Discuss what Whitman is saying about formal and informal learning in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer."

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem is a typically Romantic statement concerning education and science. Key to note is the way that, after hearing the "learn'd astronomer" and his teaching concerning the planets and stars, the speaker becomes "tired and sick." There is something about the way in which the astronomer presents "the proofs, the figures" and "the charts, the diagrams" which kills all mystery or ability to wonder and admire the beauty of creation. Scientifically reducing such inexplainable wonders as the night sky to a series of "columns" which can be added, divided and measured, robs the night sky of its mystery and glory. Thus it is that the speaker, sickened by such a rationalistic attitude towards Nature, needs to go out himself and restore the wonder of nature by simple appreciation of its beauty:

Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Note the comparison between this approach to the night sky and the one endorsed by the "learn'd astronomer." The speaker is able to see the night sky as "mystical," obviously revelling in its mysteries and secrets. As opposed to the speech with which the astronomer dissects the night sky, the speaker looks up in "perfect silence" at the stars. Learning may be a great thing, Whitman seems to be saying, but there is a danger of learning extracting all the mystery, pleasure, enjoyment and beauty of the object that we are learning about if we are not too careful.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Whitman presents an interesting view on education in his poem.  The most foundational element is contrasting how Whitman sees the traditional classroom setting.  The traditional scientific process that is reaffirmed through traditional education is critiqued in the opening lines of the poem.  Whitman  seems to be suggesting that while knowledge can be taught in the classroom, true individual understanding cannot be achieved there.  What Whitman in line six sees as a condition where the true learner is a "wandr'd" one, allowing a sense of wonderment and intellectual curiosity to emerge, is something that he sees as absent in the traditional classroom setting.  Whitman seeks to bring out this realm in learning and understanding, which is why the poem sees the speaker, presumably Whitman, leave the cloistered confines of the classroom setting and engage in a more subjective pursuit whereby individuals are able to develop curiosity and thought based on their own subjective experience.  For Whitman, this is where true learning and understanding happen.  True understanding about content happens in these domains of freedom and where learners "wandr'd."

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When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer

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