The Greatness of Our Work

Maria Sanford, who was teaching in Parkersville at the time, gave this address at the August 4, 1868, meeting of the Pennsylvania Teachers’ Association.1 She got the opportunity to give this, her first major public address, when asked to substitute for another teacher.2

Sanford’s main argument is that the human desire for greatness is a God-given incentive to continue to work. The nature of much work is that its significance isn’t immediately apparent, either because a person cannot see how their small part contributes to a greater effort, or because the effect accumulates incrementally over time. This is true of teaching, but it is important to persevere because education is crucial to the maintenance of republican government.

The Greatness of Our Work

The desire to do or be something great is as universal in the human mind as fear or love or hatred.

“The dreams we’ve had of deathless name”3From Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Meeting of the Alumni of Harvard College” may be locked in memory’s most secret cloister, and, like the graves of loved ones, visited only with regretful tears, but they are sacred treasures never lost, save in the shipwreck of all faith and honor, and powerful unto death to fire the soul to high resolves, and nerve the arm to manly effort. These hopes and aspirations are not vain fancies of egotism and folly, but given by the kind Father as incentives to earnestness and enthusiasm in our daily toil; are not false guides but waymarks of a real glory, which even in this world awaits those who neither faint nor falter at the difficulties of the path.

It has been said: “The times we live in are evermore too great to be apprehended near;”4From Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” and equally true is it of the work we do. Separated by time or space from some great achievement, we comprehend its vastness, and give envious homage to those who toil and die in such a cause. But fighting ourselves in the front of the battle, the dust and smoke of the conflict obscure our vision; around us are our dying friends; before us our determined foe. The plaudits of men and the paeans of angels are drowned by the screaming demon of strife. It is not glory, nor triumph, but stern uncompromising duty, whose mandates we obey.5Three years after the Civil War ended, Sanford evokes a familiar image. Brilliant deeds and striking phenomena wear so openly the proof of their high descent, that in yielding them their birthright of honor or of awe, we are in danger of forgetting that greatness has silent children, who are equally worthy of our homage. We need to be taught, like one of old, that the presence of the Almighty is not in the whirlwind, nor in the earthquake, but in the still, small voice.61 Kings 19:11-13 Drop by drop the streamlet trickles down the crevice of the rock; it is a little thing, and we heed it not; but the riven mountain testifies of its tremendous power. Wave by wave the restless sea frets the sand upon a hundred shores. We watch its ebb and flow, yet see no change; but in the rocky records of the buried past we read that continents have been built, and mountains undermined by this neverceasing force. Day by day a soldier watches, and waits, and works. Patiently surmounting every obstacle, faithfully performing every duty; he has no letters for political intriguers at home; no stump speeches for gaping idlers in the camp. As he makes no bustle nor parade, he is almost overlooked by his brilliant peers. But steadily and sturdily he presses his way to victory. And we, surfeited with eloquence, and exhausted by the failures of boastful genius, gathering new courage from his successful career, commit our cause unto his keeping; and the great of the nation rests in confidence upon the silent hero who fights it out upon the line of unflinching, single minded obedience to duty.

The slow growth of enduring good often prevents those who cherish its infant life from seeing the majestic proportions of its maturity: and, like Columbus, they fall asleep in sorrow, never dreaming of the grandeur of the work their patient genius has originated. They who planted principles upon New England hillsides, and sowed education broadcast in her valleys, went down to their graves in poverty and obscurity, and, with here and there an exception, their names are buried in the dust of years. But was their work a trifling one? Have they failed of their reward? They have made that barren strip of rock and shore, richer than El Dorado in the wealth of intellect she has nurtured, and broader than the continent in the great truths she has upheld.

The cause in which we are enlisted, and in whose name we gather here, if comprehended in its real worth and grandeur, would kindle our highest ambition, and inspire our noblest zeal. Much has already been accomplished. Education has again and again vanquished the hosts of ignorance. Once, word and thought were chained to a bigot’s rod, and the many were but tools and chattels of the few. The earth beneath was sealed in darkness, and the heavens above were clothed with terror. Superstition reigned supreme, and guarded her throne by the frowning mysteries of the world around, within, beyond. All this is changed. Nature has put off her frightful mask, and taken us into confidence. Thought is free; and man has learned the measure of a man.7Sanford’s pairing of ignorance about the physical world with superstition about the divine world comes perhaps from the way that she personally reconciled religious faith with scientific advances, particularly evolution. She thought of God as law: the giver of both natural and moral laws.

