The Corner

Education

Emerson on the American Scholar

Ralph Waldo Emerson had some thoughts on what scholarship should entail, and he shared them with Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1837. Today’s Martin Center piece quotes from his address.

Reflecting on the wide range of human capabilities, he wrote, “In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.”

I don’t think Emerson would have a high opinion of many of our professors today.

The function of higher education, in his view, was to inspire young people, not to merely drill them. Emerson continues, “Of course there is a portion of reading quite indispensable to a wise man. History and exact science he must learn by laborious reading. Colleges, in like manner, have their indispensable office — to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

Colleges growing richer while receding in public importance? Sound familiar?

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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