The American Scholar

In response to Clay Burell’s thought provoking post on the need to challenge the conventional wisdom and think critically about all things (even the tough stuff like religion – “When Corrupting the Youth is Good” – something that he wrote triggered that ghost of Emerson:

And that’s why so many types of hugely influential beliefs that make no sense persist today. Kids go through twelve years of school without those beliefs ever being touched by a serious question, they graduate, and bam: the beliefs live on for yet another generation: Bush really is communicating with God, while in the same universe, Bin Laden, in another country’s school system, really is obeying the Word and will of Allah. McCain and Obama consent to be interviewed on national TV with Rick Warren, and thus legitimize a man whose ministry supported a “Left Behind” video game in which post-Rapture Christians kill non-Christians on the streets of New York – and they’re the good guys. To question these things is not important?

I wrote a long reply when I should have been writing all-schools. So here, for my blog, is my reply to Clay (who must think I am idea-stalking him as I have lately been compelled to reply to most of his posts):

Hi Clay –
Critical thinking is, as you point out, often subject to the whims of the current sensibility. As you suggest – yes, think critically about math; no, stay away from religion – is a trap that we fall into.

Learning about the hard stuff is hard, and dangerous. It’s work and it means that we each have our own ideas and the ideas of others can not be controlled or predicted.

Emerson spoke about this in his address to the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard. I’m going to write about the thinker using the male pronoun, but I don’t want to suggest that Human Thinking is a gender specific task. Emerson suggests that:

…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.”

He goes on to describe a man thinking, in active contemplation of the world around him, learning for himself.

“The ambitious soul sits down before each refractory fact; one after another, reduces all strange constitutions, all new powers, to their class and their law, and goes on for ever to animate the last fibre of organization, the outskirts of nature, by insight.” He thinks critically, organizes the world to satisfy himself.

So – the Soul and nature become one to that thinking man. And he begins to ponder creation.

And what is that Root? Is not that the soul of his soul? — A thought too bold, — a dream too wild. He shall see, that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. Its beauty is the beauty of his own mind. Its laws are the laws of his own mind. Nature then becomes to him the measure of his attainments.”

Now, if you are Emerson – what do you do with books? They aren’t YOUR experience of the world – they are someone else’s. That makes them SUSPECT and DANGEROUS to us as native thinkers:

“The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.”

Here is the greatest danger- according to Emerson – that we mistake the writer for his work. If we agree with the book, the writer is a hero – if not, a bum.

He calls it:

grave mischief…the act of thought, — is transferred to the record. The poet chanting, was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled, the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly, the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry, if it is disparaged.”

And then we forget the origins of the books:

“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.”

This happens with holy books, both “sacred” and “secular.”

The greatest danger to us as “critical thinkers” is that we turn our thinking over to others and to the books that they write. We let the work (and the writer) think for us. He says that a good book will pull us out of our own orbit – make us a satellite and not a SUN!

“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.”

And here he gives us his belief in critical thinking:

The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates.

He says in essence – ‘now don’t get me wrong. I love books and writers, and to read a good book helps me write my own stuff’ (he uses an allusion to two fig trees in each other’s shadows bearing fruit) BUT there is an active engaged way to read.

“The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakspeare, only that least part, — only the authentic utterances of the oracle; — all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakspeare’s.”

Finally, he gives us his critical thinking manifesto:

“We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

So – what does that say for the mindless recitation of facts and the sycophantic enslavement of the scholar? He demands a new way of thinking for every age.

Is that empowering or terrifying? I think you would agree that the most patriotic and equally subversive thing that we each can do is to read, experience, and think for ourselves.

Off my transcendentalist soapbox.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul C. says:

    “The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every man is entitled to; this every man contains within him, although, in almost all men, obstructed, and as yet unborn. The soul active sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates.’

    I appreciate very much your overview of Emerson’s essay. I think it’s the desire of many teachers to ignite that spark within students but along the way it gets assaulted by the winds and rains of many different factors.

    With regard to reading novels I very much like the literature circle in which groups of students read from a list and process the book together like a reading club. I’ve seen some energized situations where students are probing for the truth.

    On a related topic, one blog you might like is on my reading list, ‘So Many Books.’ She’s a joy to follow.

  2. Kate Tabor says:

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the blog alert. It’s great.

    When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a teacher who told me that my belief that Brutus was the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s “Julius Ceasar” was “wrong.”

    “You’re wrong.”


    I remind myself of that every year as I meet my new classes. They can find their own truths. And they will be different for them than they are for me.

    I love Emerson. He’s a slog to read sometimes, but when I take my time I find that I am dazzled.

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