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"Why the Who's Are Who" from Outlook

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Outlook
Why the Who's Are Who
by Ellis Parker Butler

The more a man knows, if he knows it usably, the better chance he has in life; but the man who knows a little and who knows how to use what he does know has a better chance than the man who knows much and does not know how to make use of it. A man has only two legs and a mule has four, but you seldom see a mule driving a man.

In the rear pages of the unabridged dictionary there is a page showing how to use proofreaders' marks. When I secured a job as assistant editor, I cut out that page and put it in my pocket, and I read printers' proofs on four magazines for eight years and no one ever knew that I had not been a proofreader from my cradle days. I was not a graduate proofreader, but I did know where the marks were pictured in the dictionary, and I knew how to make use of that knowledge.

Nothing a man learns is valueless, unless he does not know how to use it. When I was in school, and for long thereafter, I considered the Rule of Three -- proportion -- the most useless and asinine thing a lot of fool school teachers ever tried to pound into a boy's head, but every working day for seven years, while editing magazines, I used the Rule of Three in cutting odd-sized photographs to make them fit unalterable columns and pages.

Ellis Parker Butler

A member of the Chicago Press Club once told me that George Ade -- then master of the brightest column of a Chicago paper -- used to pick up the city directory at the club and turn the pages, saying, "Painters -- what do I know about painters? -- Physicians -- what do I know about physicians?" until some fact he knew about painters or physicians or plumbers leaped from his brain to become four "sticks" of brilliancy. Ade ended one of his little gems with the leader of a street band saying, "And now we will play No. 8 in the black book" -- a scrap of Ade's education in street bands; and something like half a million readers exclaimed, with gurgles of glee: "They do have black books, don't they?" Ade never forgets anything he has learned, and he never forgets when and how to use it. Show him just once how to use a monkey wrench, and I'll warrant he will never use it to brush his hair. If he does, he will make a good job of it, considering the quality and quantity of hair and the inflexibility of the monkey wrench.

When I was a boy, I had a series of most lovable and interesting teachers, but, while I have a vague belief that seven times nine is fifty-four, I can be argued into a belief that it is sixty-four by any one who has a serious mien and a lead pencil. I was always the permanent foot of my class in spelling, grammar, and penmanship, a state of affairs possibly not most desirable for one destined for a life of authorship. In the last thirty years I do not think I have misspelled "cat" more than once or twice, and I always feel fairly safe in using "mat," "rat," and "hat," but it is rather annoying when you want to say a heroine's head is a mass of fuzzy hair not to know whether the word you would like to use is spelled "aurryole" or "orryole" or "oriole." A heroine might object if I said "her hair formed an oriole around her head." So I always write "halo" instead. I know a halo is worn on the head and not on the feet.

Education is much better conducted now than when I was young, I have no doubt, and our students leave school less doubtful regarding the things they have been taught. The capitals of the States, for example. Almost any day you can hear one student saying to another, "Chicago ain't either the capital of Illinois; Springfield is," and the answer, "That's right; but Chicago would of been if Springfield hadn't of been." A little girl in Billings, Montana, came home with a "memory gem" she had learned at school.

"I learned a new memory gem at school today," she proudly told her mother.

"What was it?" her mother asked.

"Why, it was 'Susan Adams forgets Susan Adams,'" the dear little child replied.

"But that does not mean anything," her mother objected; "it could not be that."

"Yes, it was, mamma; 'Susan Adams forgets Susan Adams.' That was it."

So the mother asked the teacher. It was not "Susan Adams forgets Susan Adams;", it was "Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm." Still, I suppose that if a child learned "Susan Adams forgets Susan Adams" thoroughly enough, and considered it a noble and uplifting sentiment, it would indeed help her to grow up into a better and finer woman. There is a certain lesson in self-effacement in the idea of Susan Adams forgetting Susan Adams that should teach us to be meek, and the meek "inherit the earth."

In this practical world men are apt to say, "I don't give a hang what your education was; do you know what you know?" Personally I don't care whether Jane has a graduation certificate from the Elite Cooking Academy or not; I want to know if she can cook. The gold seal on the business college diploma does not help much if a stenographer cannot read her own notes.

Our modern school system is like throwing a handful of confetti in the air and hoping some of it will fall on the heads of the scholars, while a fairly strong wind of inattention, carelessness, and young-folk interests is blowing all the while. The surprising thing is that so much of the confetti lands and sticks. Thanks to the teachers for that.

Every man is born, matures, lives a while and dies, but so does the tadpole, and the tadpole, in its life career, changes into a frog, which is more than some men do. The tadpole gets along pretty well, too -- is more efficient in the job of living than some men are. It does not know much, but it knows how to use what it does know. It knows how to make use of every bit of knowledge with which it is endowed.

Man ranks higher than the tadpole because man knows more -- can learn more -- but this does not do the man any good if he has not been taught how to use what he knows. I figure that there are over seven million little drawers hanging at the left sides of sewing-machines, all chock-full of tuckers and hemmers and things, most exquisitely beautiful to the eye, but never used because mother has not the know-how to use them. And about three feet above an equal number of office stools there are an equal number of rapidly balding heads chock-full of expensively acquired education that is equally useless and for the same reason.

The world is full of successful men who are successful because they have the know-how to use what they know. We all have feet, but Charlie Chaplin knew how to use the fact that one foot can be pointed east while the other points due west; and in China and Timbuctoo little Chinese and Timbuctootles are today picking up little crook-handled canes and waddling like little penguins while their elders hold their sides and laugh, and Charlie Chaplin's portrait is as familiar as George Washington's the world over.

I have read that Charlie Chaplin entered the motion-picture career at a Vanderbilt cup race by crossing the track in front of an oncoming racing car in a comical manner, intentionally but without having been asked to do so. Every barnyard chicken knows how to cross the road in front of an automobile in a comical manner, but it does not know how to make fame and fortune by it.

For all I am aware, Charlie Chaplin may know Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, conic sections, trigonometry, and all the things that come with a college education; but he knew something more valuable than all that -- he knew how to make use of something he knew.

A college education, or any other education, is valueless unless its owner knows how to use it. We are not helped by what we know, but by what we know how to use. "Who's Who" is not filled with college graduates; it is filled with men and women who know how.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:12:07am USA Central
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