The essay's main themes ask students to "break away" from the "English" style of academia in order for America to "discover" its own distinctive intellectual voice.
Why? Emerson believes that the American intellects are "stuck" in a traditional, limiting, English style of thought. It was time for Americans to distinguish their scholarship through provoking original literature, or to "act" rather than contemplate. By promoting non-conformity, self-reliance, and anti-institutionalism, Emerson believes that original American content will be fostered.
How? Emerson provides a list of "duties" that a scholar must embrace in order to achieve this distinctive American intellect. These duties include self-sacrifice—he gives the example of astronomers who need to spend years making observations, but eventually can change the entire scientific paradigm. A scholar must remain true, even in the face of public persecution (non-conformity). Emerson also uses the poets Wordsworth and Goethe, who write about common people, to describe that the realm of scholarly thought is larger than the stifled traditional sphere.
There are three influences that are referenced by the essay: nature, books and action. He notes that nature is the ultimate teacher. The eternal, circular, aspects of nature denote a self-reliance that he hopes scholars will adopt. Books, especially fiction, can open the mind. However, one should be careful to use books for scholarship—learning and wisdom—rather than becoming a "bookworm." Finally he notes the importance of physical action. Action ensures that a person doesn't live a "second hand" life through another's words or experiences, but can move past the institution in which they are learning and therefore open paths to new discoveries.