The Soul as Steersman of our Lives: Hartley Burr Alexander

by Catherine Pyke '79

In the summer of 1927, Hartley Burr Alexander left his tenured position as professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska to become a founding faculty member of a small, experimental women’s college set among the orange groves of Southern California. It was a gamble on his part, yet it could not have reaped a greater reward. His accomplishments and presence helped shape Scripps College and are still felt nearly a century later.

At 54, Alexander was a nationally renowned figure, an educator, poet, writer, and philosopher, best known for the inspired architectural inscriptions that he placed in prominent buildings, such as the Nebraska State Capitol, the Los Angeles Public Library, and New York’s Rockefeller Center. He became a celebrated author of numerous articles, poems, pageants, plays and 16 books, several of which he wrote during his years at Scripps. Among the best known are: Liberty and Democracy (1918), God and Man’s Destiny (1936) and The World’s Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians (published posthumously in 1953).

Alexander was born on April 9, 1873, in Lincoln, Nebraska, and raised by his father, George Sherman Alexander, a Methodist minister, and his artist-stepmother, Susan Godding Alexander. His mother, Abbey, died when he was three. After graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1897, he taught English at the University of Pennsylvania, then transferred to Columbia University, where he received his Doctor of Philosophy in 1901. In 1927, he was recruited by the first president of Scripps College and fellow Nebraskan, Ernest Jaqua, to put together a first-rate faculty and to conceptualize the curriculum of the newly formed college for women. He lived and taught in Claremont until his death from congestive heart failure, in 1939, at age 66.

Alexander devised a plan he called “The Scripps Idea,” the precursor of Scripps’ humanities core curriculum.

A basic program for the study of liberal learning that formed the required curriculum of the College, it involved the ethics, philosophy, literature, and arts of significant periods of history, taught in the context of the historical, economic, and social forces of these eras. The humanities program called for planning and instruction by the entire faculty and was an intricate and comprehensive plan, through which, over the course of four years, Scripps women would be immersed in The Classical World, Medieval and Renaissance periods, and The Modern World—each examined through the lenses of literature, history and philosophy, science and mathematics, foreign languages, and physical training (dance, music, and drama). A breakthrough approach in its day, it would be widely emulated by colleges throughout the nation.

By all accounts, the students, faculty members, and others who came to know him were keenly aware of Alexander’s extraordinary intellectual powers and felt themselves blessed, changed in some significant way, by engaging with this rare learned mind, which could, at times, be intimidating.

Ellen Clark Revelle ’31 recalls the day Alexander asked students in his class to define ethics. Alexander’s reaction to one student’s response was: “You have written a wonderful definition. It could not have been better if I had written it myself. In fact, I did. I edited Webster’s Dictionary from Bicycle through Marriage.” (Alexander had, in fact, begun his writing career on the editorial staff for G.& C. Merriam Company’s Webster’s New International Dictionary from 1903-1908.)

In an oral history interview, Scripps art professor Millard Sheets credits Alexander as the person who transformed his life by impressing upon him the value of education. Sheets first saw Alexander in a faculty meeting, describing him as a man who looked exactly like an Iowa farmer. “After he said about five sentences,” he said,” I knew this was Hartley Alexander. I instinctively knew that this man was really very special.”

Sheets recalls one evening when Alexander and his wife, Nellie, came to his home for a dinner party. Although it was Prohibition, Sheets had managed to find several bottles of exquisite wine. After dinner, Sheets, who had forgone a chance to attend Pomona College in favor of art school, pontificated that humanities courses were overrated and that talented young artists ought to be allowed to spend more time in the art studio. There was a moment of silence. Suddenly Dr. Alexander said, “Well, Millard, the trouble with you artists is, you’re not educated.”

“If somebody had taken a 25-pound sledge and hit me right smack between the eyes,” Sheets said, “they couldn’t have hit me any harder.”

The next morning, Sheets approached Alexander in his office: “Dr. Alexander, you said something last night that really shook me right to the bottom of my feet. I’ve thought about it all night. I want to know how an artist should get an education.”

Alexander looked at him intently, and then shed two of the biggest tears Sheets had ever seen. He cancelled his classes and talked to Sheets for the remainder of the day about the world’s great philosophers and ideas.

“He opened a world that I didn’t know could exist,” Sheets said, “with the most incredible combination of piercing criticism and unlimited love, the kind of a guy that you felt socked you on the jaw, and just as you started to fall, he lovingly held you from falling.”

Afterwards, Alexander invited him to his home on Tuesday evenings, and the lessons continued for two months. Then, Sheets asked if he could invite some of his artist friends to join them. For the next six years, a number of artists gathered in Alexander’s home. Discussing ideas and history, they learned how an artist becomes not just a craftsman but an educated person.

Nearing the end of his life,Alexander took great pleasure in writing to the graduating classes to help former students continue to feel a connection to the College and to each other. To the class of 1931, he wrote:”You have all been advancing with shy footsteps out into the Events of Life for almost twelve months… What we wish to know is how in your traveling do you find this World?”

Alexander’s annual letters updated graduates about their classmates, told of jobs and fellowships taken, and complained of the difficulty of keeping track of them when they married and changed their names. Mostly, he reminded women that their educations had made them masters of their fate.

“We human beings become servants of many chances,” he wrote. “But little is worse than to give our lives in slavery to Place and Event. Our souls should be our own, the steersmen of our lives. I trust at least that our Scripps education has taught you this. No college can teach more.”