Ralph Waldo Emerson: On Education

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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

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Book Review of The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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Our lives are intertwined, entangled like waves merging in the ocean. We see ourselves in others, in the world around us. The physical appearance of our parents, the traditions of our culture and unique intricacies of our closest friends all leave their mark on who we are, and who we become.

 The ‘I’, our ego, is porous and unbound. It is elusive and cannot be contained, like grains of sand peering through your fingers on the beach. The self is dynamic and evolving as we both shape and are shaped by our environment. To be human is to be nested in a world of finitude and transience. Aware of the fleeting nature of our existence, we eagerly try to find order and balance in a world that is constantly changing.

These are some of the themes that Virginia Woolf beautifully explores in her book The Waves. The book details the coming of age of six characters looking at their lives as they transition from childhood friends to adults collectively experiencing love, loss and friendship.

Those looking for a straightforward narrative, with an event packed plot will be disappointed. The Waves reads more as interwoven soliloquies focusing on the characters internal dialogues. We get a glimpse into the nuances and complexities of the human psyche.

  • What events and life experiences shape who someone is, and what they become?
  • How do we make meaning in a seemingly vast and chaotic world?
  • How do our relationships with others shape our character?

Let’s look at some of the key themes of the book.

Human Subjectivity

‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’ ‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’ ‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep chirp; going up and down. ’‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.’

In The Waves events are distilled through the thoughts and inner perceptions of each of the six characters. They each see and interpret the world through their own unique lenses. For instance, each of the characters responds to grief differently as we see in the aftermath of death of their friend Percival.

The reader is exposed to the constant tension between the differences between our perceptions and reality. We see the disconnect in how we want to be perceived in the world, and how we are actually viewed by others. In our day-to-day life we may be quick to judge others, but rarely have a window into the internal struggles each individual is facing.

 Through her breathtaking prose and poetic passages scattered throughout the book, Virginia Woolf provides us with a microscope into the mind of the other.  

The Self

And now I ask, ‘Who am I?’ I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis. Am I all of them? Am I one and distinct? I do not know. We sat here together. But now Percival is dead and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here. Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us. There is no division between me and them. As I talked I felt, ‘I am you.’ This difference we make so much of, this identity we so feverishly cherish, was overcome

Throughout the book we see several of the characters acknowledge the fluidity of the self. Each character leaves an imprint, a mark, on the other.

The individual doesn’t exist independently, but rather is the sum of their collective experiences with the other characters. Like branches stemming from a tree, each of the six friends exhibit their own unique personality types, but are joined by a common root. The shared events and circumstances which shape their lives determines who they are, and who they will become.

Time

The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping

Each chapter begins with a poetic description of the sun as it shifts from sunrise to sunset throughout the course of the book. These interludes symbolize the passing of time and the degree of impermanence which we are bound to as human beings. The motif of the waves crashing against the seashore points to this tension of death and renewal, between permanence and impermanence. As each wave moves towards the shore it will reach its end of the cycle, whereas others will begin anew.

We know intuitively that we are finite beings whose days living on this planet are numbered, however we rarely confront this fact directly in our day to day lives. We see each of the characters deal with the fleeting nature of time in their own unique ways. Some characters embody the attitude of embracing each moment, while others try to achieve a degree of permanence and legacy through the creation of art.

All of these life projects are an attempt to forge order out of chaos, to find meaning in an indifferent universe.

Final Thoughts

Although it did take me some time to get used to Woolf’s style of writing, I was taken in by the beauty and elegance of her prose. The Waves reads almost like an extended poem rather than a novel. Woolf gives us a preview of something we are not exposed to in our day to day lives. That is, the inner dialogues, perceptions and internal thoughts that run through our minds.

Exposing the reader to the dynamics of human subjectivity, The Waves compels us towards greater empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings. If only we knew what others were feeling and thinking, perhaps we would treat them differently, with more kindness and with less judgement.

The Waves is one of those books that you can turn to at different stages in life and each time you pick it up will evoke a different emotional response.

Its presence in my room reminds me of the transitory nature of my life calling me to cherish each and every moment as I briefly remember the ephemerality of my time here on earth.


All quotes are taken from The Waves by Virginia Woolf

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Beyond the Individual: Inquiries into our Different Selves

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Who am I?

At first this seems like a pretty basic and trivial question.

I surely know what I am, right?

But the more I look into the matter, the more skeptical I become of a stable or fixed idea of the self. For instance, I could tell you that I am synonymous with my body, and provide you with all the details of my physical appearance. However, this description is elusive at best. As I age my body and its attributes are continually in a state of change – a state of flux. In a matter of months, billions of cells in my body will die and be replaced.

Being disappointed with that inquiry, I then turn to my personality, my character or disposition. I find that my identity and character traits are much more fluid and malleable than I once thought. That is, my personality is context dependent. I find myself to behave uniquely in different social settings. I almost become a different person when I am with my friends as opposed to my family or at work.

