Curriculum Opinion

Reading Emerson

By William A. Proefriedt — October 29, 2003 9 min read
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The dry and brittle heat of current-day school reform language has evaporated a significant historical strain of American educational discourse.

Educational debate would be mightily enhanced in this country if we drew on earlier traditions in American educational and cultural thought. Little note has been taken in education circles that this year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The broader American scholarly community has celebrated the occasion with new anthologies, conferences, and critical studies. Lawrence Buell, for long, a wise student of the American Transcendentalists, has published his thoughtful new book on Emerson through Harvard University Press. Unfortunately, few educational thinkers have shown interest in celebrating Emerson. Reflecting this lack of attention, Teachers College Press’ Emerson on Education, a volume in Lawrence Cremin’s Classics in Education series, is long out of print. It contains seven essays of Emerson’s, addressing fundamental issues relevant to educational thinking and practice.

The dry and brittle heat of the language of standards and assessments, of total quality management and accountability, of industrial metaphors and unitary expectations has evaporated a significant historical strain of American educational discourse. When we need it most, Emerson’s perspective, with its emphasis on the centrality of the individual learner, and its suspicion of all institutions, is absent from the scene. For most teachers, the discourse of the standards people seems totally unhooked from their daily lives in classrooms. Teachers have, for reasons that Emerson articulated a century and a half ago, lost all confidence in the public language about the work they do. “I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech,” Emerson remarked in his famous Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar.” The public language about standards tries to slam shut a deadbolt of sameness on the hodgepodge of individual student lives led in classrooms.

Emerson’s voice is needed today precisely for the reasons that educators have always been leery of him as a model thinker. He never sought to conciliate, but to provoke. And so we chose John Dewey as our mentor, a man who tried to reconcile the various warring educational ideologies he encountered. Emerson’s rhetorical stance was quite unlike Dewey’s. He believed in the certainty of his own insights, announced them in a compelling and deliberately provocative fashion, often overstated his case, and felt certain that in the long run the world would come round to him. Key to his concept of “Self-Reliance,” the title of another essay, was his insistence that serious thinkers break through the accepted wisdom, the common sense of their own day, and arrive at deeper understandings of their own experience. Emerson offers both admonition and example to those who seek an alternative to the current educational language about standards.

Emerson celebrated the individual, and hence the young learner, and distrusted the school as he distrusted all institutions.

He celebrated the individual, and hence the young learner, and distrusted the school as he distrusted all institutions. His comments on formal schooling and learning echo his observations on churches and spiritual growth. “I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching,” he wrote in “Self-Reliance.” As he championed the cause of the individual spiritual quest over any mediating religious institutions, so too he emphasized the centrality of the individual learner over the paucity of the school’s contribution. “One of the benefits of a college education,” he says in his essay “Culture,” “is to show the boy its little avail.”

Of what use is a fellow like this in ordinary times to anyone seeking useful intellectual traditions in talking about American public education? But these are not ordinary times. These are times in which a debilitating anxiety about the future economic success of America’s children within a market economy has gripped the land. The anxiety has been accompanied by the unexamined belief that school achievement in a defined set of subject areas is the sacred key to the desired economic success. “No child will be left behind,” the accepted wisdom insists, if we follow this formula: Establish a set of high learning standards for all children in each of the defined academic subjects, test frequently to see if students have reached these standards, analyze the data by states, school districts, classrooms, and individual students. Provide appropriate help at each of these levels, including teacher training and repeated test-preparation courses for failing students. As a final recourse, close failing schools, dismiss failing teachers, and deny failing students high school diplomas. The simple formula has produced some success. Larger percentages of students do prepare for and pass standardized tests than in the past.

Recently, however, the standards engine emits disturbingly loud knocks as it rumbles down the road. The validity of individual high-stakes tests is questioned stridently by parents and school officials. Too many students, despite laudable efforts to prepare them for tests, continue to fail. States, unwilling to suffer the political consequences of denying high school diplomas to large numbers of students, lower the bar for a passing grade or put off the time when a punitive graduation policy will take effect. Districts are found to “push out” their at- risk students so that passing rates on publicly reported high-stakes tests will improve. Apparently successful schools and districts are seen to have hidden their dropout and push-out numbers.

