in books more than the things they think out for themselves. Joaquin Miller seemed to say a rude and foolish thing when he answered Elbert Hubbard’s question, “Where are your books?” with a curt, “To hell with books. When I want a book I write one;” and yet he really expressed a deep and profound thought. He wanted to show his absolute contempt for the idea that we read books in order to help thought. The fact is, the reading too much in books, and of too many books, is a definite hindrance to thought—a positive preventive of thought. I do not believe in predigested food for either body, mind, or soul; hence I am opposed to those features of our civilization that give us food that needs only to be swallowed (not masticated and enjoyed) to supply nutriment; that give us thought all ready prepared for us that we must accept or be regarded as uneducated; those crumbs of social customs that a frivolous four hundred condescend to allow to fall from their tables to us, and that we must observe or be ostracized as “boors” and “vulgar”; and those features of our theological system that give us predigested spiritual food that we must accept and follow or be damned. I am willing to go and feed with the Scotch and the horses (vide Johnson’s foolish remark about oatmeal), and be regarded as uneducated and be ostracized both as a boor and a vulgarian, and even be damned in words, which, thank God, is quite as far as He allows any one human being to “damn” another. For I am opposed to these things one and all.

I am not a pessimist about our civilization: I am an optimist. Yet I often find my optimism strongly tinged with pessimistic color. And how can it be otherwise?

Can any thinking man have much respect—any, in fact—for that phase of his civilization which permits the building of colossal fortunes by the monopolization of the sale of necessities, when the poor who are compelled to buy these necessities are growing poorer and poorer each year?


Can I respect any civilization that for the 125 years of its existence has refused to pass laws for the preservation of the purity of the food of its poor? The rich can buy what and where they choose, but for the whole period of our existence we have been so bound, hand and foot, by the money-makers who have vitiated our food supply that they might add a few more millions to their dirty hoard of ungodly dollars that we have closed our eyes to the physical and spiritual demoralization that has come to the poor by the poisoned concoctions handed out to them—under protection of United States laws—as foods.

Can I respect an educational institution that educates the minds of its children at the expense of their bodies? That has so little common sense and good judgment as to be putting its children through fierce competitive examinations when they should be strengthening their bodies at the critical age of adolescence?

Can I bow down before the civilization whose highest educational establishments—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, New York, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, followed by hosts of others of lesser institutions—every year send out from five to thirty per cent of their students broken down in health? What is the good of all the book-learning that all the ages have amassed unless one has physical health to enjoy it? Only this last year a Harvard graduate came to me who had taken high degree in the study of law and was adjudged eminently prepared to begin to practice his profession. But his health was gone. He was a nervous and physical wreck. His physicians commanded complete rest for a year, and suggested that five years would be none too long for him to spend in recuperation. When this young man asked me to give him my candid expressions upon the matter, I asked him if he thought imbeciles could have made a worse mess of his “education” than had the present system, which had cultivated his intellect, but so disregarded the needs of his body that his intellect was powerless to act.

Let the wails of agony of the uncounted dead who have been hurried to their graves by this idolatrous worship of a senseless, godless, heartless Moloch called “education” answer for me when people ask me to respect this feature of our higher civilization, and to these wails let there be added those of awakened parents who have seen, when too late, into what acts akin to murder their blind worship of this idol had led them. Add to these the cries of pain from ten thousand beds of affliction occupied by those still living, but whose bodies have “broken down” as the result of “over-study.”


Then add to the vast pyramid of woe the heartaches of hopes banished, of ambitions thwarted, of desires and aims completely lost, and one can well understand why I am not a worshiper at this shrine. If I were to choose—as every parent must for his young children who are not yet capable of thought—between a happy, because physically healthy, life, though uneducated by the schools, and an educated and unhappy, because unhealthy, life for children, I would say: Give me ignorance (of books and schools) and health, rather than education (of books and schools) and a broken down, nervous, irritable body. But it is by no means necessary to have uneducated children, even though they should never see a school. While I now write (I am enjoying a few days on the “rim” of the Grand Canyon) I am meeting daily a remarkable family. The man is far above the average in scholastic andbook education. He is a distinguished physician, known not only within the bounds of his own large state, but throughout the whole United States and Europe; his methods are largely approved by men at the head of the profession, and his lucrative and enormous practice demonstrates the success of his system, with the complete approval of the most conservative of his rigidly conservative profession. He was until quite recently a professor in one of the largest universities of the United States, and was therefore competent from inside knowledge to pass judgment upon the methods of the highest educational establishments. He has money enough to place his two daughters wherever he chooses, and to spend most of his time near them. Yet he has deliberately (and I think most wisely) kept them out of school, and made the strength and vigor of their bodies his first consideration. Both ride horseback (astride, of course) with the poise and confidence of skilled vaqueros; both can undertake long journeys, horseback or afoot, that would exhaust most young men students; and now at 15 and 17 years of age they are models of physical health and beauty, and at the same time the elder sister is better educated in the practical, sane, useful, living affairs of men and women than any girl of her age I have ever met. I take this object-lesson, therefore, as another demonstration of the truth of my position, and again I refuse to bow down before the great fetich of our modern civilization—“scholastic education.”