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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Renewing the Dignity of Work: A Review of the Tyranny of Merit

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In the book The Tyranny of Merit, the renowned Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel sets out to explore the origins of the recent populist sentiment in Western democracies.

How can we explain the public distrust in social, economic and social institutions that we see in the West?

 Both Brexit and the recent presidential elections in the United States point towards the fact that many people no longer believe the stories about upward mobility and economic success that are continually reinforced in popular culture. It is clear that trust in the credibility of many of our institutions, experts and decision makers has been eroding.

The Problem: How Did We Get Here?

Sandel’s diagnosis of these issues stem from our unwavering support in the meritocratic system that governs our society. The belief that individuals, regardless of the social standing in which they are born, can rise as far as their talents can take them. A validation of the ‘rags to riches’ stories that are well known in our public consciousness.

As inequalities of wealth and income rise in many developed countries, and social mobility stagnates, we begin to see the dark side of this meritocratic ideal. It entrenches and justifies the pride of the ‘winners’ while solidifying the guilt and shame of the least well off. Moreover, those who achieve success tend to see their lot as a direct result of their own doing. It emboldens them with a sense of meritocratic hubris, which can lead them to look down those who have less social standing.

The meritocratic logic is that everyone deserves what they get.

You may object that people’s social standing and wealth is justified because our society permits upward mobility and rewards hard work. Where one ends up is ultimately their responsibility.

Of course, there is truth to that statement. However, Sandel recognizes the impediments people face when aiming to move up the social ladder. Namely, those who have existing wealth and power often mold the system in their favor. This occurs most explicitly when those with the means to do so can buy their kids way into elite colleges. We saw this with the college admissions cheating scandal. Moreover, having access to the right connections, social and community support, and better schooling gives some individuals an inherent advantage over others.

Irrespective of how well our societies enable enable upward mobility, Sandel’s main thesis is to question the ideal of meritocracy in and of itself.

Let’s look at two problems he identifies.

1.The Role of Luck

 While our hard work and ambition play a role in our success, we can’t ignore the arbitrariness of several key elements that are out of our control. We don’t choose whether we are born into a wealthy or poor family, our family upbringing or genetics. Random life events sometimes can either provide us with good fortune or derail our long-sought after plans.

Grit and determination do matter. However, isn’t it also true that one can work tirelessly long hours and not see the lucky break that they deserve?

In addition, we can’t claim credit for the particular talents society values. The book looks at the case of Lebron James. As a super basketball player living in a society that rewards the game of basketball, he is generously rewarded for his talents ($42 million/year to be exact). But, if Lebron was born in Renaissance Florence, a period of time which valued artists, sculptors and fresco paintings, his talents as an elite basketball player wouldn’t pay off financially.

2. A Question of Value(s)  

Economists will claim that the most efficient way to financially reward individuals is to allocate their income in a way that aligns with the supply and demand of the market. However, efficient outcomes are not necessarily ethical or just. They don’t always align with our values and morals.

The hit TV show Breaking Bad looks at the story of Walter White. It assesses his transformation from a modest earning high school teacher to a high-income narcotics dealer. Although the market rewards him for being a drug dealer, we wouldn’t say that this profession creates more value to society than that of a high school teacher.

His new job as a drug dealer in fact leaves people worse off through addictions and damage to the health of others. The point is the market makes no ethical judgements- it is morally neutral. It doesn’t tell us what contributes to the common good.

A recent example to highlight this idea is the discrepancy between market rewards and morals is in the 2008 financial crisis. Many financiers profited off the vulnerability of others by knowingly selling risky investments. The speculation bubble popped, leaving the average person to loose a lot of money while enriching the bankers through the ‘too big to fail’ bailouts.

Contributive Justice and the Common Good

To be clear Sandel is not advocating to a return to earlier forms of social organization. What he is ultimately attempting to do is to get us to rethink success and the contributions our work provides to common good.

He is trying to restore the dignity of work.

He makes it clear that every job, especially those ‘low-skill’ workers that we look down upon, is fulfilling the essential needs of society. This sentiment is nicely summed up by Martin Luther King Jr.,

One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant

The book goes beyond mere technocratic policy solutions. Sandel wants to begin a dialogue about how we can restore social solidarity and community by respecting the significance that others provide our society through their work.

He wants to question the assumption that ‘value’ is confined to economics, arguing that it should be something the public sphere should weigh in on.

Final Thoughts

I remember my first essay in university was a reflection on Winston Churchill’s famous quote “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

I feel the same way about meritocracy. Sandel exposes the issues with it as an ideal and as it plays out in the real world. However, it is not clear what would be a better organizing system for society.

In the final analysis, whether you agree with the book’s critiques, it provides a good starting point for us to think more critically about the dignity of work. Work is not only a means for us to earn a living, but something that provides us with self-esteem, a sense of worth and social recognition.

In the age of the pandemic, perhaps we all can start appreciating how valuable those ‘essential workers’ really are.

Work, at its best, is a socially integrating activity, an arena of recognition, a way of honoring our obligation to contribute to the common good

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit

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