Comment 1

The Power of Living Books to the Orphan Who Grew Up to Be an Engineer and President by Andy Smith

I have recently become acquainted with Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) through reading his (1962) book Herbert Hoover On Growing Up:  His Letters from and to American Children and was struck with the similarities of things dear to him that were also dear to Charlotte Mason.  They both had a high regard for the mind of the child.  In School Eduction Mason says, The fact is, we undervalue children (p. 171).  Herbert Hoover wrote in the forward to his book:  If we appraise them as they appear in the press and in the abundant statistics of crime, we would believe that children of today are a bad example of this species (p. 9).  

He goes on to say  . . . I have developed some ideas of what goes on in children’s minds.  They are not born evil.  They are endowed with a cheerfulness and a surplus of dynamic energy and a self-starter which demands exercise at any moment.  They are bundles of affection.  They are ambitious, joyous, and anxious to take part in the serious business of the world.  They have more awareness of the world around them than had the kids of my generation.  A child, being naturally and uninhibitedly inquisitive, demands more information every half-hour.  They are intent on discovering the world for themselves (p. 10).

Before sharing three of his letters, a brief overview of Herbert Hoover’s life:  born in Iowa, orphaned before 10 years old, he went to live with relatives in Oregon.  He left school at fifteen to work in an office and attended night school and graduated from college.  After working 18 years as a mining engineer, he did humanitarian work during World War I and became America’s 31st president from 1929-1933.  For 26 years after his presidency, he was chairman of the board of the Boys’ Club of America and enjoyed an extensive correspondence with children.  Answering these letters . . .  has been a great relief from sleepless nights haunted by public anxieties, and they are a restoration of confidence in America’s future (p. 10).

Below are two letters and one article by President Hoover.

Letter 1    I appreciated the reminder in 3.

To the question Richard asked, “What do you think is essential for success?” Herbert Hoover wrote:

I believe the essentials for success are:

1.  Religious faith and morals.

2.  Education, including college.

3.  Do not neglect being just a boy.  It only comes once (p. 105).

Letter 2  With the current fascination with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) it is interesting to note President Hoover’s advice to Ralph about becoming an engineer.

Dear Mr. Hoover:

I am in the eighth grade in school, and I want to be a construction engineer.  I was told, that before you became a president, you were a great engineer yourself.

Therefore, I have prepared several questions which will help me in making plans for the future.  They are as follows:

1.  What school subjects and special training are necessary, or helpful, to an engineer?

2.  Is English important in this type of work?  How?  Why or why not?

3.  How much English is necessary?

4.  How much Math. is necessary?

I will appreciate any information you can give me, and will be looking forward to receiving your letter.

Thank you very much!

Yours truly,

Ralph _____________

My dear Ralph:

That was an especially interesting letter to me, and I am glad that you wish to be an engineer.  Engineers are always working to improve living conditions of people. 

As to question No. 1. The foundations of training to be an engineer are the sciences of physics, chemistry and mathematics.  But engineers must also have training in geography, government, literature, or they become narrow minded. 

Question 2.  English is absolutely necessary as engineers must write intelligent reports and must be able to explain their work or their purposes.

Question No. 3.  How much English is necessary?  It must include a broad knowledge of literature to make a rounded mind and an appreciable man. 

Question No. 4.  How much math is necessary?  All the elementary mathematics and also algebra, calculus and descriptive geometry.  This last one is the test of ability to visualize an engineering project in one’s mind before it starts (p. 113).

The Article  This article contains so many jewels–the power of one person and living books to effect a nation!  Helping students create a love of the story through living books has consequences.  When Herbert Hoover was asked by Reader’s Digest to write about the best advice he had ever received, he wrote the article “Thank You, Miss Gray!”  for the July 1959 issue and he often included a copy of this in his letters to children.  Below is the main portion.