Emerson offers an idiom that allows us to grasp our educational problems by the right handle.

The standards people have created what has been until very recently an almost closed universe of language and school practice. Teachers and local administrators were not expected to be critical, but to get on board. Many did, with degrees of enthusiasm or cynicism. Some now begin to look for an oasis in the linguistic desert of current educational discourse. After a decade and a half of standards talk and practice, however, we lack an alternative language with which to talk about learning, a language powerful, and provocative, and wise enough to drench the educational desert created by the language and practice of the standards movement.

Enter Emerson. He offers an idiom that allows us to grasp our educational problems by the right handle. He asks us to begin not with our own beliefs about what the children must learn, when they should learn it, and how they should demonstrate their competencies, but with our full attention on the individual learner. Observe the children patiently, he tells teachers in his essay “Education,” as the naturalist observes reptile, fish, bird, and beast, until they reveal their secrets. “Keep his nature and arm it in the very direction in which it points.” Emerson lists the variety of skill and talent, of interest and enthusiasm we will find, and urges us to make our education responsive to each “new Adam in the Garden.”

One of the sources of the present great American anxiety about our children’s chances for success is our partially self-fulfilling belief that almost all learning and growth must occur in schools. Emerson insists we learn from a much wider environment. "[T]he scholar loses no hour which the man lives,” he writes in “The American Scholar.” He further insists on the internal origins of all good learners’ energies, and the limited though important role of school and teacher. In “Education,” he shows us how the desire for power over their environment inspires disciplined activity in individuals, and therefore learning in crafts, trade, politics, and all other spheres of life. “What toil it sustains! How it sharpens the perceptions, and stores the memory with facts.”

Emerson knew that the burgeoning of interest and the activity and learning following from it would not occur on an institutional timetable. It might begin anywhere, at any age. He tells, in the same essay, the story of Sir Charles Fellowes, who was struck by the beauty of a carved work he found on an island in the Aegean. The discovery led him to learn Greek, study history and ancient art, and to consult with scholars. “But mark that in the task he had achieved an excellent education,” wrote Emerson, “in short, had formed a college for himself.”

Emerson knew this enthusiasm for learning in a particular area could not be imposed from without, could not be created by institutional demands. "[T]his function of opening and feeding the human mind is not to be fulfilled by any mechanical or military method.”

One can profitably mandate certain educational opportunities, but one cannot guarantee achievement on the institution’s timetable. In lines from “Education” that might have been written with the anxiety of this century’s standards ideologues in mind, Emerson says: “Now the correction of this quack practice is to import into education the wisdom of life. Leave this military hurry and adopt the pace of nature.” Nor did he believe that learners, absent externally imposed standards, would lack goals and motivation. He spoke, in “Self- Reliance,” of an internal law that made its own demands: “If anyone imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandments one day.”

He acknowledges the differences among learners, and, more importantly, celebrates them.

When we adopt the Emersonian insight of the centrality of the individual learner, the task of the schools ceases to be setting the same standards for all students, testing them, and punishing those who fail by denying them diplomas. The school’s task, instead, becomes to work imaginatively and energetically to provide opportunities for all students in various academic subject areas, and also to aid them in exploring a variety of other learning experiences. In the long run, Emerson understood, whatever the formal curriculum of the school, only individual students can make sense of their own worlds, including the world of the school.

Now, some will say Emerson’s trust in the individual student is hopelessly romantic, foolishly impractical. But, you see, he has grasped the education issue by the right handle. He acknowledges the differences among learners, and, more importantly, celebrates them. He gives us a starting point, the observation of individual learners and an understanding of their varied enthusiasms, skills, characters, and capacities, that offers a much more realistic promise than the insistence on a mandatory curriculum for all, offered by the standards people. He gives courage to those who would challenge the current wisdom of educational thought and practice, and reminds us everywhere in his essays that the settled truths of our thinking are there for the unsettling.

Anyone who has read Emerson knows his wariness of the influence of heroes and sages on present-day thinkers and activists. As he made clear in talking of others, his work is there not as a relic to be worshiped or a sacred text to be copied, but as an inspiration to inspire new thinking and practice. We can use the inspiration.

William A. Proefriedt is a professor emeritus of education at Queens College, City University of New York, where he teaches a course on the philosophy of education as an adjunct professor.


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