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

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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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