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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Living in the Gift

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Take a deep breath. Open your eyes and observe what is around you.

Look at the sun beaming through the blossoming trees. Listen to the birds singing ecstatically with feverous joy. Touch the different textures of plants in your garden as you await a bountiful feast upon harvest.

We didn’t earn the pleasures of the awe inspiring world that we were born into. Rather they were freely available to us upon birth. They are gifts.

Life is a gift.

We are all born as helpless infants, dependent on our parents or caregivers for our day to day survival. They’ve fed us, nourished us and did the best they could to get us to where we are today.

Our lives are shaped from the generosity of others, and sustained through the abundance and blessings of nature.

When you look at things from this vantage point, you begin to feel a sense of immense gratitude. Your heart pours out with joy. The crude individualism that is revered in our culture begins to slowly fade away. How could we, in good faith, remain in a state of arrogance and greed if we truly recognize all that we were given in this life.

As we become aware and grateful of the many gifts our world provides, we are called to give back. We give with generosity, without demanding anything in return, because we are appreciative of all that we have received.

Each of us is unique and can offer our distinct gifts to the world.

As the writer and activist Charles Eisenstein notes, we are all born into a world of abundance. We are more than separate selves viscously competing for limited resources. Rather, as we’ve become increasingly aware, all of us are deeply connected through various different systems. We all reside in a single ecosystem, and on a deeper level we all share the same fate.

Imagine the world we could aspire to, the community we could create and waste we would reduce if we all embraced this fundamental truth of connection and co-dependency. Relationships would flourish and our bond to the earth would be restored as we prioritize people over things.

So, what gift is in you to give? What do you want to do to connect with others and work towards a more beautiful world?

Let me know in the comments.


This repost from an article I submitted last week on Pointless Overthinking.

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In Pursuit of Awe: An Interview with Fraser Deans

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We often forget how extraordinary the world we live in is. The vast array of spectacular species that have existed long before the evolution of the human being. The beauty and perspective that a sunset provides on a perfect summer’s day. 

We become weighed down by the day-to-day responsibilities of adulthood. This can consequently take the wonder and awe that is waiting to be found in the world. 

If only we were to be more present. 

If only we were to pay a little more attention to what surrounds us. 

I think experiences of ‘awe’ can provide us with a reset, connecting us to others, to nature and providing a sense of belonging. It reminds us that we are not strangers on this earth. There is no separation between us and the natural world. Everything is intertwined though a series of complex networks and systems. 

To make sense of the power of experiences of awe, I interviewed Fraser Deans founder of the Awe app.

  1. Tell us a bit about the Awe app. What was your main inspiration behind its development? 

The Awe app was created to help people find moments of awe and wonder in their daily lives. The app helps us reset, relax and regain perspective during our busy lives.

A few years ago I was invited to a meditation evening organized by monastics from Plum Village (established by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh). It began as a fairly normal group sitting with guided meditations and dharma talks. Later they led us through a mindful eating exercise with a tangerine. After meditating on this tiny orange fruit, noticing its imperfections, its squishiness, its fragrance and its sweetness, we were simply asked “where did it come from”. From this innocuous question the entire experience transformed. The fruit having been handed to me by a monk, was bought from a supermarket, was transported in a truck, was born from a tree fed by the sun and soil. A flower was pollinated by a bee belonging to a hive.

Water from a cloud or river was guzzled up by the tree’s roots. Generations of trees and fruit eating animals and pollinating insects had evolved with each other to offer me this fruit. That tanginess on my tongue was the resulting sensation of all those preceding events. I was no longer holding the tangerine, I was holding the universe. Thich Nhat Hanh labelled this realisation as inter-being. I felt immense gratitude and humility at the sheer scale of interconnections occurring so I could experience the sweetness on my tongue.

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After the event I pondered what this experience actually was. The realization was described as “inter-being” but what was the actual phenomenological experience? Research gave an answer. It was AWE! I’d had a profound, pure awe experience. 

Awe has two requirements.

  1. Firstly, perceived vastness. The stimuli should appear much larger than the observer’s normal sense of self. This can be either physical (like a mountain) or conceptual (like a philosophical idea). In my case, vastness was felt from the interconnectedness of previous events.
  2. Secondly, a need for accommodation. This involves a realization or experience that doesn’t currently fit with the observer’s world view. For example, a toddler, having only experienced friendly dogs, would need to accommodate the information that dogs can be dangerous before meeting a guard dog. In my case, I needed to accommodate the realization that reality was connected in such a deep way. (I also probably needed to accommodate the idea that insignificant objects like tangerines could trigger insight). 

So then the question, how do we get more awe experiences?

And the original idea of an app was born. An app that leads you to awe-inspiring local nature with a guided audio track that blends direct experience, systems thinking, science, quotes and poetry. A source to stimulate new ways of reframing the world around us.

The app has changed slightly since the initial vision. Now, you’ll be able to listen to seasonal meditations that connect people with nature. Nature is the best elicitor of awe. Our Awe Walks feature brings awe to your daily strolls through mindful nature prompts. We have added courses from top nature connection leaders. For example, Mark Westmoquette, a Zen Monk and Astronomer, leads us for mindful stargazing. And finally each day ponder a beautiful quote from one of history’s leading thinkers.

2. What knowledge or insights do you hope people will gain from experiencing more awe in their lives?

Studies in awe have proven heaps of psychological benefits including boosting mood and reducing depression, increasing feelings of connectedness, increasing cognitive flexibility and improving life satisfaction. The effects of awe even tie into pro-environmental behaviour changes (and we need that right now). 

But I suppose on a more personal level I hope awe helps those struggling with modern life to find beauty where they didn’t see it before. 

3. Do your experiences of awe and wonder relate to ideas of the sacred or notions of spirituality?  

Yes absolutely!  

A key belief for me is that we can find awe and wonder in absolutely any object when framed in the right way (like the tangerine). However, frame adjustments are not a one-size-fits-all-thing. It depends on the pre-existing relationship between subject and object. When you get the right frame adjustment, we can transform the mundane into the magical. 

If we wish to continually and intentionally reach awe states we must delve into the unknown / mystery / numinous. There we find new framings and relationships with the world. An orientation toward mystery keeps us nimble and flexible in life’s situations: an acceptance that we possibly don’t have the best handle on the moment but if we keep seeking we will find it. 

Someone holding a strict scientific worldview may struggle with nihilism when science can’t answer all their questions. They may benefit from including spiritual ideas into their worldview which help fill that mysterious gap between the edge of science and the answers they seek.

A key belief for me is that we can find awe and wonder in absolutely any object when framed in the right way

4. Do you have any favourite authors, books, poets etc. who’ve inspired you over the course of cultivating more awe in the world?

Recently I’ve been diving into the teachings of Rob Burbea. Burbea taught many ideas that resonate with the philosophy of awe.

Alan Watts is awe-inspiring on his own but his talks regularly leave me stunned. 

John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis is a brilliant lecture series explaining the philosophy and cognitive science behind modern life’s lack of meaning and how we can rediscover it.

5. Where can people find out more about your work? 

You can download the app on iOS and Android from www.awe.fyi 

If they wish to stay in touch best subscribe to our newsletter where I share thoughts on awe www.awe.fyi 

We’ve also just wrapped up the first live cohort for Intentional Awe, a course designed to help people cultivate awe and wonder in their own lives. Those videos will be packaged up and shared in the coming weeks.


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