The American Scholar

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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How does Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar" relate to education today?

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In "The American Scholar ," Emerson writes that the true scholar is "the Man Thinking" and asks, "is not, indeed, every man a student?" He then focuses on the education of the "true scholar" and contrasts it to the "degenerate" state of the scholar of his day. The "true...

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In "The American Scholar," Emerson writes that the true scholar is "the Man Thinking" and asks, "is not, indeed, every man a student?" He then focuses on the education of the "true scholar" and contrasts it to the "degenerate" state of the scholar of his day. The "true scholar" learns directly from nature, and from this kind of direct observation learns how to classify and analyze objects. He also finds his "Soul" in nature, so the study of nature, or what we might today call science, has a moral purpose.

The true scholar also learns from the examples of history. History comes from books, yet a scholar must be beware of how he reads books. They reflect the time in which they were written, in other words, the past, and the true genius must be forward looking. Books therefore must be read primarily for their ability to inspire us. Emerson also says the following of reading: 

Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must—when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. 

Books, in other words, while very important, are secondary to direct experience of the world. 

Further, Emerson says, while the scholar must shutter himself away from the world to think, he must also be part of it:

Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.

Action builds character and character "is higher than intellect."

Emerson also sees labor, such as hoeing and digging to be of benefit to the scholar, as for every citizen.

The "new scholar" will above all learn to think for himself. He will also value what he can learn from the common man and a sense of the divine will be part of him and unite him with others:

A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men. 

Today's education often tends to take the moral lessons out of learning and to be more vocationally oriented, even in a liberal arts college, where a business model encourages students to "train" for a secure career in a particular field rather than to become a whole person who thinks for himself.

Today we also include women equally in education, and so would imagine the scholar not exclusively as male.

We probably spend more time in reading (or passively imbibing media via a screen) than Emerson advises and don not consider labor an integral part of becoming a scholar. We also tend to scorn the wisdom of the uneducated, which has created a political divide in this country.

Emerson's vision was always an ideal and never a reality, but his ideas are worth pondering.

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Emerson's address to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was his opportunity to promote his concept of "Man Thinking" in an independent manner, free from the literary ties of Europe. Underpinning Emerson's ideas are his beliefs in Transcendentalism and its importance in the individual and the role that nature plays in man's development. Nature, Emerson contends, teaches the individual that there is a plan to much scientific pursuit. Thus, the scholar views knowledge on a continuum with books as "the best of things well used"; that is, they must be used to launch one's own thoughts, for there can be "no scholar with the heroic mind" that uses experience to convert thoughts. Moreover, character is higher than intellect.

In some ways, therefore, Ralph Waldo Emerson's "American Scholar" does not match the concept held in contemporary times. Now, "Man Thinking" relies not upon nature, but upon technology. He is less an individual than a member of "the group," "the team," or the "committee." He waits while "no child is left behind." Certainly, character is not held in the esteem that it once was. Whereas "life is his dictionary," for the American scholar of Emerson's time, technology has replaced the dictionary of life, and books serve not to "inspire"; instead, they are the manuals of "how-to" and "better ways to...." The classics and the thoughts of European philosophers are antiquated, to be rejected as the contemporary American "scholar" becomes "the parrot of other men's thinking," but at sometimes believes this thinking is his own.

Yet, there beats in many a young contemporary heart the fierce individualism that Emerson placed in the heart of his idealized "American Scholar." This individual has read the thoughts of minds from the past and been inspired to create. He or she has contemplated the beauty of nature and been touched so that he/she can view the world with an inspired idealism.

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