The American Scholar Today?

I have been thinking about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech “The American Scholar” lately.  The speech is a part of the American Literature course I teach in the spring semester, and it is one of my favorite pieces of literature.  I agree with so many of the points he expresses about true scholarship.

I wonder what he would think about the state of education today?   At the beginning of the speech Emerson reveals the three main influences in a scholar’s education. The first is Nature.  Simply stated, being outside.  Emerson goes much deeper in his speech, but the idea is that scholars spend time with Nature, spend time reflecting, as he states, “And, in fine, the ancient precept, ‘Know thyself,’ and the modern precept, ‘Study nature,’ become at last one maxim.”

I have been trying to conduct my DL classes as if I was in my own classroom, and so my CCC writing course went outside to write.  I instructed that they could take pictures, too.  As students will do, they had some fun:

Burwell Students

Then this morning 1011 News reported about Kearney public school’s “Outdoor Days.”  Don’t get me wrong; I think this is a really good idea.  But what does it say about the norm of our education, that having kids outside learning is news? Emerson states this is the first thing that influences scholars. Yet, we set up learning to be done inside, during the best time of the day and in rows.

The second influence is the “mind of the past” that at his time was best reflected in reading books.  We know that today that influence is even greater. I won’t spend time on this point because my thoughts have been on the fist influence, Nature, and the last influence…

Created at PicLit.com

Emerson makes a strong argument that true learning is done in living, “Of course, he who has put forth his total strength in fit actions, has the richest return of wisdom.”  He states that we can only truly understand that which we live, that true scholarship is produced through our lives.  Emerson states, “Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.”

I show this clip of Neil Gaiman at the beginning of the CCC writing course, listen to what his first piece of advice is for writers.

In my position I am immersed in technology, but I also see our students immersed in technology to the point that I do wonder if they understand the beauty and heartache of living.  Or are they just skimming the surface of life one statues update at a time?  I believe technology and especially mobile devices can enrich our lives deeply.  But that has to be the focus for the use of technology. It should be a tool we use in living. Living is our greatest teacher, “Time shall teach him, that the scholar loses no hour which the man lives” (Emerson).

I have been thinking about Emerson’s speech, “The American Scholar,” lately. I wonder what he would think about the state of our educational system?

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Filed under Education, Life, Student Work, Technology

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