Such is the foundation, broad and firm, upon which we build. We rear a living temple that shall stand through time; and our work shall wear unchanged the imprint of our hand. If we retire within our niche in darkness and discontent, wearily counting each tiresome blow, no growing beauty will relieve the dreary drudgery. Our work will be scanty, and our wages small. But if we stand out in the glorious sunlight, and catch the inspiration of the noble plan, our handiwork shall speak its symmetry and perfection; our hardest labor will be a loving service which knows no discouragement, feels no weariness and is its own exceeding great reward. The dilapidated school-house, with its barefoot boys and awkward girls, has no charm for those who worship in Fame’s temple, and know no greatness save applause. But is it, therefore, naught? It has decided the fate of nations, and moulded the destiny of man. What but the intelligence of the masses proved the bulwark of English freedom, while the fiery chivalry of France, and the haughty nobility of Spain, struggled fiercely and fell before the deadly blows of despotism?8Sanford posits education as crucial to republican government. Only the involvement of a broadly educated citizenry can sustain it. What but the love of law, and faith in honor, which education rooted deep in the hearts of the common people, saved our nation in the mighty conflict, which shook the continent and amazed the world? Sink the boasted navy of the republic in the sea, and bury its glorious army in the dust; naked and crippled, our giant land would be a giant still. Deprive the nation of its schools, and there needs no prophet’s ken to see it blind and dumb, bound hand and foot to the wheels of a tyrant’s car.

If our country is to meet the mighty responsibilities of the future under the guidance of statesmen calm and cool, keen-sighted and large-hearted,—men whose faith in truth and right the heavens and earth could not shake, and whose unsullied honor the arch-enemy himself would fail to tarnish,—the seed must be sown in the schoolrooms of to-day.

By the impressive lessons of the past, by the teachings of the present, the hearts of the children must be wedded to national morality, and their lives devoted to national progress. By the illustrious examples of the dead, and the noble deeds of living patriots; by the magnetic power of such names as Pericles and Trajan, William the Silent and Abraham Lincoln, our youth shall be led onward to lives of elevated patriotism and heroic virtue.9Sanford’s view of history is that it provides lessons and salutary examples for how the current generation ought to live. One cannot simply repeat the past, though, because devotion to progress is one of the lessons to be learned.

If the homes that crowd our eastern hilltops, dot the broad prairies of the West, and even now inherit the wild mountain and deep valley where the Indian dies, are to be made more beautiful in refinement and grace and gentle kindness, than nature and art have made them in outward adornment; richer in love and virtue and self-sacrifice than in the material wealth that crowns them; if they are to be the refuge of the oppressed, the hope and salvation of the erring, it is the school and the teacher that must mainly do the work.10Education also plays a vital role in preparing each family home to play its part in sustaining society. It’s notable that Sanford here depicts westward expansion as families and homes moving into the prairies and plains. Our school houses must be made tasteful and attractive; neatness and order and harmony must pervade them like a charm.11Sanford will frequently return in her future addresses to the importance of beauty and cleanliness. By living example, and by constant precept, the children must be lifted up to a higher and holier life. If these who fill the high places of learning, the philosophers, poets, historians, linguists, whom we all delight to honor, are to be succeeded by these who “build the lofty rhyme;”12From John Milton’s “Lycidas” who, holding nature’s hand, can follow the rugged pathway to the secret chambers where she has hidden her mysteries; who can read God’s hieroglyphics on the rocks, and trace his finger in the sky; who, from the wrecks of stranded rivers, and the unknown fishes of an unknown sea, can draw the outline of a buried world and people it with life; who can explain the wondrous mechanism of man, and trace his geneology through the far, far distant past; who can interpret the words of warning and encouragement that come to us from the nations that have sunk to rest, and, by a kindred word, detect their long-forgotten wanderings; then the children must be taught to observe accurately, to think clearly, to follow truth implicitly. The ears of the little ones must be quickened to catch the voices by which wisdom speaks to them from flower, and rock, and star. Their eyes must be opened to behold the distant hills whose glorious outlook rewards those who dare to try the steep and difficult ascent; and their souls inspired by “the dream, the thirst, the wild desire, delirious yet divine, to know.”13From Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “Knowledge”

The nations of the earth are looking unto us. China stretches out her arm across the sea, for aid in waking her swarming millions from the dormant sleep of ages, and transforming them into men. Liberal English statesmen, impressed by the strength and flexibility of a government backed by a thorough system of common school education, are struggling earnestly to obtain for their own land this priceless boon. France looks upon our virtuous homes, and seeks to give education to her women, that the land may have wives and mothers worthy of those holy names.

Indifference, narrow-minded selfishness and wilful prejudice meet and thwart us on every hand. We must often stand alone and bear the curses of the crowd, for daring to do what we know to be right; but it may be our high privilege to speak to the heart of some little child, and write the name of God upon some human soul. Surely the work is great: it is a sacred trust; but to read its deep significance the soul must be purified of vain self seeking; must learn that the laurel crown which fades not, is worn by those who, seeing no reward, can patiently toil and

“Reach a hand through time to catch
The far-off interest of tears.”14From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”

Who, prizing above all honor the approval of the voice within, can be content to go forward, obeying the mandate:

“Work for some good, be it ever so slowly,
Cherish some flower, be it ever so lowly;
Labor, all labor, is noble and holy;
Let thy great deeds be thy prayer to thy God.”15From
Frances Osgood ‘s “Labour”

Sources used:

Whitney, Helen Ardell. Maria Sanford. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1922.
Pennsylvania School Journal. “Proceedings of State Association.” September 1868.
Sanford, Maria. “The Greatness of Our Work.” Pennsylvania School Journal, October 1868.
Minneapolis Daily News. “Maria Sanford, at 80, Says She Could Not Live Without Work.” December 18, 1916. Maria L. Sanford papers. Minnesota Historical Society.

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