He is my dad’s favorite American author and as such was a constant presence in the literary landscape of my childhood. I came to him on my own terms in college: I was a double major in literature and philosophy, just Ralph Waldo Emerson’s kind of guy I suppose.
Truth be told, Emerson isn’t one I’ve spent lots of time with since I was an undergraduate, but every once in a while I dip into an anthology and am reminded of why my dad likes him as much as he does.
This weekend was one of those once in a whiles.
As a principal ushering in the start of the school year, I turned to “Education,” a posthumously published essay cribbed from notes and commencement addresses and filled with ideas as challenging and thought provoking as any in today’s education landscape.
With a mix nineteenth century circumlocution and New England bluntness, Emerson begins by praising the value of school, writing:
Humanly speaking, the school, the college, society, make the difference between men. All the fairy tales of Aladdin or the invisible Gyges or the talisman that opens kings’ palaces or the enchanted halls underground or in the sea, are any fictions to indicate the one miracle of intellectual enlargement. When a man stupid becomes a man inspired, when one and the same man passes out of the torpid into the perceiving state, leaves the din of trifles, the stupor of the senses, to enter into the quasi-omniscience of high thought–up and down, around, all limits disappear.”
This idea of disappearing limits, of “intellectual enlargement,” of expanding horizons is as worthy a goal in this present century as it was in the nineteenth. Today we talk about education being the gateway to success, and spend much time justifiably focused on equity, knowing that helping every student leave the “din of trifles” and step onto a path of growth will help foster a life enlarged by opportunity.
Emerson’s essay marches through a series of nineteenth century ideas as antiquated in concept as they are in language, and emerges from the intellectual weeds of his time, stumbling into the bright sunlight of the grand and timeless notion: “Education should be as broad as man.”
What he means by this, he explains, is that “the great objective of education should be commensurate with the object of life.” This coupling of grand notion and practical application, similar to contemporary notions of a pedagogy beyond regurgitation, challenges educators to push students to learn, understand, and apply that learning and understanding.
Are we doing this today?
Were educators doing this in Emerson’s time?
Writ large, the answer is “no” or at least not always. The many and frequent measures of academic success: grades, tests, and benchmarks complicate the free acquisition of knowledge and thorough engagement, but Emerson counters with an argument for optimism that is timeless: “I call our system a system of despair,” he writes, “and I find all the correction, all the revolution that is needed and that the best spirits of this age promise, in one word, in Hope.”
Hope, that thing with feathers that perches on the soul, as transformative then as it is now, is something that fills the best educators I know. It allows us to see beyond despair, or the more common annoyance, and focus on the important work of helping support every student in our schools.
Emerson suggests that the answer needed, the “revolution” in education he would like to see to help students become “great hearted” adults, is in transcending what he calls “neat and safe uniformity” and seeing students for who they are.
He suggests that students bring a “variety of genius” to school, and that they are motivated by different passions and purposes. He recognizes, in his very nineteenth century vernacular, two kinds of learners, introvert and extrovert, whom he describes as “obscure youth” learning in “solitude” and the “young giant, brown from his hunting tramp” lustily engaging with life. For both he praises the value of imagination, writing: “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil.”
For the introvert this means being allowed to learn “the literature of his virtues; and, because of the disturbing effect of passion and sense, which by a multitude of trifles impede the mind’s eye from the quiet search of that fine horizon-line which truth keeps- the way to knowledge and power has ever been an escape from too much engagement with affairs and possessions.” Don’t make the kid read aloud. As Emerson says later: “There is no want of example of great men, great benefactors, who have been monks and hermits in habit.”
For the happy hunter, learning true to “nature” is a rumbling of “stormy genius” and Emerson suggests that “if he can turn his books to such picturesque account in his fishing and hunting, it is easy to see how his reading and experience, as he has more of both, will interpenetrate each other. And every one desires that this pure vigor of action and wealth of narrative, cheered with so much humor and street rhetoric, should be carried: into the habit of the young man, purged of its uproar and rudeness, but with all its vivacity entire.” Let the kid talk. Let her tell stories. Guide her to less uproar and rudeness, but not at the expense of that pure vigor that makes her who she is.
For both types of learners Emerson argues that “the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil,” an idea not so far from much of educational theory today.
This isn’t to say, acknowledges Emerson, that we should “throw up the reins of public and private discipline [or] leave the young child to the mad career of his passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature.”
“Respect the child,” he advises, “respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thought, the friend of his friendship, the lover of his virtue, but not kinsman to his sin.” Teachers matter much, and that balance of respect and guidance is as real today as it was when Emerson was writing.
Put simply, Emerson’s focus is on allowing the natural wonder, the “perpetual romance of new life,” to exist side by side with instruction around how to learn. A student “can learn anything which is important to him now that the power to learn is secured; as mechanics say, when one has learned the use of tools, it is easy to work at a new craft.”
That learning how happens step by step, and according to Emerson should never lose the “mutual delight” of teaching and learning. I’d add to that the delight of reading folks like Emerson.
I do my best to read books relevant to my work as a principal, Couros and Dweck, Brown and Lythcott-Haims on the shelf by my desk, but it’s important too not to ignore poetry, philosophy, and even a good kids book when as an educator I set my sights on leaving the din of trifles.