Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar"

Today, after teaching my English classes at Cal State Fullerton, I was feeling depressed and frustrated by the general apathy that Cal State Fullerton students tend to have toward learning.  Maybe it's because I'm teaching a required course, but nearly every day in class, I get the strong sense that many students only care about getting a decent grade, and don't really give a shit about learning for the sake of learning or personal enrichment.  This is a never-ending battle for me.  I am always trying to think of new and creative ways to get students to really care about reading and writing, and critical thinking, and diving into challenging texts and ideas.  But they want a study guide.  They want things to memorize and formulas to follow.  Some days, despite my sincerest efforts, I feel the weight of their apathy, and it is very heavy.

After class, I went to Max Bloom's coffee shop, and continued reading where I'd left off in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and my spirits were lifted by what I read.  It was a commencement speech delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson to the students at Harvard University in 1837 entitled "The American Scholar" in which Emerson directly confronts the difficult, frustrating, and often lonely task of the scholar.  I was comforted by these words, and felt like Emerson was speaking directly to me, in Fullerton, in 2014. 

Emerson doesn't pull any punches when speaking about the society of his day.  He describes "the sluggard intellect  of this continent" and speaks of "the love of letters among a people too busy to give to letters any more."  I get angry because I feel like no one reads any more, and people tend to be intellectually lazy, but Emerson felt the same way in 1837!  He speaks of the effects of modern industrial society upon the person of learning, how the fragmentation of labor jobs has fragmented the inner world of people: "The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters--a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man."  People have become fragmented, incomplete.  The soul of people has become "subject to dollars."

But all is not lost.  Into this world of non-readers and fragmented corporate/industrial workers, the American scholar must make his stand!  "Each age," Emerson says, "must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding."  Even if masses of people choose not to read, the world still needs readers and writers, if only to comment on and critique this generation, for the illumination of the next.  Books are not for memorizing and regurgitating, but are living documents of the human struggle to understand this world.  Books are meant to inspire.  

"Forget this," Emerson says, "and our American colleges will recede in their public importance whilst they grow richer every year."  It's fascinating how rising tuition costs make education seem, to students, like a business transaction rather than an invitation to explore.  Higher education has become more like a finishing school for corporate America than a place of sincere inquiry and the quest for knowledge.  

Despite this, in fact, because of this, the scholar must not only read and write and study, but he must act.  "Inaction is cowardice," Emerson says, and I heartily agree.  In this world of problems and apathy and war and consumerism and general ignorance, the scholar must stand, and speak, and act, and not waver in this responsibility.  

This is, needless to say, a difficult and often thankless task. The American scholar "must accept--how often! poverty and solitude.  For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own."  This will bring suffering, "the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed."

But what does the scholar gain? "For all this loss and scorn, what offset?" Emerson asks, and then answers, "He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature.  He is the one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives in public and illustrious thoughts.  He is the world's eye.  He is the world's heart.  He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever into barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history…it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry."

In short, the American scholar, despite the general apathy with which he may be regarded, can be a real American hero--speaking truth to power.  "The world is his who can see through its pretentious," Emerson says, "See it to be a lie, and you have already dealt it its mortal blow."  The task of the scholar is to shine a light on our darkness, through rigorous study, reflection, writing, creation, thought, and action.

Emerson ends with a battle-cry for scholars: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds."  Though the road may be long and weary, the task of the American scholar is a noble, even heroic one, so long as the scholar remains true to himself, and never gives up.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it."

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