The Image of an Intellectual in R.W. Emerson’s The American Scholar
In his essay “The American Scholar” Ralph Waldo Emerson expresses a rather progressive for his time position on the role and the duties of the intellectual, as well as on the different ways of learning and their significance. He rejects the rigid methods of education, which rely on the “exertion of mechanical skills,” and speaks in support of a teaching that develops the personality and gives importance to the individual.
Emerson states that the three main ways in which a person learns are through nature, through the past, best communicated in the form of books, and through his own actions. If he was a teacher, probably he would encourage his students to observe, admire and analyze, to find the differences and similarities between the objects and phenomena in the surrounding world, the nature and the people, and in this manner learn about themselves and form their opinions and values.
The author writes that “books are the best type of the influence of the past,” and they can be an infinite source of knowledge but he emphasizes that reading alone is not enough. No book is perfect because it gives a limited amount of information and reflects the mentality of its author and the peculiarities of its time. Emerson dislikes the image of the bookworm as opposed to “the Man Thinking,” who uses the books to gather knowledge and inspiration, but who thinks independently and himself is a writer and creator. The third and most important according to Emerson way of learning is through action. He states that people should not waste even a moment in idleness; the main purpose of the true scholar is to create, to acquire knowledge through his experiences.
Therefore, Emerson, and the teachers who follow his model, would expect from the students not only to read a certain work and simply repeat its content or write about it in a predetermined, set manner, but to analyze it on the basis of their own background and opinions, to continue and elaborate the ideas of the author. Adhering to Plutarch’s maxim, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited,” books would serve as a source of ideas and the knowledge from what is read would be used by the students in their own creative work. The future scholars would be urged to express their opinions, to be guided by their own values and not to blindly take the position of some authoritative figure. “Genius creates,” “genius always looks forward” – these are the main principles that a scholar should follow according to the author. Students must be encouraged to experiment, to compose something different and new, and to avoid copying the style and language of already written works. They would be asked to observe and write about their own experiences, and invited to seek knowledge directly from life, which would serve as their “dictionary,” as Emerson puts is. Not only the abstract, the beautiful and the noble would be explored, but also much attention would be paid to the common, the near, the everyday matters, because this is what is most often encountered in real life.
Emerson maintains that the scholar should not pursue material benefits, power and fame, but must “cheer,” “raise,” and “guide men by showing them facts amidst appearance.” Teachers should encourage independent and original reasoning and introduce books only as a ground for an active writing process, as sources of data and ideas, and induce in their students confidence in their creative abilities, thus helping them to grow and develop spiritually.
Perhaps Emerson would assign his students to read “The American Scholar” to give them the guidelines for successful learning and writing that would encourage them to think independently and have them use it as a cornerstone for analyzing some other reading, or as a basis for a piece of creative writing not connected with a previously read text. It is likely that any text included in an assignment would be used more as a reference than as a central theme in the students work.
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