Ralph Waldo Emerson: On Education

In this series on education, I’ve been arguing that the education system should aim to nourish one’s unique gifts and work towards cultivating the person as a whole. Of course, it is important to develop practical and marketable skills that enable one to navigate the job market. However, viewing education merely from this narrow reductionist lens of marketability misses the broader picture.  As I’ve noted in my article on the German concept of Bildung, education is also about building moral character, and developing the virtues necessary for a well functioning society. Moreover, education can allow us to experiment with different ideas and ways of being, leading to richer more meaningful lives.

In this article, I want to look at the ideas of the philosopher, poet and naturalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his essay entitled ‘The American Scholar’, Emerson delivers a commencement speech to a group of young graduates reflecting on the value and objective of the life of a scholar.

Authenticity and Creation

Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding

We are all born into a particular place and time period. For the most part, our thoughts, ideas and belief systems stem from the culture that we grew up in.

How often do we exercise our ability for self reflection and critical thinking to challenge the conventional wisdom or dominant ways of life in our society?

For Emerson, while the student must learn from the wisdom of the past, they must not be bound by it. Education must aim to inspire an individual to create. Emerson claims that the student must find their own authentic voice rather than dogmatically imitate the teachings of their predecessors. He writes,

The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they,—let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward. But genius always looks forward. ….. Man hopes. Genius creates. To create,—to create,—is the proof of a divine presence.

The greatest thinkers of the past were those who challenged the views of the masses. They were initially dismissed and scorned for their unconventional views. However, it was only in retrospect where we came to appreciate the true genius of these individuals.  

Great thinkers like Socrates provoked the uncritical views held by many of the prominent Athenians in Ancient Greece. He counselled others to make time for self-reflection, and most importantly to think for oneself.  Credited as the founder of Western philosophy, Socrates was adamant in abiding by his ideals and values even in the face of death.

A Life of Action

Emerson was critical of the scholars who hide themselves away under books in the proverbial ‘ivory tower.’ The life of a scholar is the life of action. Action enables one to put into practice what they preach.

It is easy to criticize others and the systems we live in, without taking concrete steps to change your behaviour.

Action is the conduit between intellectual theories and the inner workings of the world. Discussing the importance of living a life in accordance with one’s values, Emerson reflects on the value of engaging in meaningful action to make your mark in the world.

Without it thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action. Only so much do I know, as I have lived. Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

It is only through leaving the sheltered world of academia, and venturing out into the world where we gain access to ample raw materials to further nourish our creativity and authentic character.

Conclusion

Emerson, known as one of proponents of the transcendentalist movement, claimed that we ought to look to Nature for insight into our proper place in the world. After all we human beings are apart of Nature, not separate. Through studying the vast intricacies of Nature, we begin to become aware of the vast connections of our world.

We see the linkages between different subjects, and begin to appreciate the role that each of the parts play in the whole. Human beings are not merely individualistic entities striving for self-interest. Rather their actions affect and are affected by the broader systems and ecosystems they are embedded in.

While it is useful for the education system to divide up knowledge into different disciplines creating different experts and specialists, we must never forget the bigger picture- that is how everything is deeply interconnected.


All quotes in this article were sourced from ‘The American Scholar’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Source Image: Pexels Free Photos

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