At fifteen years of age I left school to practice the profession of office boy in a business firm in Salem, Oregon.  One day there came into the office a Miss Gray.  She was a tall lady in her thirties, with agreeable manners, kindly eyes, and a most engaging smile.  I was alone in the reception office.  She announced that she was a schoolteacher and asked me about my schooling.  I told her I had to work but that I hoped to go to a night school that was soon to open in town.  Later I found that Miss Gray’s extracurricular occupation was advising—or just being interested in—the young working boys in Salem.  She asked if I was interested in reading books.  She must have thought that some wider scope in book reading was desirable from my replies to her questions as to what I had read.  As a matter of fact, under my austere Quaker upbringing my book reading had been limited to the Bible, the encyclopedia and a few novels which dealt with the sad results of demon rum and the final regeneration of the hero.  As office boy, I read only the morning paper, when my superior finished with it. 

I also mentioned that outside my office hours I had duties with sandlot baseball and fishing.  Not withstanding this, Miss Gray asked me if I would go with her to the small lending library in town.  At the library she said she wished to borrow a copy of Ivanhoe, and she gave it to me saying I would find it interesting.  I read the book at the office between chores, and in the evenings.  It opened a new world filled with the alarms and excursions of battles, the pomp of tournaments, the tragedy of Rebecca’s unrequited love, the heroism of the Black Knight and Locksley, and the destiny of Ivanhoe.  Suddenly I began to see books as living things and was ready for more of them.

A few days later Miss Gray dropped in again and suggested David Copperfield. I can still remember the harshness of Murdstone, the unceasing optimism of Micawber and the wickedness of Uriah Heep.  I have met them alive many times in afteryears. 

And so, through books, my horizons widened, sometimes with Miss Gray’s help, sometimes on my own initiative.  I devoured samples of Thackeray and Irving, biographies of Washington, Lincoln and Grant. 

At the night school the principal introduced me to textbooks on mathematics, elementary science and Latin.  They were important, of course; but, looking back, I realized that the books inspired by Miss Gray had great importance.  While textbooks are necessary to learning, it was those other books which stimulated imagination and a better understanding of life.  They made the whole world a home.  They broadened my scope and made me feel a part of the mighty stream of humanity.

At 17 I went to Stanford University to study engineering.  My time was occupied with the required reading and the extracurricular duties of managing the baseball and football teams and earning my way.  But occasionally Miss Gray wrote to me and suggested certain books to read.  Miss Gray’s influence widened when I began the practice of my profession as an engineer, and it extended over the 18 years which followed.  In that work I had long days of travel, and many hours of waiting for things to happen on ships, railways and canalboats all over the world—from the United States to China, to Burma, to Mexico, to Australia, to Africa, to Canada and to Russia.  On one journey, thanks to Miss Gray’s inoculation, I armed myself with paper bound volumes of Defoe, Zola and Balzac; on another, with such less exciting books as those of Herbert Spencer, James Mill and Walter Bagehot.  Another time I took along Carlyle’s French Revolution, Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and some popular histories of Greece and Egypt.  I also read books on Mohammed, Buddha and Confucius, as well as more American history.

With the coming of World War I and with official duties devouring my time and energy thereafter for many years, my book reading slackened.  Nonetheless, Miss Gray’s influence penetrated even as far as the White House.  When I arrived at the residence in 1929 I found it was mostly bare of books except for the published papers of former Presidents—incomplete at that.  One day I mentioned this famine of representative American literature in the White House to John Howell, an old friend and a leading bookseller.  Under his leadership and with the co-operation of the American Booksellers Association, some 500 books were selected.  Most of these I had read long ago but they were much enjoyed by the many other inhabitants of the White House. 

To me they were always a reminder of Miss Gray, and of the words of John Milton:  “A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

I repeat the title of this article—“Thank You, Miss Gray!”; thank you for guiding me to the rich world of wonder, beauty, wisdom and imagination that can be found in books  (pp 149-152).

This entry was posted in: Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.

1 Comment

  1. What a great description of what this wider education is about! Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing.

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