Frustrated and in dismay, in one last final attempt, I look at evidence for psychological continuity examining my mind, memories and subjective day-to-day experience. Yet, again I find myself disappointed.

Our memories aren’t as reliable as I once thought.  As psychologist Bruce Hood demonstrates in his book The Self Illusion, memories aren’t like fixed pieces of information stored in a computer hard drive. Rather, they are in a continual state of reorganization, becoming immersed and weaved into new experiences. They are ‘edited’ to assist us in telling coherent narratives and making sense of the world.

As Bruce Hood explains,

Our identity is the sum of our memories, but it turns out that memories are fluid, modified by context and sometimes simply confabulated. This means we cannot trust them, and our sense of self is compromised.

The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood

Buddhism: No-Self

The Buddhist doctrine of anatta posits that there is no concrete or unchanging self that we possess or carry throughout our day-to-day experience. Our bodies, personality and mind are constantly in a state of change. Nothing within us or in the outside world is permanent. Attempting to cling onto a static identity is like trying to grasp onto water.

For Buddhists, all that exists are fleeting moments of consciousness or mental states, passing by like water flowing continuously in a river. 

The contemplative exercise of meditation can help us further understand this notion. During meditation, one is asked to turn their attention to the breath. As mental sensations, emotions and thoughts arise, one gradually learns to detach and watch them as they fade away. Through this practice we come to an understanding that we do not amount to our thoughts.

Rather than identifying with our thoughts, we become a witness or objective observer.

Further experienced meditators note that the feeling of having an internal narrator to our experiences in our minds is just another illusive mental state that arises in consciousness that we can perceive and let go of. That is, the feeling of having a self or an ‘I’ can disappear as well.

 As Sam Harris notes in his book Waking Up,

For most people experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness requires considerable training. It is, however, possible to notice that consciousness that in you which is aware of your experience in this moment – does not feel like a self. It does not feel like “I”. What you are calling “I” is itself a feeling that arises out of the contents of consciousness. Consciousness is prior to it, a mere witness to it, and therefore, free of it in principle.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Sam Harris

The Social Self

Think of the myriad of ways that you are influenced by your external environment. Your work, friends, family and hobbies all leave an imprint on who you are, and who you become. Sociologist Charles Cooley developed the term the ‘looking glass self’ to describe how we mold ourselves to fit the opinions or expectations of others. We often see this phenomenon in the case of celebrities who put on a public persona or ‘mask’ in the public eye while disclosing what they are truly like in their private life.

Cooley’s thesis can be distilled into the following esoteric passage, “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”

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This begs the question, if our character and disposition is always adapting to different social environments, is there a ‘core’ or true identity one holds onto throughout their life?

Exploring the fluidity and interconnectedness between ourselves and others, Virginia Woolf looks at this concept in her wonderful experimental novel The Waves. Weaving through the internal monologues and soliloquies of six distinct characters, Woolf forces the reader to contemplate how we are defined by our relationships. For Woolf, boundaries are permeable, and the distinction between you and ‘I’ is not always clear.

Our friends, how seldom visited, how little known—it is true; and yet, when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call ‘my life,’ it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am—Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis: or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

The Waves, Virginia Woolf

Self as a Dynamic Network

As I’ve argued throughout this article, the self can’t be reduced to a single homogenous entity. It is more like a dynamical system or network changing over time. As philosopher Kathleen Wallace claims in her book The Network Self, we are comprised of interconnected and interdependent traits from different domains of our lives, including those from our social relations, family relationships and biological dispositions.

We may identify with some traits more than others, while some characteristics may become more salient in specific social contexts. For instance, in a work networking event our identity may be strongly linked to our occupation whereas in other situations being a parent may take precedence at a family birthday party.

Further, our physical appearance and personalities are not static as they continually evolve throughout our lives. We may become radically different people at 50 as opposed to when we were 15.  As Kathleen Wallace suggests, the network self accounts for our changing character throughout our lifetime.

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists, even if there are many aspects of its history that a self disavows going forward or even if the way in which its history is relevant changes.

The Self is Not Singular but a Fluid Network of Identities, Kathleen Wallace

Implications

Viewing the self as something that is dynamic and fluid, allows us to transcend cultural stereotypes which often pin us down to a reductive single trait.

As opposed to solely identifying with one’s cultural ethnicity, we can start to break down barriers finding commonalities with others rather than focusing on our differences. This is not to say that we shouldn’t prioritize or value some identities over others, but it is to argue that we are more interesting, complex and nuanced than a single label or category.

Perhaps this can be a first step in addressing the rigidity of positions espoused in the current ‘culture wars.’

Lastly, looking at the self as a continually evolving interdependent system provides us with a degree of liberation. We are not required to cling onto a certain conception of ourselves affording us the possibility of change and transformation.

Thus, we can break free of the self-imposed cages we put ourselves in and truly be free.

You are under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago

Alan Watts

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