What is a definition of a "good scholar," and what are the duties and responsibilities of the American Scholar?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

On August 31, 1837, when the United States of America was still a very young nation, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a speech before the Phi Beta Kapa Society at Cambridge.  That speech became the foundation of the journal of Phi Beta Kappa, The American Scholar, dedicated to the advancement of American scholarship as distinct from that of the old European schools.  The topic of the speech was "the American scholar," and Emerson defined the nature and the duties of the American scholar.  In describing the functions "parcelled out to individuals (e.g., farmers, engineers, professors), Emerson specified that, "in this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect.  In the right state, he is, Man Thinking." [Emphasis in original]

Emerson is careful to draw the distinction between scholarship and the basic practice of reading: "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.  Hence, insted of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm."

The point Emerson was making was the there is huge distinction between what one learns to parrot from the writings of others, and the ability to discern fact from speculation, and to think critically about what one reads, even when the author is someone of the stature of a Locke or a Bacon.

With regard to the duties of the American scholar, Emerson stated:

"The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.  he plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation...He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature...He is the world's eye.  he is the world's heart.  he is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history.  Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies, in al solemn hours, has uttered as its commentary on the world of actions..."

Emerson, better than most, understood that the responsibility of the scholar is to bear witness and to present his or her observations without the tireless recorse to pedantic asides that too often permeate what passes for scholarship today.  He appreciated the concept of intellectual integrity in a way that is frighteningly scarce in many American centers of higher learning.